Book Review: The Biggest Win by Josh Cooley

I love football. I love the pageantry and the rivalries. I love the battle in the trenches and the suspense of a scoring drive in the final two-minutes of a game. It’s glorious.

But there’s a different kind of glory that can find its way into the athletic arena—the glory of discipleship. Pastor Josh Cooley writes, “Because of its nature, sports can open doors for discipleship that might not have existed otherwise. As an athlete, you likely spend significant time with others at practice, in the locker room, traveling to games, and at dining tables. Sports helps create relationships, common interests, and shared goals” (77). In his new devotional, The Biggest Win: Pro Football Players Tackle Faith (New Growth Press, 2018), Cooley explores particular ways that spiritual growth and athletics can intersect. In particular, he Cooley unpacks the intersection of faith and football.

And who does Cooley choose as his test case for sports discipleship? It’s the believers who played together as part of the 2018 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles!

The Core Elements of Discipleship

The leaders who run the website, Discipleship.org, have identified essential discipleship components. While I don’t think Cooley intended to include each of them, I found each one clearly present in his devotional. Here’s five components of discipleship that the believers on the Eagles have embodied:that stood out to me as I read.

  • Jesus. Sports is a glory machine, but we all have a tendency to grab that glory for ourselves instead of humbly reflecting it back to the Savior and finding our identity in him. In chapter two, Cooley tells how Eagles safety and special teams ace Chris Maragos has learned humility through the mundane rhythms of family life. In chapter 3, he writes about how Nick Foles learned to root his identity in Christ when he experienced failure. This is ultimately what discipleship is about. Jesus is the original disciple-maker and centerpiece of our discipleship. The goal of our growth is to know, treasure, and humbly promote him.

  • Intentionality. Growing as a Christian disciple, just like growing as an athlete, requires intentional training. During the 2017 NFL season, discipleship for the Eagles believers involved a Monday night couples Bible study, a Thursday night players Bible study, Saturday night chapel services, and Sunday morning worship gatherings (before afternoon games). Planning and maintaining consistency with this regular discipleship plan required effort—even at times from a player who wasn’t active with the team. Cooley describes how one player ran logistics for an away game chapel even after a season ending injury: “Chris Maragos’ torn posterior cruciate ligament two months earlier might have ended his season, but it didn’t sideline his passion for ministering to his Christian brothers” (68).

  • Relationships. Discipleship happens best within the context of genuine life-on-life connections grounded in Christ-like love. We’re all tempted toward isolation. Carson Wentz calls it “island syndrome,” but growth in Christ is fueled by laying down our pride and being mutually accountable. Cooley writes, ““Discipleship doesn’t happen magically… It involves listening to others and having a humble, non-judgmental attitude. It involves prayerful encouragement when another believer is struggling with sin, doubt, or fear. It requires honesty and openness about your own shortcomings. True accountability involves God-honoring transparency, as you strive toward a common goal” (77).

  • The Bible. The Word of God is the manual for making disciples. And chapter 7 directly addresses the right handling of God’s word. In this chapter Cooley identified a key Scripture—Philippians 4:13—that is often mishandled by athletes and he took time to help readers understand it contextually. The chapter helps young athletes to be discerning about the ways Bible passages are normally talked about in an athletic culture. And it teaches simple principles for understanding Bible passages in their original context.

  • Journey. For every disciple, there’s a traceable, but sometimes disjointed, growth story from the new birth to spiritual maturity. The Holy Spirit leads us on this formative journey. Each of the believing players on the Eagles has been on this kind of discipleship journey. But, for Trey Burton, it’s been quite a ride: “Burton has gone from single-parent childhood, to high school star, to breaking hallowed college records, to frustrated player on the verge of quitting, to unexpected twenty-one-year-old father, to undrafted free agent, to Super Bowl champion” (105). Throughout this journey, Burton has rested on the unchanging promises of God’s character. And this faith has grown him into a man who multiplies his impact by fighting sex trafficking through the International Justice Mission (IJM). What a journey!

I love these examples of notable sports figures modeling the key components of discipleship. Discipleship doesn’t require sports, but sports can be an incredible avenue within which a believer can train in the core elements of discipleship. Cooley writes, “Sports can’t save anyone; only Jesus can. But sports can help create opportunities and open doors that were once closed” (128).

If you’re working with a group of young athletes in a local church, or with Athletes in Action or the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, this book is a great introduction to the basics of Christian growth. Every chapter includes pointed applications and discussion questions to use if you’re reading with a group. I highly recommend it!

For more from Josh Cooley, check out this article he wrote for GCF entitled, “Credentials.”

Kids and Church, part 4: Obedience over Knowledge

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Before jumping in here, read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

“… Feed my lambs.” (John 21:15b ESV)

When it comes to discipleship, it’s important to stress obedience over the accumulation of knowledge. This is especially true when it comes to your own kids. The temptation for parents is to simply give them the facts of faith, forgetting that the facts don’t lead to faith. Being able to apply those facts to real life is what obedience is.

But how do we teach them to obey? What concepts do parents need to keep in mind when it come to disciplining their kids? Here are three:

1. Teaching

Teaching will always play a role in discipleship. It has to. Those being discipled need to be taught correct doctrine. Without proper teaching, they are likely to be “tossed to and fro” (Ephesians 4:14) by anything that sounds close to truth. And, when it comes to teaching, parents need to remember it’s about more than mere information. We don’t just need our kids to remember a bunch of facts, but rather to help them see why the truth we are teaching is important.

To do that we have to break down the information into its three components: the precept, the principle, and the command. By precept, I mean the action or conduct that is being proposed through this teaching. By principle, I mean the rule by which that action or conduct is connected to the teaching. By command, I mean the authority behind the teaching. All three are necessary for teaching to be truly effective. Without all three components what is happening is not discipleship; it ends up being moralistic behavior modification.

2. Advising

To this kind of teaching, advisement or counsel must be added. In order for advice to be most effective, it must be personal to the person, their situation, and their stage of life. This is where we help those we are discipling to apply the teaching to their lives. While there are always general ways Scripture is applied to our lives, there are also specific ways it applies in the here and now. Helping those we disciple find those applications puts them on the path towards obedience.

3. Modeling

The final kind of teaching is modeling. Discipleship is most effective when the disciple-maker lives out what he is teaching. As we model what we are learning and teaching, those we disciple see how what they are learning is applied everyday. Obedience on our part can inspire obedience on their part. 

It’s not just what we teach them that’s important, it’s how we teach them that will bring about real heart change and the sort of obedience that is the mark of true faith. This is food they need as well as the kind of feeding Jesus expects.

Family Friday Links 3.10.17

Here are our weekly post of online gems:

Logan Gentry had a post on the Verge site on discipleship. He writes, "Discipleship is really messy and more of a slower process than we want or realize." This is true for every discipleship relationship: parent to child, pastor to congregant, friend to friend, etc. The good news is this mess is a mess well worth making.

Christina Fox had a post on the True Woman blog on the discipline of children in prayer. She wrote, "Children learn from us how to pray by watching and listening to us pray." She then goes on to list ways to help our kids. Parents, this is helpful for you as well as your kids. Pastors, this needs to be encouraged.

Mark Merrill had a post on the importance of education for our kids. He says, "Head knowledge is important, but heart knowledge is even more important and required to lead a productive, meaningful, and significant life." This is primarily the responsibility of parents.

What have you been reading online lately? Leave us a link in the comment section and we'll check it out.

Equipping Church Reading List

In two previous posts, I wrote about the equipping and discipleship work of the church: What does it mean to make disciples? What does it mean to equip the church to do ministry? What does it mean to intentionally apprentice others? I believe it means that each and every Christian is responsible to pass along to others the knowledge, skills, and gifts that have been entrusted to us. First, I wrote about what an apprentice is and why we should embrace apprenticeship as a ministry strategy. Then, I got to some practical nuts and bolts: how do you identify and develop a ministry apprentice?

Today, I want to highlight some key books on the subject of equipping and apprenticeship. Since Patrick and Jeff have already posted a reading list for 2017, consider this my contribution. This is a selection of six books I'm working through as I study discipleship over the coming year:

Connect: How To Double Your Number of Volunteers by Nelson Searcy with Jennifer Dykes Henson. Baker Books, 2012.

Searcy wants to help pastors create a culture that attracts, keeps, and grows volunteers. His principles focus on how to help people see the importance of serving, how to continually raise up new volunteers, how to really delegate, and more.

Designed to Lead: The Church and Leadership Development by Eric Geiger and Kevin Peck. B & H Books, 2016.

Geiger and Peck tell us that churches that consistently produce leaders have a strong conviction to develop leaders, a healthy culture for leadership development, and helpful constructs to systematically and intentionally build leaders.

Body Life by Ray Stedman. Discovery House, 1995.

In this classic on discipleship, Stedman draws principles from  Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. He helps us discover the dynamic purpose of the church and the exciting role we have to play in the body of Christ.

The Permanent Revolution by Alan Hirsch and Tim Catchim. Jossey-Bass, 2012.

Hirsch and Catchim's book is one of the more controversial that I'm delving into. The  authors draw from biblical studies, theology, organizational theory, leadership studies, and the social sciences, to make a case for on the abiding significance of the Ephesians 4 vocations of apostle, prophet, evangelist, shepherd and teacher in God's church.

The Equipping Church: Serving Together to Transform Lives by Sue Mallory. Zondervan, 2016.

Mallory wants us to imagine the  church as a place where the priesthood of believers finds its expression in creative and powerful ways. She describes the benefits, the structure, and the culture of an equipping church and shows how a congregation can become one. 

Unfinished Business: Returning Ministry to the People of God by Greg Ogden. Zondervan, 2003.

The Reformation restored the Scriptures to the people, but Ogden argues that the job was only halfway finished. Today the church is awakening to the truth that ministry is not just the domain of clergy, but belongs to the entire body of Christ. Ogden shows how each of us is called to express the priesthood of every believer practically in the church, the world, and all avenues of life.

What are the best books you've read about equipping others and making disciples? Are there any you'd suggest adding to my list? Leave a comment to let me know below.