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The Good Team: What Saint Sven can teach the church

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Book title: On Football
Author: Sven-Göran Eriksson

James Murkett

Sven-Göran Eriksson, the current England manager, may seem an unlikely source of wisdom for the church. We may question his tactics, his team selection or even his morality, but his recent book On Football setting out his management and coaching philosophy makes interesting reading. The book raises issues about teamwork, which we can, arguably, apply to the church. His insights should challenge the church to greater unity and effectiveness in standing and witnessing for Christ.

I am not suggesting that we forget what the Bible says about the church in favour of Sven-Göran Eriksson's football manual. The Bible must be the church's first, and ultimate, authoritative source of wisdom. Nevertheless, a lot of what Eriksson says is anchored - indirectly - in biblical principles. Anything that helps us see biblical principles, maybe in a fresh light, and drives us back to the Bible to check it for ourselves is surely a good thing.

Neither am I suggesting that the church should take on wholesale secular management strategies. The church is neither a business, nor a football team and should not be 'managed' as such. But, surely the issue is one of balance. There are helpful and positive insights to be gained from the secular business world concerning structures and efficiency. Likewise, On Football can, I believe, help us think through how the church can be 'a good team' showing the love of Christ to one another and the watching world.

Thinking collectively

According to Sven-Göran Eriksson, a vital part of being a good team is thinking together. This is produced '. . . by the spread and acceptance of thoughts [setting] the pattern for how the players and the team react in different situations' (p 101). Within this team, 'the individual quickly adapts to the group's routines, habits, conditions, values and use of language' (p 101). The point is dressed up in 'management language', but seems to echo what Paul writes to the church at Philippi:

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved - and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have. If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Philippians 1:27-2:4 (NIV)

Paul here exhorts the Philippian Christians to think collectively: . . . make my joy complete by being like-minded'. This is not bland conformity where personality and individuality are removed. It is not where everyone has to agree on everything or face exclusion. Rather it is the reality of different people being prepared to accept a greater purpose - that of living in a 'manner worthy of the gospel of Christ' -instead of demanding total agreement or dividing over less-important issues. Paul sees thinking collectively as essential to the church's survival. The church at Philippi was beginning to suffer persecution and opposition. Thinking collectively - being . . . one in spirit and purpose' - is the only way for the church to stay together. As Sven-Göran Eriksson says: . . . the greater the outer pressure, the more important it is to reduce the inner pressure' (p 60). Yet this like-mindedness must result in action - an ongoing loyalty to the gospel and endurance under persecution: . . . I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you'.

As Sven-Göran Eriksson pointed out earlier, the way we think affects how we react to situations. If the church is thinking collectively - being like-minded - it will be effective in standing firm under pressure, successful in looking 'not only to [individual] interests, but also to the interests of others', and faithfully living 'in a manner worthy of the gospel'.

Building a good team

Sven-Göran Eriksson lists several characteristics important in the creation of a winning team (p 106-108):

  1. The good team has a common vision - a mental projection that shows where the team wants to get to

  2. The good team has clear and definite goals which go hand in hand with this vision - goals accepted by all

  3. The good team's members share their understanding of strategy and tactics - strategy must be hammered home

  4. The good team has great inner discipline - it should be clear how people are to behave towards each other

  5. The good team has players with characteristics which complement one another - a team should include different personalities who can make contributions

  6. The good team has a good division of roles among the players - different roles for different personalities

  7. The good team has players who put the common good before their own interests - team before self

  8. The good team has players who take responsibility for the whole team - 'we' rather than 'me'

These characteristics are applied to football teams. Nevertheless, I suggest the principles Sven-Göran Eriksson suggests would be fitting as characteristics of a local church. Indeed some of these attributes seem to have been in the mind of Peter when he wrote his first letter:

As you come to him, the living Stone - rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him - you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says:

'See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.'

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,

'The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone,'

and,

'A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.'

They stumble because they disobey the message - which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
1 Peter 2:4-12 (NIV)

The common vision that Sven-Göran Eriksson encourages is seen in Peter's statements about the status of the church: 'But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light'. He draws on Old Covenant language from Israel's history (Exodus 19:3-6) to make the point that the church is now the true people of God, under the New Covenant. The vision of where the church is going is clear too. It involves declaring God's praise to one another and to those on the outside.

The strategy, tactics and discipline necessary to fulfil this vision come next in Peter's thoughts: 'Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires … Live such good lives among the pagans that … they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us'. How the church is to declare God's praises seems to involve purity and detachment from 'sinful desires'. The church does not belong on earth; it's true home and citizenship is in heaven. Therefore, the behaviour that characterises the world - indulgence and compromise - is no longer fitting, and is to be avoided. This will require discipline individually and corporately. The positive side of abstinence is a lifestyle that is different from those around us. This allows good deeds to be seen by those on the outside and glory being given to God because of them.

The complementary nature of a good team that Sven-Göran Eriksson talks about -good division of roles and a concern for the common good - is also present in Peter's instructions. He reminds the church that even as they as individuals come to faith in Jesus they: '. . . like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ'. There is a complementary nature to the church as individuals with different skills, abilities and temperaments are brought together. The common good of 'offering spiritual sacrifices' - there is no longer need for physical ones - of obedience and praise to God, is meant to be put above personal difficulties and reputations. There is a collective element to Peter's words - it applies corporately to the church as well as to individuals. God does call people individually to himself, but ultimately God does not save people, rather he saves a people. Peter's words and the testimony of the church should reinforce this.

Eriksson gave us his tips for building a successful team. If the church fulfilled the expectations of Peter, it would demonstrate these characteristics. It would fully declare 'the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light'.

Conclusion

So far so good. In theory what we have thought about makes complete sense. In theory, it is easy for Christians to be like-minded. In theory, it is simple to live together as God's chosen people. In reality it is much harder than that. Are we prepared to accept the challenges that Sven lays down as marks of a good team? Do we see the need to be like-minded, to be 'one in spirit and purpose' as essential for the church's survival? It is not, however, a case of sacrificing truth for the sake of unity - rather presenting truth as the basis for lasting unity. Can we agree that the vision of the church should be to declare God's praises as we are built together into a people pleasing to him? What does this mean for the way we 'do' church? How will this effect the way that we as Christians relate to one another? Where does this leave the world around us?

Sven-Göran Eriksson's theories for building a good team raise many issues. I hope to have shown that these issues are not new, but are actually found in the pages of Scripture in one form or another. Maybe it's time the church came off the bench and started playing for real.

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