The Offence of Greg Popovich

By Bob Hiller

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On Monday night I had the introvert’s pleasure of watching basketball at sports bar by myself in San Anotonio. Not a bad night to be watching San Antonio as Spur’s head coach Greg Popovich won his 1,000th basketball game. That is no small feat as only eight other coaches in the history of the league have done this before coach Pop. It is no exaggeration to say that he is currently the best coach in the league and has been for over a decade. He knows his responsibility is to get his teams to perform well and win. And he has done this with an incredibly high level of success. Such consistent success can attributed to any number of things: great players, a great system, superior knowledge of the game. But, perhaps there is one thing that gives Pop an edge that no one will really talk about: he doesn’t care about the NBA.

Okay, that may be a bit extreme. I am sure he cares about the NBA on some level. But, he doesn’t coach his team with the NBA’s interests in mind. He coaches to win championships for his players and fans. Let me give you an example: Last season, San Antonio was slotted to play a nationally televised game. Being one of the premier teams in the league with some of the NBA’s most popular stars, the game was sure to bring in great ratings and big revenue. Except coach Pop decided not to play two of his biggest stars (Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli, if I recall). These are older players in NBA years and this game would have been the second night of a back-to-back series. Their bodies needed a rest. It is the practice of the Spurs to rest their older stars when they play two nights in a row in order to keep them healthy. The league was furious. This was terrible for business. Ratings dropped. Popovich was fined by the league. Viewers were disappointed. The best part? Pop didn’t care.

See, Popovich doesn’t coach for ratings. He doesn’t coach for popularity. He coaches with the one goal set in mind: to win championships. He does his job diligently regardless of what others think. He keeps the main thing the main thing so that, even if his decisions are frustrating to some and angering to others, he knows what he is doing will produce fruit when the games matter most. Fans of San Antonio get that. Or, at least they ought to because, in this way, Popovich has consistently put together one of the best teams in the NBA for the past decade. So that, even if fans were hoping to see some of their favorite players and do not get the chance, they know it will pay off in the end. I wonder if we in the church couldn’t learn from all of this.

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Eugene Peterson, in his marvelous book Under the Unpredictable Plant, says that pastors are too distracted by voices that would influence them away from the main thing, namely, proclaiming Jesus. If pastors aren’t careful, the institution/denomination, the congregation, and the pastor’s own personal ego become the driving factors in the ministry. The pressure to appease the expectations of these “voices” subtly distracts the pastor from his main task of bringing Jesus into the ears and lives of Christ’s people. I offer another example:

Some time ago I was having a conversation with some brother pastors about how difficult it can be to preach repentance and forgiveness. That is, how hard it is to actually call sinners to the carpet for their self-serving, God-despising hearts and deeds. Some of the brothers mentioned how preaching God’s truth in all its jagged glory sounds nice and ideal, but very often drives people away from the church. A message aimed at repentance (and ultimately forgiveness) results in people retreating to the church down the road which offers a more accommodating “gospel” (which may be no gospel at all…)

I get this. I fight this temptation every week. I worry that if I actually preach what God says in His Word, the sheep will scatter. After all, that stuff in the Scriptures is deadly if you get too close to it. This is the sort of thing that upsets denominational statisticians who love to show us the church is dying because the numbers are down. As a pastor, I have been given the call to proclaim what God says. The end game is not for me to keep people in the seats (though I pray for each one of those sheep and that they don’t leave), nor am I called to make sure my church contributes to positive statistics read at a district convention (statistics are idols anyway). I am called to keep Jesus in the ears of His people so that His Word can create disciples. That Word is what brings about eternal life. That Word is what gives faith and hope and joy. That Word is what kills and makes alive. And, yes, that Word angers and upsets and drives people from the church. Nonetheless, that is the Word we are given to proclaim.

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Pastors: preaching God’s Word, as offensive and frustrating as it is to so many, actually saves them. It is the only thing that actually will bear fruit when life gets difficult for God’s saints. Of course it will upset many in the pews. Of course it may cause giving to go down. Of course it will not get your church featured at the next district convention. It will produce no glory right now. But we don’t preach for glory now. You don’t preach for ratings. You have one thing you are called to do: kill with God’s law, and raise with His Gospel. You are to expose sinners and cover their guilt with the robes of Christ’s righteousness. You are to preach Christ in all of His offensive glory. People will leave, grievances will air, frustrations will rise…but so will the dead! You preach that Word and saints will sing with the angels. Like coach Pop, keep the end game in mind, get over yourselves, and preach Christ for sinners. If you don’t preach Christ, to them, to whom else will they go?

If I may, there is a word here for the parishioners too: If your pastor, with a terrifying consistency, ceases to preach the Word of Christ then, it is time for you to find a new church. But, and this is a big but, if your pastor is killing you in your sins, it isn’t his word doing it, but Jesus’. And, if he is pointing you to Christ for the 52nd sermon this year, it isn’t his laziness that’s producing the same message, but God’s commission. As frustrating as it may seem, that law is hitting you and that gospel is coming to you with the right end in mind, your salvation before God! Remember, as frustrating as it is for ticket holders to miss a game with Tim Duncan, giving him a night of rest is what is needed for the team. You may want your pastor to preach something besides the Gospel. But don’t just run down the street to the church that preaches a more palatable message so you can feel better about yourself and still consider yourself a church-goer. It is a sin to search for a church that doesn’t preach Christ. Even if it is frustrating to you, let God’s Word from the pastor’s mouth do what it needs to do, for there God is at work for you and for the forgiveness of your sins. If you don’t want to hear of your sin and your Savior, to whom else will you go for the words of eternal life?

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