Back in the stone ages, before Facebook memes became an advanced communication tool, people used to share their great ideas on an archaic form called a poster.  I remember when I was in high school there was one that was very popular by a man named Robert Fulghum who said very candidly, “All I need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” He followed with a list containing things like share everything, play fair, wash your hands before you eat, and flush.

In recent years I’ve been developing my own list, with a different title.  All I need to know about pastoring a church I learned coaching high school girl’s basketball.  I’m very serious about this, so much so that I’ve considered writing letters to seminaries around the world to tell them that they need to include a practicum in their programs focused on coaching youth sports.  There are a lot of things I have learned in 11 years of coaching, but I want to share one truth specifically that I am finding very relevant now.

People don’t really change to belong, they change because they belong.

Let me explain what I mean. When I first started coaching, I thought the goal was to teach solid basketball skills and motivate the girls to go out and use them.  So I tried to do that. We drilled skills every practice. I showed them what to do on their own time. I worked hard to communicate the necessary actions to each skill in a way that each girl could understand.

And we lost.

And lost.

And lost some more.

I spent many a sleepless post game night wondering what I was doing wrong.


Eventually I realized that maybe I wasn’t a very good coach, but if I had this team that couldn’t win season after season, I should try to help them in some other way. So I took a different approach. If I couldn’t coach basketball maybe I’d try to coach life.  I’d use basketball as a vehicle to help the girls understand what it means to be a part of a team; to love, sacrifice, and serve on behalf of others.  This change of direction came because I had given up on winning, but to my amazement I watched as something really powerful happened.  As we focused less on the basketball skill and more the relationships between the players I found them more excited to be a part of the team. They were excited to practice and more focused than ever. The friendships that we built in practice stretched outside of practice and they started talking about basketball together and even playing on their own free time.  Their desire to give to and for each other led to their skills actually improving.  Things I had been trying to get them to do for years suddenly become the things they were asking me about. Last season we won 15 games, that’s 11 more than we had won in any of the previous 9 seasons. The culture that has resulted on our Sr. Team has trickled down to the Juniors and they are working harder so that they can play on the Senior Team when they are old enough.  That’s how I’ve learned that…  

People don’t really change to belong, they change because they belong.

The reason this is so important to me is that as I have been learning this in the gym I am also seeing it play out in my church and in the teaching of the Bible. I came to my role as a pastor believing that if I just taught the Bible that it would make people’s lives change. I taught and preached passionately, hoping for people to learn both the stories and the theology that would being about transformation in their lives. But it seemed the harder I tried the less people changed. What made it worse was that I struggled with change in my own life too. How can I lead change in the lives of others if my own life is filled with it’s own failures and brokenness?

The epiphany came gradually for me through a couple of specific verses over a 5-6 year period and an experience in prayer. It started as I read through the book of Titus and ran into the following text.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,
— Titus 2:11-13

What struck me in this text was that our “teacher” in how to say no to sin was the grace of God. For so long I had been trying to use willpower, or guilt, or shame as a motivator to change. Paul is telling Titus that the grace of God teaches us how to say no to sin and how to live righteously. I started to realize that was true in my own life. Guilt and shame tended to produce more sin in my life. But receiving the love of God for my sin seemed to inspire in me a desire to live differently. I have found that to be true in the church too. As people fail, and they do, the love of God restores them in a way that their own efforts can never do. This was brought home to me in a time a silent prayer when I realized for the first time that even if I had nothing to offer God; no wisdom, skllls, or theological insight, He still loved me. I realized that even if I was in a horrible accident and spent the rest of my life in a vegetative state, that God would love me as I was, despite the fact that I had nothing to offer Him.

You may chuckle at the last sentence for we never have anything to offer God, but far too often we think we do. We think that we need to offer something to earn the love of God. That we need to succeed to belong. We need to develop our Christian “skills” so that we can be a part of the team. The reality is that God invites us onto the team, and as we sense His love and forgiveness for us right where we are, it cultivates a desire to “play well”. It’s counter intuitive. Instead of earning our spot, we are given a spot, and that grace begins to transform us from the inside out. There is another text that has helped me as I seek to live this out in my own life. John writes so much about the love of God.

And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.
— I Jn 4:16

We come to “know” the love of God by experiencing it. In Paul’s words “the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people.” And when we fail, we come to rely on the love of God. This unconditional love is what is holding us. As we learn to rest in the grip of that love and grace, the chains of our past are loosened and we begin to live differently. We change because we belong.

My hope is that first you can see that God deeply loves you and invites you to belong, despite your failures and brokenness. If you can accept that, you might be surprised at the changes He can work in your life. Welcome to the team, let’s play ball.

Jeff Kuhn2 Comments