When I was at high school, I played basketball a lot—most days at school, then team training sessions and often two or three games each week. At university, I played on the best team I have been part of. We trained and competed regularly over two years, and twice won our league championship.
Twenty-odd years later, I still play in a local basketball competition. It’s an “old man’s league”—over 30s—but it’s a good way to stay active and incentive to exercise between games. But it isn’t only because I am older and slower that the standard of play is different. Life is different—busier and with different priorities—and I practise rarely, with even fewer opportunities to train with a team.
Over the past summer, with the school-holiday break in our competition, perhaps a game cancelled due to heat and other commitments that I had, I went through a period of fully three months without playing before returning to a couple more games at the end of the season. I had not so much as touched a basketball in that time so, as would be expected, my first game back wasn’t pretty to watch—if our games ever are—and was frustrating for me. The ball just didn’t seem to do what I intended quite so readily.
I guess I could be labelled a non-practising basketballer. I still turn up to play games occasionally—and I still enjoy watching basketball games—but I do little to maintain or develop my skills or fitness. It’s the kind of language we use to describe people who might maintain some cultural or sentimental attachment to faith but it’s not something they do regularly. Depending on their faith tradition, they might be described as non-practising, nominal, non-observant or perhaps even lapsed. But it’s the same idea—and it’s quite common.
For example, according to the 2016 census, 52.1 per cent of Australia’s population describe themselves as some kind of Christian. However, somewhere below 10 per cent of Australians attend church even semi-regularly. Not that church attendance is the only measure of practising faith, but it is one obvious marker. There is enough of a gap here to suggest there is a lot of non-practising being practised.
Living out effective faith is not focused merely on the regular round of spiritual activities; there is also forward movement—growth or development—through the other sense of the word “practising.” It’s the urging that came with every childhood music lesson, the demand of any coach you have ever had in any sporting endeavour, or the key to success in all activities that require the development of skill, expertise or strength. It’s even how we originally learn to walk and to talk. We get better at it by practice.
And I think this might be the most important way of understanding the practice of faith. We get better at it by doing it. It is likely to feel awkward and unnatural at first. As we begin to experiment with the practices of faith, we might be unsure if we are doing it “right” and it will probably lack the eloquence or assuredness of more experienced believers. On the other, we might bring an enthusiasm and energy to faith that some more experienced believers can lose—which is one of the key reasons that faith is best practised together. We can learn from and be inspired by each other, at different points in our experience and practice of faith.
Most worthwhile things in life require work, attention, priority and effort. It might be 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 the realities of faith, hope and love into our lives and to get better at living in response, with all their implications. Faith is the practice of living like it’s true and, through its regular practices, this comes to be more natural, more authentic and more true for us.
This is why the practise of non-practising is also significant. If that is what we practise, that is what we will get better at. I have a friend whose father was his long-time basketball coach, who warned him against taking careless shots: “Don’t practise missing, you might get good at it.” There is a self-affirmation in what we spend our time doing, focusing on and investing in—or not. So, we should consider carefully the faith or non-faith that we are choosing to practise. As humans, we naturally invest in what we believe in, but we also grow to believe increasingly in what we invest in and practise.
Despite my slower reflexes and rickety knees, the more I practise basketball—if I choose to make that a priority—the more shots tend to go in, the greater the possibility of playing on a winning team, and the more likely I will enjoy it and keep playing. In short, it makes more sense when I practise.
The more we practise 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.
Nathan Brown is book editor at Signs Publishing Company in Warburton, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.