Playing For the Draw?

If you are a cricket fan then you would be well aware that there are few things more pointless and dis-spiriting on the fifth day of a test match, than watching a team intentionally playing for a draw’ – seeing out the required overs and quietly accepting that there would be no winner. It feels utterly lame and no one wants to watch a game like that. On the other hand when a situation is finely balanced, or even looking dire, there are few things more inspiring than watching a team giving it all they’ve got in an effort to overcome the odds and win. In fact it’s still inspiring even if they don’t pull it off, because they actually had the courage to make the attempt.

But these kinds of initiatives don’t happen by accident.  At some point you have to decide IF and WHEN you are going to make this your focus. There is no point thinking you may just pull off a surprise win when you are 9 wickets down with 200 runs needed. That’s just dumb. But if there is a day to play, 300 runs needed and still 4 wickets in hand, then a brave captain may just say ‘ let’s give it all we’ve got, take some risks, play aggressively and maybe just maybe, we will pull it off!” The other option is give instructions to shut up shop, take no risks and hopefully escape with a draw. (In which case you may still lose anyway…)

What is it that makes some teams rise up in these situations while others only have enough imagination and courage for at best a slow, dull finish ?

As I was reflecting today I got the sense that many Christian churches are ‘playing for the draw’. All over the country there are churches in serious trouble with aging congregations, declining numbers and a correlating decline in finances. We are ‘6 wickets down, on a sticky pitch’ and unless there is a significant change we are gonna be bowled over quickly and easily. I think we could call the situation ‘dire’… (remember the bowls club in the movie Crackerjack?…)

Many of these churches facing extinction are simply muddling along as best they can, keeping Sundays happening, but realising that one day they will eventually all die… and that may be the way things play out… Once there is no one left to turn the lights on it will be ‘game over’. But until then we will just keep the Sundays ticking over and hope for revival. You would think the most critical purpose of a church was to run Sunday gatherings…

The choice then is to either take some significant risks to turn the tide of decline or to simply hold the fort , play for the draw and eventually close the church. I sense ‘playing for the draw’ is our default modus operandi. It seems we are wired for minimum risk and maximum comfort. We seem way too willing to “go gently into that good night.”

Of course the big difference between church and cricket is that we aren’t actually ‘playing for a draw.’ It just feels like that. To choose a draw is to actually allow for defeat – just a slow defeat. There are no draws in the kingdom of God. And if we choose to just prolong the inevitable then we have to ask who that is serving. 

For churches in this space it is a challenge to genuinely consider what it would look like to go after the ‘win’. In essence it means listening to the Spirit’s leading, doing a realistic stocktake of existing resources and then asking how they could move from a defensive stance to a genuinely missional posture, all while accepting that whatever risks are taken may not work.  The possibility of victory – seeing the church re-invigorated and healthy – involves risk – genuine risk that may not pay off. A church may still close. 

But why oh why would the people of God choose anything less than a full tilt at a ‘win’? (It’s not rhetorical…)

Someone may ask ‘How would we know if we are playing for a draw?’

Probably one clue is that a post like this catches you off guard and you think ‘Us? Really?…’ If you aren’t aware that this is an issue then you are already in trouble – maybe worse trouble than you know. Perhaps other clues are to look at what a church spends it’s time and money on. Are there missional initiatives happening – planned and unplanned because that is the culture of the church? Is there genuine missionary concern for the local community – or is there greater concern for the songs sung on Sunday or whether the sermon was expository or topical?

So this is the question many churches are facing – is it better to play for the draw – or to go after the risky win?

And what are some practical implications of a choice like this?

  • Staffing for mission rather than survival – choose people for staff who will prioritise mission over maintenance and admin. I don’t mean ‘abandon Sundays’ (as is sometimes heard), but I am saying that our best energy should be directed outwards and to equipping people for the world they live in day by day.
  • Giving permission to leaders to fail in whatever mission work they attempt. Not everything we try will work – in fact chances are we going to fail more often than we succeed. But if we never try new ideas then we are already cooked. Let leaders risk and fail – more than once!
  • Accepting that a short term outcome may be a further decline in both people and finance. That’s easy to say – but it is like a kick in the guts when it happens. Not everyone wants to play for the win. Some like a slow, meaningless (religious) draw… and they can take their bat and ball to another dying church and keep playing for a draw elsewhere.
  • Teaching that inspires and provokes people to missional action in keeping with their own life. I don’t think we need to create any more ‘missional programs’. We do need to help people embrace their missional identity in their life as it is.
  • Telling stories of hope – not just conversion stories but real, authentic moments of connection and of seeing the Spirit at work. Sharing our small wins.
  • Championing risk takers and innovators – at the same time being wise enough to reject simply foolish ideas.

Anyway this idea of ‘playing for the draw’ lobbed into my mind over the weekend and just seemed to have a somewhat relevant and prophetic aspect to it. As we often say ‘if the cap fits wear it’ and if it doesn’t then scroll on by. But maybe if you’re a pastor or leader who has been playing for the draw then it’s time to to spend some days in prayer and reflection to figure out how you can again lead a church that is willing to risk all for the good of the kingdom.

4 thoughts on “Playing For the Draw?

  1. Inspiring. Thank you Andrew! That would make a great devotional for the start of the new year in any Industry. Too many tired and disenchanted people opt for the draw instead of the win. It reminds me of Dylan Thomas’ words ‘Do not go gentle into that good night!’ My favourite poetry. JG

  2. Pingback: The ‘Who Am I Again?’ Question | Backyard Missionary

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