John Buckeridge on how a winning team needs the right balance of optimism and reality

Goal! It wasn’t the cold that made me shiver, even though the bitter wind cut through my coat as I huddled by the touchline. It was the realisation that having pulled a goal back, Southside, my youngest son’s football team, was right back in the match. I try not to go over the top, but yes, I am one of those dads who cheers and shouts when watching his kids play sport!

Even though they were still losing, with the score at 3-1, things were a whole lot better than 3-0 down. Scoring did more than narrow the deficit. Even though the opposition were mostly stronger and more skilful, the goal proved they were beatable.

Southside grew visibly in confidence. “Come on lads,” I yelled, “you can beat them. Let’s score another one.” And they did. Southside ended up winning a game that most onlookers thought they would surely lose.

Tactics, fitness levels, bringing on a good substitute, an unexpected mistake by the opposition goalie, a weird decision by the ref – lots of factors can result in a lead swapping. But with 12- and 13-yearold boys, the most important factor is confidence. When a team of lads begins to believe they have a chance of winning, confidence soars and things can turn around quickly.

As my colleague Ruth Dickinson and I prepared the cover feature this month, I was struck by the differing levels of confidence people have about the state of the UK Church right now.

Some were a little downbeat, highlighting the problems, the areas of disunity and the stresses within evangelicalism and the wider Christian scene. Steve Clifford, the new Evangelical Alliance (EA) general director, who takes over from Joel Edwards next month, told me he was a ‘glass half full’ sort of man – aware of the problems yet upbeat about the opportunities. On the other hand, some leaders I speak to are overly positive, unrealistic, even in denial, about declining numbers and the attitudes of the public, government and media towards us.

Team talks from leaders, whether on the football field or in our churches, need to be positive and encouraging, yet grounded and aware of the opposition – even if that means constructive criticism and calling for tactical changes. This balanced leadership can lift a performance, give hope, win points, hearts, minds and souls.

Of course, with God on our side we have the ultimate advantage. There are numerous examples from scripture and church history that show how God can, and sometimes does, miraculously step in and transform defeat into victory. But God always works through people – and sometimes we get it wrong. Right now it seems to me that the UK Church is scraping a draw at best, and in places is in decline and defeat. That’s just one reason we should pray for and support the team captains who carry a huge burden of responsibility, whether they are church leaders or heads of organisations like the EA. Let’s pray they hit a good balance which includes optimism, hope and reality checks, while the rest of us take up our responsibilities with the confidence that comes from relying on the truth and reliability of God’s promises about the final result (Hebrews 7:25).