What the Church Can Learn from Villanova

By Bob Hiller

Something rather significant happened in the NCAA championship this past Monday night. No, it’s not that I filled out the winning bracket in my pool. That dream died on the second afternoon of the tournament. No, the significance lies in how Villanova won. This is their second championship in the last three years. It wasn’t so much how they won on the court—basically manhandling Michigan for a 79–62 victory—but how the program is run off that makes this victory significant.

Back in 2006, the NBA instituted a rule that said players were no longer allowed to leave high school and immediately enter the draft. They needed to take at least one year off before they were eligible for the pro level. Though a year in college wasn’t required by the NBA, many of the top college basketball programs began recruiting the top high school athletes by selling themselves as a great stop on the way to the pros. These players were called “one-and-done” players. They were told they could have one year at the college, get an (ahem) education, and then turn pro.

As many of the top programs started gathering the top recruits to get them draft ready after their freshman year, the sports media world was all a-flutter with how this was going to change college basketball. This was going to revolutionize the NCAA, get the same teams in the championships year after year (a long run in the tournament looks good on the resume after all), and the other schools would suffer for lack of recruiting power. The “one-and-done” revolution was going to change everything.

But it really hasn’t. In fact, if I’m not mistaken (and I often am) the last six programs to win the NCAA Basketball Tournament have not been one-and-done programs. Rather, they have done it the good old-fashioned way: by building strong teams which develop great players, good coaching, and hard work. These schools haven’t focused recruiting the one-and-done players because they aren’t taken in by the hype. They instead stuck to what they knew: how to develop great basketball teams over a four-year period. And if Villanova’s two championships and three years have taught us anything, the old tried-and-true system still works. I’d suggest it always will.

The provocative sports talk host Colin Cowherd said this about the “one-and-done” hype”: You wanna know who’s winning in college basketball? Gonzaga, Xavier, Villanova, Carolina. It’s not that they don’t have an NBA player or two, but they’re the anti-one-and-done…We get afraid of things in sports. Oh my gosh! The one-and-done! [The old way of developing a good program is] not dead. You still need a really good coach to win and you still need an NBA player or two to win. Villanova has that. But we do this constantly. Fear in America is commerce: We’re all in danger! Here come the asteroids! Y2K! Bird flu! One and done! Speed limits! Carmageddon! And the TV ratings go up, and the radio ratings go up, and the newspapers sell, and the blogs explode. Look! Look! Fireworks! Wow! Villanova won last night due to good coaching, teamwork, and experience. Which, five years ago, I was told didn’t matter anymore. It always has. It always will. Congrats to the best team in college basketball and currently the best program in college basketball which didn’t sell its soul, which didn’t buy the hype, which went against “asteroids!” “YK!” “Gotta change!” “You’ll get left behind” “We’re all in danger!” Villanova said, “Nah. We’re gonna recruit kids who love college basketball and aren’t just looking at us like an airport—getting on the next flight to the pros. We’re going to get kids who are coachable, who will work their a** off at practice, who will play even harder in games.” Experience, coaching, smart, passing won. College basketball won.

Sorry for the long quote, but I think Cowherd’s point is a good one. The same thing that has won in the past will win in the future. It is common sense. A team chock full of talented players that spend one season together will have nothing on a team that has hard-working, smart, talented players who are older and have played in the same system for four seasons. Of course, you need talent. But that is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to developing a great program. Fear is commerce; it drives the market! But letting fear be your guide into the future won’t pay off quite like those selling it want you to believe.

The fact that Villanova won by ignoring market-driven fearmongering and using the old, mundane methods is significant. But not just for college basketball. I believe there is a lesson here for the church as well. There is a huge market aimed at frightened pastors into changing. The litany is a familiar one: Our churches are dying. Denominations are in the decline. Millennials don’t go to church. Islam is knocking at the door. Post-modernism is mocking the faith right out of our colleges. There’s no more prayer in schools. The list goes on. The big idea is: unless you change what you are doing, all of these things will take over! You need to change or get left behind. Here come the asteroids!

Pastors are driven to fear, which leads them to buy the newest product to save their ministry, or invest in the newest methodologies for drawing people into the church, or rebrand the church to become more attractive. Fear of losing drives the ministry, and it sells! But like every other marketing ploy, these programs will only last as long as they sell. Like the one-and-done phenomenon, their impact is fleeting. What churches need to do is go back to what Christ gave the church to do and not try to build something new on sand.

Pastors who work hard on sermons and bible studies, who visit shut-ins and pray for their parishioners will do far more damage to Satan’s kingdom than charismatic, inspirational speakers. Churches that search out, serve, and budget for (!) the poor, the destitute, the weak, and the lowly are far more impactful than churches that invest in light shows and coffee houses. Faithful administration of and faithful attendance to the Word and sacraments will sustain the church no matter what fearful, market-pleasing pestilence may rise next. The church simply needs to work hard at delivering Christ, attacking idols, and loving everyone who comes in her path.

To parrot Cowherd, while every voice around us is saying, “You’ve gotta change! We’re all in danger! Here come the asteroids!” the church simply says, “Nah. We’re going to preach and receive Christ, baptize, eat and drink bread and wine, pray, and serve. We’ve got nothing to fear, for Christ has us. We’ll listen to Him.” The 2000+ year old tried and true methods—carrying out Christ’s work according to His commands and promises—will sustain the church, and the gates of hell won’t prevail against it.