Swinging for the Fences

Is your church really preparing people to play the game Jesus is calling them to?

I recall playing a season of tee ball at some point during my elementary school career. I only remember a couple things about that experience. One, I was older than most of the other kids and two, despite that fact, and the whole ball-sitting-still-on-a-tee thing; I wasn’t very good.

I was in a meeting recently and we were asked to list the things that were necessary for discipleship to occur. We tend to talk a lot about discipleship nowadays, largely because we know that something is amiss in our experience and practice of it today. We sense the sharp difference between the common experience of church membership and the call to discipleship Jesus makes in the Gospels.

Our conversation veered toward the challenge in many churches where people seem more intent on receiving services, and with keeping up appearances, than upon giving or serving in risk-taking ways. As we talked, it struck me that the people in the pews might not be the problem. Instead, isn’t it actually true that pastors and other leaders are changing the rules of the game on them?

At some point in the 20th century much of mainline Protestantism decided that it had reached the Promised Land. We were respectable, had wonderful buildings, and the resources to match our ministry imaginations. Of course, this arrival was the result of the prayers and faithful sacrifice of the generations that went before. Content and overly optimistic, the rules of the discipleship game changed. We began to play tee ball.

I may not have been a tee ball batting all-star but it is actually pretty simple to do. The baseball rests on a tee and you swing your bat at it; often you get to swing at it for as long as it takes to make contact. Sadly, this is the type of discipleship we have in most of our churches. And this is the game, and most importantly the unspoken set of rules, so many of the faithful have lived with most of their lives. They may have sensed that discipleship was supposed to be something more but we professionalized that sentiment for the few; maybe the pastor or those nice missionaries in Africa.

Tee ball was never a sufficient form of discipleship, even when we could afford to pretend it was the game we were supposed to be playing .
Tee ball was never a sufficient form of discipleship, even when we could afford to pretend it was the game we were supposed to be playing .

As I unpacked this metaphor, what struck me wasn’t how silly these people all are but how foolish we can be as leaders when we fail to acknowledge that we are changing the rules of the game. We take away the tee, grab the baseball, and in some cases invite a MLB All-Star to the mound and have the gall to be shocked when the people grumble.

I don’t say all of this to suggest that we don’t need to change the rules. We do. Tee ball was never a sufficient form of discipleship, even when we could afford to pretend it was the game to play.

But once you’ve hit a ball and noticed how much farther it flies when the velocity that was bearing down toward you in the pitch is suddenly turned and amplified by the impact of a well swung hit – well, I suspect you’d never be able to imagine that tee ball is the same game as baseball again.

After years of decline, we in the church must finally acknowledge that we need more people playing for real than a select, professional few. God’s kin(g)dom, and the many who still thirst for justice and the basic necessities of life, always needed our full complement of players swinging for the fences – sometimes looking foolish but at other times transforming the world in significant ways.

While we’ve been busy playing tee ball, others have stepped forward to the plate and they are swinging their bats because they recognize the need we have too often ignored. But as any baseball aficionado is aware, even the best players strike out more often than they hit. It is very easy to get discouraged by the overwhelming nature of injustice in this world.

This is the very place where the church had historically been adept; providing mutual encouragement and places for ‘batting practice.’

I believe the church needs generous teachers who can graciously move among our long-time members, helping them to understand that God is calling us to the real deal. We may also need little-league pitching for some of our churches so they can experience those first hits before becoming discouraged at the metaphorical plate.

Finally, we may also need to recognize that some people may just want to play a different game. While similar in many ways, tee ball and baseball do operate with different rules and some people may decide that it isn’t the game they signed up for. We need to move past the animosity we sometimes feel when this happens, recognizing that even Jesus let people walk away.

Photo credits: “Swung on and belted…” by Flickr user clappstar. “Home Plate” by Flickr user StuSteeger.

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