Cricket – a metaphor for global mission?

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As the England men’s cricket team scrapes through by the narrowest of victories to win the World Cup and joins the women as world champions, it may be time to look at cricket and see how it is the perfect metaphor for global mission.

  • It’s a team game.  Although individual players may perform brilliantly, nobody can do it on their own.  One of the things that several teams in the recent tournament had in common was that they were overly dependent on one brilliant player.  If he didn’t do well, the whole team failed.  In contrast, England have several excellent batters and bowlers.  The best teams may not have the best individual players, but they have a broad range of good ones.
  • Occasionally there’s a prima donna.  Every now and then some talented person comes along who believes he’s God’s gift to the team.  They don’t adapt the way they play to the needs of the team.  People like that disrupt the team and although they may perform well they often undermine the performance of others.
  • There’s a huge support network.  The cricket team is built not on the 11 but on the coaches, managers, physios, dietitians, travel operators…..  our team consists not only of those in the field and their field admin teams, but the homeside admin, churches, families, and other supporters all in the mix.
  • Successful teams are good at every discipline.  Teams that bowl well but can’t put runs on the board don’t win.  And vice versa.  A winning team needs to bat, bowl and field well.  Likewise, we’re not all good church planters, Bible teachers, childrens’ workers, social transformation agents, but together we can have a big impact in our field
  • Flexibility in the field is important.  One of the regular criticisms of the England cricket team is that the batters don’t adjust their style of play to the state of the pitch.  We need to be able to read what is going on in our host nation’s politics, society, religion and economics and be able to adapt our activities and presentation of the gospel to be current and relevant.
  • Some of us are specialists, others all-rounders.  A good team needs them all.  Some of the cricketers who had the biggest impact for their team were not the best players in any discipline, but people who made a good contribution at any stage of the game.  While the biggest hitters and the fastest bowlers might grab the headlines, there is always a need for the mission worker who can turn their hand to anything.
  • Players who are not in good form are seldom dropped.  Modern cricket recognises that everyone goes through periods where they disappoint, and is tolerant of this, understanding that given a change, underperforming team members can frequently play themselves back into form.  Are Christians are more likely to drop such players from the team?
  • You may spend a long time on the boundary and then have your brief moment of glory.  Not everybody is in the midst of the action all the time, and we may feel jealous of those who seem to have a lot going on around them.  But stay focused – you don’t want to miss your opportunity when it comes along.
  • And finally, lots of people in the church still don’t really understand it and think it’s boring!

Cricket in Crisis?

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Anyone who has followed the defeat of the England cricket team at the weekend, and indeed over the last winter, cannot escape the conclusion that English test cricket is in a crisis, as has so frequently been observed over the last 100 years or so.

The appointment of a coach who was selected for his track record in the shorter forms of the game (“white ball cricket”) as opposed to test matches (“red ball cricket) has only highlighted this problem.  Their defeat at the weekend by Pakistan only highlighted the fact that many of the England players, while being highly adept at the sort of aggressive fast scoring that is needed in white ball cricket, are woefully underprepared for the patient, slower building of a large innings over the course of several hours, like Alastair Cooke is so good at.

And why would they be?  Test matches last five days, and the players have no other experience of five-day cricket.  County Championship matches last four days, most other tournaments last one day, and in the shortest form of cricket a game is over in just three hours.  Now the cricket authorities in England are planning to introduce an even shorter competition to attract more interest.

A similar change is taking place in the missions world.  56 years ago, when first-class one-day cricket was introduced, the concept of ‘short-term’ mission barely existed.  Now the number of British people, mainly students but increasingly retired people, going on a short term mission trip number in the thousands every year.  Like white-ball cricket, it’s popular and accessible.

Unlike long-term mission, which is more like test cricket.  It requires a lot more training, time and commitment to get established.  The quick results that are needed for short-term are replaced by the disciplined and patient endurance that builds into powerful impact for the kingdom of God even if it’s not quite so spectacular.

How we can get the thousands of people who love the thrill of short-term mission to convert to the longer form is as challenging as making test match players out of T20 players.  We would love to see more of the short-termers coming back as long termers, and while many long-term mission workers started their vocation with short-term there is apparently little evidence that short-term engagement increases long-term recruitment.  Just as in cricket, they are two different forms of the game and there is not an automatic crossover from one into the other.

Many facets of mission need long-term commitment.  Quite apart from the challenges of language acquisition and cultural adaptation which need a significant investment of time, activities such as theological education, community transformation, and Bible translation don’t readily lend themselves to being done by short-termers.  So we still need more long-termers, rather than less.

Short-term mission can be justified in its own right, and has a place alongside long-term, as long as it is done well, contextualised, and done with cross-cultural sensitivity and respect (see the Global Connections Code of Best Practice for examples of how this might be achieved).  It is not merely a recruiting ground.  But there does also need to be a focus on maintaining and developing the long-term workforce that keeps mission going forward when the short-termers go home.

Just like England will never win the Ashes with a team full of IPL stars.