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According to the traditional American sports calendar, this is baseball’s big month.
Falling leaves and pumpkin patches have always been associated with the World Series.
“Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet,” according to the automaker’s famous commercial jingle, represent the heart of America – so seamlessly interwoven into our lives that baseball became known as the National Pastime. It wasn’t long ago that virtually every kid knew which teams were hot, which teams were not, and which stars were poised to make history in October.
But that day has come and gone. Football, basketball, soccer, and lacrosse are now the “cool” sports at most schools.
Baseball’s playoffs used to be a simple, dramatic World Series showdown between the respective champions of the American and National Leagues. Nowadays, each league generates six post-season contenders. Can you name all 12 of this year’s playoff teams? Even for sports junkies, it’s not easy.
Compared to a half century ago, baseball has faded from the national conversation.
My three sons are all sports fans, and they each played a variety of sports as they grew up. But they never became baseball fans.
OK, before you tear up my Dad Card, you should know that I tried really hard. “Watch this,” I would say as we fixed our eyes on a TV broadcast. “The pitcher is holding the runner on first base. He’s thinking, ‘I wonder if he’s about to attempt a steal.’ The runner is thinking, “I wonder if he’s going into a long windup, which will give me time to go.’ The catcher is thinking, ‘I’ve got to be ready to throw down to second base.’ And the batter is thinking, ‘If he throws me another fastball, I’m going to poke it behind the runner into right field.’ All that’s happening at the same time. Isn’t that fascinating?”
“No, Dad,” they would say. “It’s really boring. Everybody’s thinking, but nobody is doing anything!”
Apparently a lot of moms and dads had similar conversations with their kids. Younger generations have largely turned toward other kinds of sports entertainment – games that move more quickly.
Baseball finally responded. Pitchers are now “on the clock,” incurring penalties if they don’t throw the next pitch soon enough. If a game should go to extra innings, each team begins with a runner on second base. These adaptations seem to be working. The average game is now almost 30 minutes shorter than previous years.
Will baseball win new fans, as well as win back some of those who drifted away? That remains to be seen.
In the meantime, some of the sport’s faithful defenders are lamenting the changes. Pitchers no longer have to appear at the plate. Both leagues now mandate a designated hitter who doesn’t have to take the field. What will happen next? Will baseball’s overlords go too far and do something that will compromise the very soul of the game?
In a number of ways, church attendance has become a bit like baseball attendance.
Church used to be a “given” in American culture. The primacy of our cultural Christendom was such that Sunday was widely regarded as off-limits for shopping, drinking, and public sporting events. Religious affiliation was a cherished national pastime, and was central to workplace and neighbor-to-neighbor conversation.
But those days have faded from view. Worship attendance is now just one of many weekend options. Polls show that church involvement is in a long, slow slide.
From one perspective, this is a welcome development. Followers of Jesus have no entitlement to preferential religious treatment. Christians are called to influence our culture as salt and light, not to dominate it to the exclusion of other ways of thinking and living.
All the same, church leaders are wondering how to respond.
Some congregations are doubling down on their creeds, rituals, and traditions. There is evidence that younger generations are looking for something “older than their grandparents,” and are drawn to the Good News as revealed in the beauty of Catholic and Orthodox liturgy.
Other churches have chosen adaptation. They are endeavoring to become landing places for spiritual searchers, and are open to adjusting things like music style, sermon length, and even their brand of coffee to become more attractive.
Brett McCracken, the senior editor and director of communications for The Gospel Coalition, notes that this strategy is marked by many challenges – including issues that go right to the heart of the Gospel.
Western culture is still captive to the consumer revolution that exploded after World War II. This is the Age of Authenticity, says McCracken – a time when being spiritual means to accept what rings true to my deepest self. That means I’m on the search for a congregation that really “gets me,” a place that will help me succeed in my personal quest to experience the best possible life.
And that’s a problem.
Those coming to worship may be thinking, “I need this church to meet me where I am.” But the church’s essential mission is different. It’s to help people meet Jesus where he is.
The inherent flaw with the search for the perfect church is even more basic than that: I don’t really know what I need. I may have strong preferences about the kind of people I’d like to meet, but in the Body of Christ there will always be men and women who will drive me crazy. And those people – the people of God’s choice – may turn out to be the very traveling companions I need more than anything else.
No church will ever be perfectly tailored to my desires. If its preachers and leaders are faithful to God’s Word, it won’t be long before something they say bothers me. Or flat-out offends me. A faithful church’s job, after all, is to call out the idols that are dominating my life, and to show me how I can find freedom.
There can be only one Lord. That will either be Jesus or my personal spiritual journey. A healthy church will call me to give up the latter in order to seek the former.
And for some people, that will be seriously unpopular. As McCracken notes, “Christian discipleship is not consumer-friendly.”
The temptation for a church to make peace with consumer preferences by downplaying, or downright surrendering, its core identity will always be present. But as baseball diehards remind us, we must not “change the rules” for potential “fans” to such a degree that we end up compromising the very soul of what we have to offer.
It really comes down to this: Should the church be relevant or reverent? The good news is that we really don’t have to make that choice.
That’s because the most relevant thing a gathering of God’s people can ever do is sustain a deep and uncompromising reverence for Christ.
Sure, that’s easy to say, and it’s no easy thing to live out.
But just resolving to make that our mission is nothing less than a grand slam.
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