When I was in high school, I played basketball a lot. Most days I played at school, plus at team training sessions, and often at two or three games each week. While I was a university student, I played on the best team I’ve ever been part of. We trained and played regularly over two years, and twice we won the league we played in.
Twenty-some years later, I still play in a local basketball competition. It’s an “old man’s league” (players over 30 years old), but it’s a good way to stay active and maintain the incentive to exercise between games. However, it isn’t just because I’m older and slower that the standard of play is different. Life is different—busier, and with different priorities. I rarely practice, and I have even fewer opportunities to train with a team.
Over the past summer, with the summer vacation break in our competition, a game canceled here and there, and the heat and other commitments I had, I went through a period of fully three months between games before returning to play a couple more games at the end of the same season. And I hadn’t so much as touched a basketball since the last time I’d played. As would be expected, my first game back wasn’t much to watch (if our games ever were!), and it was frustrating. The ball just didn’t seem to go where I wanted it to go the way it had before, nor did it do what I wanted it to do.
The practice of faith
I guess I could be labeled a nonpracticing basketball player. I still turn up to play games occasionally, and I still enjoy watching basketball games, but I do little to develop or even maintain my skills and fitness.
It’s the kind of language we use to describe people who might maintain some cultural or sentimental attachment to faith, but it isn’t something they do on a regular basis. Depending on their faith tradition, they might be described as nonpracticing, nominal, nonobservant, or perhaps even lapsed. But it’s the same idea—and, unfortunately, it’s quite common.
For example, according to the Gallup Organization, 71 percent of Americans describe themselves as some kind of Christian. However, only 42 percent of these attend church regularly. Not that church attendance is the only measure of practicing faith, but it’s obviously a significant marker. There’s enough of a gap here to suggest that a lot of nonpractice is being practiced.
And this is critical to our understanding of the practice of faith. We aren’t focused merely on doing our faith but also on practicing it. It’s the same urging that comes from parents and teachers with every childhood music lesson, the demand of every coach you ever had in any sporting endeavor, and the key to success in all activities that require the development of a skill, expertise, or strength. It’s even how we originally learned to walk and to talk. We get better at it by practicing it regularly.
And this, I think, is probably the most important way to understand the practice of faith: we get better at it by doing it. It will probably feel awkward and unnatural at first. As we begin to experiment with the practice of faith, we may be unsure whether we’re doing it “right,” and it will probably lack the eloquence and assuredness of more experienced believers.
On the other hand, we beginners may bring an enthusiasm and energy to faith that some more experienced believers are in danger of losing, which is one of the key reasons that faith is best practiced together. We can learn from and be inspired by one another at the various points in our practice of faith.
Most worthwhile things in life require work, attention, priority, and effort. It’s easy to fall in love, but it takes practice to grow that love into a maturing and enduring relationship. Similarly, it takes practice to incorporate faith, hope, and love into our lives and to get better at incorporating these aspects of spirituality into our lives.
Faith is the practice of living as though our Christian experience is true, and as we practice this way of life, it increasingly becomes natural.
Not practicing our faith
This is why the “practice” of not practicing is also significant. If we don’t practice our religious faith, that’s what we’ll get better at. I have a friend whose father was his long-time basketball coach, and his father warned him against taking careless shots. “Don’t practice missing,” he said. “You might get good at it.”
There’s a self-affirmation in what we spend our time doing, focusing on, and investing in—and what we don’t invest our time in. So we should consider carefully the faith or nonfaith that we’re choosing to practice.
As humans, we naturally invest in what we believe in, but we also grow to believe increasingly in that which we invest our time and practice in.
Despite my slower reflexes and rickety knees, still, the more I practice basketball—if I choose to make that a priority—the more shots I tend to get in the basket, the greater the possibility I have of playing on a winning team, and the more likely I’ll enjoy playing and keep playing. In short, my faith makes more sense when I practice it.
The more we practice faith and choose to make this a priority, the more likely it is to be a real, valued, relevant, and sustainable part of our lives. And the more it will speak to and transform our lives and our world.