The Premier League

Just like the English football scene, churches are filled with people who play in the Premier League, the Championship League, League 1, League 2 and a big number that only play in the pub league on Sundays. The Premier League comprises of 20% of Christians that both create and sustain the indomitable 80/20 rule of Church life.

Most Christians think that they’re Premier League players when actually they’re not. They express their love for God in the language of the Premier League, but their lives speak of a league that requires a little or a lot less than this league actually requires.

The Premier League is an exclusive league. Jesus described this league many times in Luke 9:57-62. Three men told Him that they’d follow Him wherever He went. Jesus set a high watermark. For one He said, “Foxes have holes, birds have nests, but I don’t have a home” (on earth that is). For another He said, “Let the dead bury their own dead” and for another He said, “Whoever puts his hand to the plough and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God”. Jesus was relentless and inflexible in His requirements for followership. It had to be pretty immediate; it was to be absolutely continuous and needed to be the number one priority. Even the rich young ruler had to sell everything, not just most things. Now that’s harsh! It is however the high standard of the Premiership.

Eclipse of the Heart
Jesus was, of course, not dealing with external issues. He was dealing with heart dispositions. He was challenging the willingness of the heart. The Premier League is characterised not by degrees of holiness or knowledge, but by openness to change. It’s for people on the curve. The learning curve that is. It’s for people who are being transformed from glory to glory. People who put life through the filter of, ‘endure hardship as discipline’ (Hebrews 12:7) rather than ‘encountering hardship is of the devil’.

‘Hard’ becomes the opportunity for growth, and growth means change. Opposition is the sand that creates the pearls for Premier League Christians. Instead of reacting to circumstances, they use circumstances for their own development. Why? Because they’re people on ‘the curve’. They’re people on the change.

Not everyone in your church is ‘on the curve’. Many are not changing. Many are content either surviving or simply enjoying the dividends of Christianity. Many are not ‘early adapters’. They follow only when a majority of people start following the new direction of the Spirit. They often say that things are ‘too hard’ and therefore fail to become overcomers. They want the mountains beyond to move and are oblivious to the inner mountains of the heart that need to be moved first. They often say that they’ve been hurt and state that as their reason for not vigorously pursuing vision.

Let’s Get Motivated
Jesus told His enquirers that in order to follow Him fully, they needed to love God with all their ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’ (Mark 12:30.31). This defines the four motivational areas of life. With the heart, one believes. With the soul, one belongs. With the mind, one thinks and dreams and with strength, one achieves. Jesus declared that they had to love God with all they believed, with all their sense of belonging, with all their dreaming and all their achieving. Jesus wasn’t just giving four areas of surrender, He was giving a priority package of surrender.

The Championship League
Some say that people need to belong, believe, dream and achieve. They say that to build a great church, a sense of belonging needs to be the top priority. That’s true for the Championship League, but not for the Premiership League. The Premier League is to do with believing first, not belonging. If believing comes first, it’s the calling of God that drives the ship, not the fellowship and friendship with all the other travellers. You can build a great church in the Championship but it cannot be sustained. Belonging without full believing works when people feel wanted and needed. Most people leave churches because ‘no one loves them’. That’s the weakness of the Championship League. Just go to America and see the inhaling and exhaling of people simply because they lose a sense of belonging and a new church down the road now offers a truckload of the stuff. The new church soon becomes the old church and the cycle moves on.

League One
If the Championship League is driven by a need to belong, with a need to believe coming a good yet poor second, League One is driven by a need to think the same and dream the same as the church they attend. It’s a cognitive understanding that leads the League One players. They want to be able to visualise the future of the church and they want to put their stamp of agreement on all that’s about to take place.

So many churches now put on DNA classes in order to outline the vision and values of their particular church. Sincere in motive and helpful in measure, these classes do little to enthuse the Premier League players who recognise that 99% of the DNA of your church is Jesus and not its five year goal, new building project, its new missions venture or its unique blend of coffee! League One players are very interested in all of this because they lack the inner dynamic of change and knowledge that characterizes the Premier League. They’re looking to agree and then submit. They’re looking to have their dream life stimulated by the unfolding of large plans.

Most vision courses have been put on to appease the League One players. They make very little long term difference to the success of the vision. The real vision is Jesus, and that firstly takes revelation, not a mental ascent. League One players will run with a vision that ignites their mental and imaginary juices, but, when the vision loses the pizzazz of big building projects and large projected growth – they soon lose interest.

When someone wants me to explain our vision and there’s a pressure to have to give them some kind of one year, two year and five year goals, I resist by saying ‘I don’t know’. It’s not that I don’t know anything, but it’s a resistance to build the church on mental ascent rather than a belief in God’s sovereignty, calling and covenant. If I know that it’s a Premier League player doing the asking it’s quite a different matter. For them it’s belief first, but they also have to have their imagination ignited by the faith they possess. I’m not eradicating vision, just trying to sanctify it by submitting it to the power of revelation. In the past, where I’ve fallen under the pressure from ‘dream chasers’, I tended to make up our vision and goals. None of it ever came to pass, but nobody noticed because no one who heard them ever stuck around long enough to know either way! (Goals are like the dental floss of church life. They help keep cutting edge in tact but are not absolutely necessary. It’s our role to plant diligently, expect greatly and believe unswervingly. Goals can help the process but one thing we can’t do is control our outcomes. Growth still belongs to God.)

League Two
If the Premier League is driven by believing, the Championship by belonging, League One by dreaming and agreeing then League Two is driven by achievement.

As long as they are involved in something that is being rewarded by either results or praise, this league remains satisfied. I see myself as an achiever. I’m performance driven. It becomes an asset to the church only when submitted to the spirit of faith and trust. Without yielding, the spirit of achievement leads easily to the spirit of striving. It creates a ‘self made’ church with all of the right programmes and activities but without the stamp of the Holy Spirit’s authorisation on it. It becomes like a house built of wood, hay and stubble. It can look amazing, but it cannot withstand the fires that rage from time to time.

Many people who are driving by huge gusts of energy and enthusiasm tend to eventually die in despondency and despair unless quickly redirected back to faith and trust. A lot of churches burn out through pandering to the spirit of high achievement. The wolf comes and blows the house down.

Loving God with all of your ‘strength’ is to submit this need to achieve to the need to believe. There are many times in church life where things take a turn for the worse when the attendance drops, the leadership team is reduced in size and plans are put on hold. It’s at these times where ‘strength’ is urged to come under ‘belief’ and is therefore sanctified and made holy. Afterwards, its relentless energy becomes a huge asset to the church.

If you build a League Two church, it will be brilliant when the going is good, but when the going gets tough, hold on – you’re in for an even tougher ride than expected.

The Pub League
The lowest of all the leagues is the Pub League that just meets on a Sunday. Its driving force is attendance. It has no real interest in faith, belonging, dreaming or achievement. It simply wants to relieve a little bit of guilt either put there by religion or by the Holy Spirit. They still lift their hands from time to time and sometimes pluck up the courage to say ‘amen’. They are the periphery of church life. It is everyone’s hope that they will eventually add faith to their outings and become a part of the brilliant Premier League. In the meantime, they should be cared for but not discipled. Many pastors and church leaders run themselves ragged trying to disciple people who have no intention of submitting their lives under the mighty hand of God.

In Acts 20:20 Paul urges the Ephesians elders to, ‘keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers’. The problems come when we keep watch over all those who are grazing with the flock, who dress like the flock but exhibit distinctly ‘unflock like’ behaviour the more you get to know them. With all respect to the animal kingdom, you can’t build a church on goats!

Payment by Instalments
All five leagues are in operation in every church. They’re more defined today than in the early church because our society’s way of paying for stuff is by instalments, rather than by full payment. Our churches today are designed with ramps from community to core, rather than steep ledges because the payment requirements are gradual. People can, however, go straight from League Two to Premier League, simply by paying the full cost of allowing their heart to become a heart of faith and a heart after change. They don’t necessarily have to stop smoking straightaway or immediately get married to their long term partner. That will all change through inner change and outer obedience. They just have to really want to change. ‘Changing’ or ‘being transformed’ leads people on a journey of discovery – discovering more about God and His ways. Revelation almost always comes after obedience. Obedience is our response to what God has already said. Premier League Christianity is simply about doing the last thing He said to do; not just our favourite thing to do. It’s costly but it creates powerful churches.

In accepting the five leagues of church life and in not watering down the Premier League of church, it is possible to create an awesome church that’s powerful in all 4 of its motivational areas – heart, soul, mind and strength.

Firstly, after focusing on the foundation of faith, it spends time on a sense of belonging (through small groups and welcome teams), a sense of going somewhere (through goals and vision statements) and a sense of achievement (through roles and functions). Believing and conviction is what God builds His church on and in realising this, leaders can create empowered people who stand on the foundation of surrender. Only then will the church remain continuously strong.

Secondly, it allows people to drop out of the Premier League without being thrown into the ‘sin bin’. Jesus had high standards for the Premier League, but also respected people’s right to choose. He didn’t berate them, argue with them or seduce them. He spoke simply and sparingly. To accept various leagues outside of the Premier League is to accept people’s right to choose. It puts them in a place where they can jump from where they are into the Premier League without being cast into ‘the outer darkness’. It says that fellowship, vision and achievement are good things, but leaves space for what is the greatest thing – faith in God’s sovereignty, God’s lordship and God’s callings.

No Pressure
It’s imperative that a church nurtures Premier League players but never pressures people to become one. When people are pushed into Premier League Christianity without the necessary pliable heart, they are pressured into faking it and spend their time ‘keeping up appearances’. This always leads to friction and eventual separation. All of our leadership should come from the Premier League, but not all of the Premier League are official leaders. It provides a pool for both current and emerging leaders. If you’re reading this book, you’re most probably in the Premier League – not because of the excellence of my book but because you are displaying the signs of wanting to learn more about the real workings and wisdom of God. Teachability along with a willingness to start afresh are all a part of what makes the Premier League what it is!

Churches that experience a steroidal form of church growth through the enticement of a great vision, great teen programme, great music or even a great leader, often find that a season of church infighting and splitting follows. Because all key leaders of a church ought to be selected from the Premier League, these churches split because many leaders were selected directly from the other leagues. Church splits often result because of the variation of the purity of the heart motivation across the leadership team.

Pastoral Pursuits
Discernment is important especially when creating a team that leads a church or a ministry into its future. ‘Out of the heart flows the issues of life’ is as pertinent for the heart of the church as for an individual heart. Out of the leadership team will come a church or ministry that reflects it.

In many cases, it’s important for team leaders to be pre-emptive in their repositioning of some leaders who have cooled down and are now failing to be ‘on the curve’. To allow these leaders to remain is to eventually create friction and fall out. To seek another role for them that removes them from the ‘heart’ is to respect their inner decision to stop growing with the pace of the church or ministry, as well as love them into a ‘lesser’ role, but still an ‘important’ role. It places them in a less demanding yet respected division from which they can leap frog back into the Premier League if they so choose to do.

The Apostle Paul once made an outlandish comment that shows his understanding of the church league divisions. He claimed that even if people preached the gospel out of envy or jealousy, they should be allowed to do so for the sake of the gospel being preached (Philippians 1:15-18). Here he describes the pub league – many people whose hearts are cold but still have an affiliation with the message of Christ. They may be overweight with sin but at least they come on Sunday. Grace needs to be bountifully applied to church life without a watering down of what creates the power and dynamics of the life of every church – the Premier League.

It may be that the 80/20 rule in church life (that again states 80% of all the praying and giving come from 20% of the people) can’t be broken, but it can surely be expanded to represent more people than ever before in that 20% of the people. By recognising the Premier League of church life, accepting the other leagues in church life and by the careful pastoring of church life, we can see it come to pass – a powerful church with many people poised to join in the greatest league in the world – the Premier League!

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