At times, I consider year round baseball (especially here in Texas) to be the bane of Sunday morning worship. More and more I seem to see parents of children choose softball, baseball, or some other athletic venture over worship on Sunday mornings. In some ways, I understand. Consider the following:
1. Athletics demand investment by parents and their children. Parents shell out a lot of money for their kids to play sports. There are usually fees to be paid to the association. Some have to buy uniforms. Parents have to pay for equipment. Once you start investing money into something, it's hard to walk away from something you paid for. But it's not only money. Athletics demands investment of your time. If you don't practice, you don't play. Doesn't make any difference what other commitments you might have in your life--the sport comes first, and if you want your shot, you've got to pay the price.
Contrast that with the Church. What demands do most congregations make on their members? Usually, we make it as easy as possible to be a part of a congregation. Mostly, it's because of our theology of grace. We believe a Christian's response to the good news of Jesus Christ should flow naturally without compulsion. Worship is such a response. Monetary giving is such a response. Continued learning and growing is such a response. It's not mandatory. God's not going to stop loving you because you cease doing these things. And, honestly, there's not much reprisal in congregations either. My own congregation's constitution states that the requirement for keeping one's membership is to worship at least once per year and give a single contribution to the church of time, talent, or treasure in that year. Technically, one could worship one time and give one dollar and be a member in good standing. And some folks don't even fulfill that! Yet, has my congregation ever dropped anyone? You guessed it. Nope. Essentially, most congregations demand nothing out of their members. They ask them to pay no price. They leave it up to the responsibility and generosity of their people. And when the rubber starts hitting the road, the one place that makes no demands gets left behind.
2. Athletics elicits an emotional investment and offers hope without major disappointment. No baseball team heads into a game thinking, "We're gonna get beat, and get beat badly." Sports is chalk full of stories about the underdogs taking out the heavily favored. There is always an Appalachian State ready to defeat a Michigan. It happens over and over again. Hope is never lost. And, even in defeat, there is always the next game or the next season. And even if one is at the end of one's tenure, everyone knows someone has to win and someone has to lose. If you end up on the short end of the stick, that doesn't mean you have to give up your love of the game. Because there is only one winner, you expect to come out on the short end at times, so there is no overall disappointment. It's part of the game. Furthermore, when it comes to team playing, players, coaches, and (some) parents realize they have to cooperate and make sacrifices for the good of the team. They know and understand it's not about me. There is no I in team. In order for a team to function in athletics, not everyone can be the superstar. Someone has to sing harmony. Someone has to do the less glamorous dirty work. Someone has to bunt and move the runners on even if thrown out. Sacrifices and giving up of expectations are part of the overall process to ensure a good team--and ensure victory.
Contrast this with our congregations--especially here in the U.S. How many folks are willing to emotionally invest in their congregations? How many folks are willing to care deeply about the fortunes of their home church and work diligently to make it thrive? How may people care more about what they can do for the church instead of what the church can do for them? How many people realize disappointment is a part of congregational life as well?
The politics and divisiveness of the culture has invaded the sphere of the church, and many congregations and denominations have divisions within along cultural lines. Unfortunately, these divisions get played out as issues arise in congregations and denominations. Votes are cast. Some people win. Some people lose. As this happens over and over again, people become more and more emotionally distant from their congregations. Two things eventually happen: either they just quit or go and join a different congregation whose ideas align much more closely with their own. It's much, much easier to quit the team and find another when it comes to church--especially if I don't invest emotionally in it. And, if I don't emotionally invest in it, I have no reason to search for hope. I have no reason to look forward to another year or another "season." I can allow disappointment to govern how I feel about a congregation because I can either quit (seemingly without consequences) or join another team (who usually is all to happy to see me).
3. Athletics stresses the importance of practice and working hard to get better. All kinds of contraptions exist to make a person a better thrower, catcher, batter, kicker, or what have you. And a whole lot of people take athletics seriously enough to devote hours of their spare time to do these things. (See reason #1 and #2 above.) They have a drive to get better so the team can be better. They are willing to put the time and effort into their sport. It's rewarding to see one's pitching speed increase; one's accuracy get better; and one's 40 time decrease. There is something satisfying in being able to say, "I'm doing better."
Contrast this with life in the church. Are we ever told we're doing better? As I think about my life as a pastor, I wonder how many times I've told someone, "You know, I've really seen you grow in your faith walk." (I'm wracking my brain on that one. I'm not sure I've ever said it. This is not good. Of course, no one's ever said they've seen me grow either. That's not good as well.) Yet, how many of those of us who are church goers invest the time in being better Christians?* How many folks use the tools of discipline to grow in their discipleship: prayer, fasting, Bible study, worship, service, confession, solitude, etc? How often do we reflect upon our days and say, "Yes, I've seen my ability to care and be compassionate increase! I've seen my ability to be generous increase! I've seen my trust in God grow!" How many of us put in hours of work to strive to be better Christians and church members?
* One must be careful here. There is often a tendency among many Christians to believe that because we excel in some areas of good works--in morality, in giving, in justice, etc. that we have a right to hold our heads high. One must always remember two very important things: 1. A Christian never fully overcomes sin in this lifetime, and this should keep us humble. 2. Jesus himself showed that a sinless life did not lead to conceit or lording status over another, but it led to self-sacrifice, love, and forgiveness for those who were sinful. If being a better Christian means being more like Jesus, then no Christian should ever hold another in contempt.
I see and understand why athletics oftentimes takes precedence over congregational life. Yet, will I change the way I operate in my congregation? Will I suddenly start demanding that people give and worship and attend Bible study, etc.? Will I harp on people for skipping church? No. Adults make choices. I have to give them freedom to make those choices even if I don't agree with them. I cannot control others; I can only control myself.
At one time, athletics was very important to me as well. I would have chosen them over congregational worship at a heartbeat. But I had parents who put their feet down and said, "Church comes first." For better or worse, I will follow in their footsteps with my children. I'm sure I'll endure their wrath at some point, but I want my children to understand what is most important in life. God is first. Even when it seems like athletics offers more.
(Tomorrow, God Versus Baseball--Why God Wins)