By David Mitchell
I don’t watch much college basketball. When I do watch, I like to watch during “March Madness,” college basketball’s national championship tournament. This tournament is when players bring out their best. Teams and players work harder and play better partly because the stakes are higher and partly because the tournament is “one and done.” If you lose once, you go home. The competition really focuses everyone’s efforts. That focus is one of the good things about competition.
We often show God our love by service to others. When we want to let the world know about our love, we perform service for those less fortunate. These days there are a lot of less fortunate. Why not a “Church March Madness” that would be service related, with points awarded according to the hours spent helping others?
Could competition focus churches and church members the same way March Madness focuses people on basketball? Could we get people to put in extra effort? Could we get them to think outside the box and do more? Maybe a tournament just like March Madness (but without the betting pools) would do the trick.
Competition has plenty of disadvantages, but it has lots of advantages too. Competition encourages innovation. It makes us think about how we can be better and what “better” really means. Pushing us out of our comfort zone, competition keeps us from getting too complacent. For short periods of time it can help us focus. It can build cooperation by encouraging teamwork. It creates a sense of external urgency and drama. It is a measuring stick. You assume you’re doing great, but maybe you’re really not. Competition lets you find out your own weakness. You get to watch what the other guy does and see if you can copy it.
Every church does some sort of social service. But could those churches step up their game during the month of March? Could they focus their attention, be more innovative, get out of their comfort zone, and use the urgency to see what they are really about? Could they do that for one whole month per year?
There may be other ways to measure who’s doing the most service besides measuring hours. But how we ultimately score this competition would be easy enough to work out.
While the NCAA hires referees, in this case it might be better to follow the leadership of Ultimate Frisbee instead. In Ultimate Frisbee the players themselves keep track of the scoring, calling fouls, and resolving disputes. That makes sense for a church competition.
In college basketball a “Cinderella” is not a character from a fairy tale. It is a small school that hardly anyone’s ever heard of that, against the odds, goes deep into the tournament by besting better known teams. Fifteenth seed Lehigh beat the mighty Duke Blue Devils in 2012; Eleventh seed George Mason made a Final Four run in 2006; my favorite was in 2010 when tenth seed Saint Mary’s beat No. 2 Villanova. March Madness is made for upsets.
In basketball I see people checking message boards, Facebook, and Twitter every day to find out all the news. In Church March Madness you could do all of that and more. Instead of coming home and succumbing to the couch, people would do community service and then log their activities into a website each night. Wake up in the morning and see how the competition is doing. Is the church across town beating you? Time to organize some friends to work at the food bank, visit shut-ins, or tutor kids. Maybe you can sell hamburgers to raise money for Heifer International.
I can hardly wait to check my phone to see if Hope United UCC is beating Pulaski Heights United Methodist in Little Rock, Ark., or not.
This could also be the chance for one person to have an amazing effect by taking a real leadership role. In 2008 Stephen Curry played for little ol’ Davidson College—a 10 seed. He scored 40 points to upset Gonzaga in the first round. Then Curry led Davidson to upset No. 2 Georgetown and No. 3 Wisconsin. Davidson College didn’t beat Kansas, but with Curry’s 25 points it was close. Who in your church is looking for a chance to step up and show some leadership like Stephen Curry?
There are some problems with competition, too. It can create ill will. Losers feel bad. Competition can shift the focus from the means to the quantifiable outcomes. People could focus on counting the service hours instead of actually helping others. But most unpaid college players play simply for the love of the game. Most won’t make it to the NBA or any other professional league. Surely for one month, church members can do as well as college kids.
Remember the goal of Church March Madness is to get people out of their comfort zone, to have fun, to help others, and to love God. There’s no NBA contract at the end. Even if your church comes in last, you still came together and served.
Not only is March the apex of NCAA hoops; it’s also the time when Christians are getting ready to celebrate Easter. What better way to honor the Risen Lord than to serve His people?
David Mitchell is a professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas and the son of a UCC minister.