Community, Action & Expansion in the Church
Perhaps you have seen a group of people playing a unique looking game on the basketball courts at Immanuel. Somewhere between tennis, badminton, and ping pong is a sport called Pickleball. Invented by three fathers in 1965 on Bainbridge Island in Washington, this captivating multigenerational sport has been growing quickly in the last decade. In January of this year, the mystique of Pickleball captured me and I joined the 2.5 million people who play Pickleball in the U.S. (according to the Sport and Fitness Industry Association).
I’ve swung my paddle now at ten different venues across Arkansas and Texas. I have joined a local group of players, and am a member of the national organization. Literally, over 200 different people have played with me in what is universally an extremely welcoming group of individuals. This group ranges in age from 10-82 years old, men and women, boys and girls. The professional playing during lunch, the school teacher on summer break, the retired and health conscience. All walks of life, backgrounds, political positions, and nationalities. The sole uniting characteristic is the common purpose of playing Pickleball.
God created each of these people with an attribute that attracted them to this phenomenon; that they would gather multiple times a week to play a sport. Time and distance does not pose a barrier that won’t be overcome to participate, nor does knowledge or skill level. All of this has led to me to pray and ponder…“how does this get replicated in the church for those following Jesus?”
The second time I played with the people who are now my “normal group” I arrived about 30 minutes after the beginning time of open play. One of the ladies jokingly said, “hey you’re late” and then seriously asked “everything ok today?” Continuously I receive messages of support when my father had a serious accident, while interviewing for a job, and through a personal illness, which stems from a relationship that requires more than an hour a week together. We sweat and stink together, we succeed and fail together, we are real and open together. You can’t fake how fast you move or how hard you hit the ball on a Pickleball court. There are limitations and we aren’t all perfect, yet no one hides it. Embracing our short comings and through mutual support, we continue to grow our skills and abilities.
This community is the essence of the first century church seen in Acts. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Live in peace with one another. We urge you, brethren, admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” In the second chapter of Acts, we see that the church was first and foremost the people and not a building. They were gathered together daily in their homes, each one working towards being a better follower of Christ.
I have yet to attend a Pickleball session at a recreation center where the primary focus included studying the rule book. The USA Pickleball Association (USAPA) publishes the rules for play in order to keep uniformity in the game, and every serious player I know has taken the time to read the rules (some can even quote the chapters). Some heated discussions arise in online forums about interpretations, yet when we gather it’s to play. There are regular clinics that reinforce the principles of game play and provide techniques for improvement, but no one gets better without playing…a lot!
People play Pickleball because they can play Pickleball! The beginner or the pro can walk onto a court at anytime, with almost zero preparation and play. I guarantee if there were four Pickleball players in a shopping mall and they saw a net and paddles, they would start playing and not care what anyone else thought. This dedication is similar to the recurring theme of the book of James, “you aren’t a follower, unless you are a follower.” Verse 1:22 says, “prove yourself doers of the word and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” Just as we would look cross ways at someone who said they were a Pickleball player yet had never been on a court, those who claim to follow Jesus and aren’t expanding the Kingdom should cause us to hesitate as well.
The number of new players is astonishing to me at times. Every week it seems like someone new is learning to play Pickleball. They were either invited by a friend or were doing something else in the gym and intrigued by that group of people they saw who were genuinely having fun. Six people are now playing Pickleball simply by seeing the impact of the sport in my life and wanting to join in. I never once pointed out negatives in their life if they didn’t play, I simply shared my story after they saw the influence in all aspects of my life.
Evangelism and discipleship function in the same way. No amount of convincing, or reasoning, or guilt tripping will ever bring someone to the Lord. Jesus told His disciples to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:17). Evidence of change in your life presents the strongest case for the Gospel to the unbelieving world. You can tell someone all day long what a great player you are; however, until you get on the court and demonstrate it the wind will blow away your claims like chaff.
There exists little doubt in my mind about the reason for Pickleball’s quick expansion across the country. The unlikely invention of a sport for bored kids to play one summer, now finds great growth not because of its simple design and ease of play. No, I truly believe the Pickleball expansion satisfies a need in many people’s heart for community that God envisioned the Church would fill. As we move forward as a church, these concepts of community, action, and expansion will be measurements of our success in expanding the Kingdom and bringing glory to God.