It was a freezing Friday night, and the sound of a shrill whistle cut through the crisp February air with a deafening screech. It was time for football practice to start, and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
This story starts about 17 months earlier, when I ventured to Norwich to start university. I was looking forward to making new friends, starting my course, and generally expanding my sense of wonder. Somewhere along the line I wanted to find a church, and I was lucky enough to have settled in a brilliant spot called St Thomas almost immediately after I arrived.
I went to St Thomas every Sunday in my first year, and sometimes - because I am well #holy - went twice on a Sunday! Once in the morning, once in the evening, and thank you very much Lord see you next week.
Do you see the issue?
It technically was my church, but at the same time it really, really wasn’t.
In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul says “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:7). What he’s saying here, is that we all have a supernaturally ordained part to play in the communities of worshippers that we find ourselves in. But, the consumer within us wants to turn church into a spectator sport.
I love Wycombe Wanderers Football Club. I’ve supported them since I was a youngster, which was admittedly a strange choice for a boy from Chesterfield. When Wycombe are winning a game 1-0 with full time approaching, things start to get very tense on the terrace where I stand.
This feeling may be familiar to you. When your sporting team of choice are defending a late lead, the feeling of dread we get is very real. “They’re going to bottle it. I’ve seen it all before!”. It’s significant because we know ourselves in that moment to be utterly powerless. The fate of the result lies in the hands of the 11 men (in this case) on the field. I often wonder if they get as nervous as I do in that situation, with the game on the line. After much deliberation, I’ve decided that I don’t think they do. They have a job to do, and they’re doing it.
I think it’s similar in church. We can easily grow discontented if we’re playing the part of the spectator. If I were to run on the pitch at Wycombe, I would be quickly rugby tackled to the floor, hauled away, and told not to come back ever again. I have no part in what’s going on out there on the pitch.
But church is not like this. How do we know? Because as Paul says, to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. He’s telling you that you have something to bring to the church you’re in.
Are you good with kids? Join the children’s team. Able to relate to the youths? Find the youth pastor. An accomplished washer upper? Join the tea and coffee rota. Play the piano? Join the worship band and tickle those ivories for Jesus.
For myself, one of the church staff members who worked for the sports ministry team invited me to coach an Under 8s football team with him.
And on this frigid Friday evening in February of 2017, it was the moment everything changed for me at St Thomas. I started to recognise and talk to more people on a Sunday, and I soon found myself serving in the students’ ministry as a small group leader, helping out with kids’ holiday clubs, and feeling as though I was playing a role in the life of this church. When I finished my degree, I felt very clearly in my heart that I wasn’t finished yet, and signed up for St Thomas’ internship year - and it all started with one slightly chilly football practice.
If you feel disconnected from your church, or even if you’re just starting out as a fresher, take the plunge and put your hands to work. You never know where you might end up.