Being a basketball player, March Madness inspires a sort of euphoria. There is something beautiful about seeing 68 teams from around the nation playing with their full capacity striving for a goal accomplished by so few. Watching teams of individuals from different backgrounds, with different stories, who have gone through conflict and tension, trying to work together, reminds me how wonderful unity in diversity can be.
This team building and collective work, leads me to think about the complexities and role of encouragement within community. There is the fist bump after a great play, the corporate celebration when you have just gone on a big scoring run and forced the other team to call a timeout, and the celebration of a teammate’s accomplishments in practice. But there is also the “come on!”, “you gotta stay with them!”, and other corrective words that are usually accompanied by a hand clap, slap, or stern look.
The expression of encouragement is both supportive and challenging. When I go up to a teammate, clap his hand, pull him close, and say, “you have to make better passes”. I am primarily telling him that I know that he is a better player than he is showing. I am not coddling him by saying it is okay that he is making bad passes nor am I suggesting that he is a bad or insufficient player. I am expressing that, “you are not being the player I know you really are.”
This type of robust encouragement is important in the Christian faith too. From what I observe, many of us Christians struggle to truly encourage one another. We are often nice and cordial, which while pleasant, does not inspire growth and often it fosters complacency. Conversely, sometimes when Christians challenge, it is done in a combative way. I don’t deny that Paul tells us that rebuke is part of Christian community, but there is a way in which we challenge that is direct, corrective, but relational. Encouragement is a responsibility in any relationship.
When we divorce encouragement from a relationship and make it simply a premise of someone doing something “right” or “wrong”, it is no longer encouragement; it has reduced to coddling or attacking. Sometimes we are scared of real, intimate, and communal relationships. We want them, but we don’t want to go through the hard work of vulnerability and trust to make them an actuality. But authentic encouragement does not come without real relationships.
Despite the influence of our culture and the theology of some of our churches, spiritual formation is as much a communal exercise as it is individual. Just as an athlete’s improvement provides betterment for herself and her team, when we grow in holiness it provides growth to our community of faith. And just as no athlete can improve without the encouragement of a team, partners, and/or coaches, Christians stunt spiritual maturation when we try to go about our lives alone and without robust encouragement.
At another level, when we mature spiritually, it provides growth to the greater Kingdom of God. Michael Jordan didn’t just make his team better, he changed the NBA. His style, his passion, and his hard work encouraged the entire league and has had an immeasurable impact on the culture of basketball. Likewise, as people of faith we have the potential to shape the Kingdom into a fuller image of God when we are encouraged to grow and when we encourage others to do the same.