Among the fascinating jobs I held while "finding myself" after college was as a houseparent for a golf school. It was especially interesting for me since my peak as an athlete was in the Island Rec Center's youth soccer league. (One day, the ball accidentally hit my foot and I made a goal, much to the shock of my coach who, despite being my dad, was realistic about my foot-eye coordination.) Years later, surrounded by athletes aspiring to be professionals in their field, I had a lot to learn.
A common mantra at the school was "champions are trained, not born." Interacting with the students and watching them eat, sleep and breathe golf, I realized how true this was. While all had a certain level of natural talent that they were working from, it was both their commitment -- and the commitment of their families -- that would produce champions.
As a youth minister, I believe the motto that "champions are trained, not born" can be applied to youth and religion as well. I don't think any parent aspires for their children to grow up and stop praying, following the Ten Commandments or attending church, yet the habits formed very young are a foundation for adolescence and adulthood. I observed some principles that seem to occur naturally when trying to "train champions" in athletics that can foster good spiritual habits as well.
First of all, parents have tremendous influence. The majority of the students began playing golf because their parents introduced them to the sport.
Behind all the eye-rolling, sighs of disbelief and general lack of enthusiasm, kids really care about and imitate their parents. When they witness their parents praying and participating in church, it makes a tremendous impression, demonstrating that maturity does not mean abandonment but a deepening of spirituality.
Sometimes practicing one's faith becomes difficult. There are questions that are hard to answer, rules that are challenging to understand or it starts to seem boring. The students I monitored were sent to golf school by their parents for the coaching -- knowing that they needed help fine-tuning their game. In the same way, there are many great "coaches" available for families when they face challenges in their faith. Pastors, youth and family ministers, Sunday school teachers and many others are at churches because they want to help you. There are many who have had the same struggles as you, and they're ready to walk through it with you -- just like a good coach will help you practice to get a game just right.
As one of the lucky drivers who got to shuttle students to the course at 6:30 a.m., I was amazed at the schedule athletes adhere to. Regardless of how late they had stayed up the night before, what the weather was like or if their second cousin was getting married that weekend, nothing kept these kids away from their game. Watching them trudge to the greens, bleary-eyed, before the sun had fully risen, I would reflect that this is what separates "champions" from folks who pursue a sport as a hobby.
Imagine if we approached the practice of our faith with the same intensity that we pursue other things in our life. Consider the vigilance we take in getting kids to sport's practices, walking the dog or even setting the DVR. These are all important, but none as critical as the state of our eternal, immortal soul. Just like nothing kept these kids from the putting green, nothing should keep us from worship on Sunday.
"Champions are trained, not born" and faith, while a free gift from God, will flounder if it's not nurtured through good role models, instruction and practice. When you consider the eternal consequences, it's the most important investment we'll make in our lifetimes.