A. Trevor Sutton: The church should not be running out the clock

God's people behave as if playing the final minute of a basketball game, stalling the action, because they are afraid. Instead, they should step out of the huddle and spread the gospel, says a pastor.

Basketball is a silly sport. It’s not because of the garishly dressed players with their expensive shoes. The arena-sized egos and chair-throwing coaches are not the culprits. Not even John Stockton and his short shorts are to blame.

Rather, it is the final minute of the game that has ruined the sport entirely. The last 60 seconds of a basketball game take more than 15 minutes to play. Foul. Free throw. Timeout. Foul. Official review. Commercial.

This run-out-the-clock approach to basketball keeps players from actually playing the game. Statisticians and coaches take over during those final crucial seconds; risks are calculated and free-throw percentages are assessed.

I see a parallel in the congregational life of the church: there’s a constant temptation for God’s people to behave as if they were playing the final minute of a basketball game.

Embracing the world in real time makes for messy theology. Instead, congregations try to control the situation by slowing down the action. Rather than actively living life in Christ, we have collectively decided to run out the clock until he returns.

Run-out-the-clock ministry usually begins when a congregation faces a challenge. It can be anything. It may be aging membership, dwindling worship attendance or disengaged youth. It may be a chronically unbalanced budget or congregational infighting. It may even be a subtle, nagging feeling that the community would not notice if the congregation disappeared.

But the struggle plays out in an arena filled with spectators. The lights are on and everyone is watching to see how the game will conclude. The players -- pastors and laypeople, young and old -- take their positions. Anxiously, we all watch with bated breath for what will happen next.

And then? Foul. Official review. Free throw. Jump ball.

Squabbling takes over. The original issue morphs into peripheral debates: “The reason people aren’t coming is because our parking lot has potholes.” “If only we could replace those blue hymnals with the traditional red ones.” “Using a guitar in worship would engage the youth.” “We should really form a committee to address this problem.” “The Lenten suppers have too much sodium.” “Let’s bring this up at the next congregational meeting so we can vote on it.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the world flips to another channel, wondering when the game will end.

We run out the clock to avoid living the Christian life in real time. Lived in real time, life in Christ is unpredictable, uncomfortable and extremely messy. We have thus devised a number of clever tactics to slow down the play: committees, meetings, debates, votes. Using this strategy, the church can slow the game down to a pace with which we are more comfortable.

And finally, after the moment has come and gone, we act. After the lights are off and the parking lot is empty, we stop fighting and take a vote. After everyone has gone home, we do something. By then, of course, it is too late.

As time runs down, countless people remain detached from God. Death and the devil claim hostages by the millisecond. Lives disintegrate while the committee debates the color of the carpet in the fellowship hall. There is no time for a run-out-the-clock approach to life in Christ.

As much as I detest this approach to ministry, I fully understand why we do it. We play the way we do because life in Christ is to be taken seriously. Numerous variables make the Christian life difficult. We long to control the situation as best we can; nervousness over how the play is going to end causes us to call a timeout and get organized. Fear of misrepresenting God causes paralysis. Playing out our new life in Christ is a serious matter, and we want to get it right.

I like to imagine what basketball would be like if it had a running clock. I daydream about how impassioned those concluding seconds of a game would be if there were no timeouts, no forced fouls and no official reviews. Imagine the players, intense and ferocious, right to the end.

Imagine, too, what the church would be like if we realized that the clock is running.

If fear has the church in a perpetual huddle, then we have misunderstood the kingdom of God. Christ taught that the kingdom of God is like seed scattered on the ground (Mark 4:26-29). Whether or not we get it exactly right does not matter. Whether or not we understand how it grows does not matter. Whether or not we are awake or sleeping does not matter.

What matters is that we step out of the huddle. The church does not need to run out the clock until Christ returns. The church needs to act, knowing that the clock is running.