Wayne Gretzky is generally considered the greatest athlete to ever lace up a pair of skates. In twenty seasons of professional hockey he dominated the league, redefined the game and tallied an astounding number of records and awards. An outstanding goal-scorer and play-maker, he was also a great sportsman. Five times in his career he was awarded the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy, presented every season to the “player adjudged to have exhibited the best type of sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability.” He was a true superstar.
Sportsmanship is an interesting concept in sport and one whose meaning seems to have morphed over the years. Once held up as a virtue that emphasized respect for the game and grace toward an opponent in both victory or defeat, it now seems to speak to the misguided ethos that it doesn’t really matter who wins, as long as we all try our hardest and have fun. I prefer the original concept and have tried to instill this in my son; I want him to be a good sportsman who honors the game and respects his opponents, even while seeking victory. This kind of sportsmanship is worth recovering where it has been lost and worth maintaining where it still exists.
There is another idea, a similar one, that has been much on my mind recently. Churchmanship is a virtue that may also be fading into history. We all lead busy and multi-faceted lives. We have obligations at home and at work and we have relationships to nurture with family, extended family, neighbors, friends. Somewhere in that mix is commitment to a local church. For some people church ranks so highly that ministry always comes first, even at the expense of everything and everyone else; for some people church barely ranks at all and receives only the few moments that are left over when everything else has been taken care of.
Between these extremes is the virtue of good churchmanship. The good churchman is a Christian who truly and wholeheartedly dedicates himself to his local church, to the community of believers he loves. This is the Christian who who loves those people, who serves them, and who prioritizes them. This is a fading virtue we would do well to recover and to call one another to.
Here are some of the ways a Christian can face particular challenges in our time and in our churches and excel at churchmanship.
A Good Churchman Attends. Commitment to a community of Christians involves much more than just being there, but it certainly does not involve less than this. In order to be dedicated to a church—not just the church as institution but the church as people—you need to be present so you can be with people and actively engage with them. The good churchman knows that every time the church gathers, there are opportunities to pursue, to minister, to bless, and he is eager to take full advantage of every one of these times.
A Good Churchman Serves. The person who is dedicated to his church actively pursues opportunities to serve the people he loves. He looks beyond the formal ministries of the church—greeters and nursery workers and offices of elder or deacon—and continually looks for ways to serve other people, even, or perhaps especially, in ways that few will ever notice. His pursuit of people is always a pursuit of ways to serve.
A Good Churchman Disciples. There are so many skills and virtues that are better caught than taught, better modeled than explained. The good churchman knows this and is active in discipling others, even though this requires him to give of his time. Discipleship requires humility—not just the humility to know your weakness, but humility to believe that the Lord can use you in another person’s life despite your sin and failings. It was not pride but humility that motivated Paul to tell the church at Corinth, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” and “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
A Good Churchman Grows. The Christian who attends and serves and disciples will almost inevitably be a Christian who shows steady growth in his understanding of the Scripture and in his application of its truths. This Christian life calls for a relentless pursuit of holiness, which is the product of an ongoing pursuit of God himself, which is in turn the product of a relentless pursuit of truth as God has revealed it in the Bible. The good churchman takes advantage of every ordinary means of God’s grace, he reads and listens and studies and prays, and through it all is more and more conformed to the image of the Savior.
A Good Churchman Submits. There are few tasks more rewarding and at the same time more trying than leading a church. The good churchman loves the leaders in his church, trusts them, and submits to their leadership. Submission to authority is increasingly counter-cultural in our anti-authority culture, but it is clearly taught and carefully modeled in the pages of Scripture. Rather than assuming that he knows best and rather than making bold statements with only a partial understanding of the facts, the churchman submits with joy and confidence.
The excellent sportsman receives his reward in the form of a trophy or medal (and here’s a story of just that). The excellent churchman receives a far better and far more lasting reward. May we consider it true evidence of God’s grace in a brother or sister when we are able to say of him or her, “You are a good churchman.”