Why Churches Should Stop Reading the Box Scores

Wrigley Field bw.jpg

By Derek Penwell

[In honor of Opening Day, a reflection from the archive.]

Patience is not a purchasable commodity.

And if you think it is, you’re both–probably in the market and unlikely to find it.

"Well, that’s just dumb. Of course, you can’t buy patience."

Ok. Maybe that’s a bit of a straw man. After all, nobody’s under the misimpression that you can go to Wal-Mart and pick up the econo-size box O' patience.

On the other hand, there are plenty of people willing to part with the money to purchase things that they think will make patience irrelevant, people willing to buy stuff that promises to do for them what only patience and hard work can actually accomplish.

Why do you think people buy Thigh Masters and soon-to-be-lapsed gym memberships in January?

I remember years ago, just after I quit smoking, thinking, “I wish I had years of non-smoking under my belt, right now.”

It doesn’t work that way, though. If you want to be an ex-smoker, there’s no shortcut, beyond just piling up time not smoking.

Patience is difficult, just to the extent that it's an admission that some things lie outside the realm of our control. It would be nice to think that engineering outcomes through cleverness or sheer force of will is always a possibility. Alas, some things can’t be planned into submission, just because we really want them.

That is not to offer excuses for not planning, which is usually an integral part of achieving one’s goals. It is, rather, a caveat to remind us that no matter how passionate or how well organized, success at some things cannot be achieved absent the bone-crushing passage of time.

The need for patience is no less necessary when it comes to congregational transformation.

As with diet and exercise, there’s a whole industry that has made a lot of money playing to people’s impatience when it comes to healthy congregations. Now, I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that all commercial efforts to help churches heal are cynical attempts to aid the process whereby churches and their money are soon parted. I’m not necessarily questioning anyone’s sincerity who makes a living telling congregations how to get healthy. I think there can be no denying, however, that it would be much tougher to sell books and seminars in this industry without the obdurate cultural belief that something can be had for nothing–or at least, if not “nothing,” then very little in the way of an investment in time and hard work.

Here’s the thing: Healthy turnarounds in diets and congregations are measured in unsatisfying increments of time–which is to say, time that extends beyond people’s initial enthusiastic expectations. There’s no healthy way, for example, to lose 25 pounds in a week–except, perhaps, with the excision of a particularly rare tumor or some such. Likewise, congregations, which often measure health in purely quantifiable ways (membership, budget, worship attendance, etc.) pay too much attention to the box scores, thinking that–given the recent visioning process, or the new youth minister hire, or the addition of a “praise band”–increasingly large numbers must surely be just around the corner.

Box scores, while a helpful metric for judging performance in baseball, don’t always tell the whole tale in the church (or necessarily even in baseball). Eagle-eyeing the box scores is a symptom of impatience, of believing that congregational health is reducible to numbers.[1] The goal of baseball is winning, not piling up impressive statistics.

The truth of the matter is, though, impatience in the case of congregational transformation can be deadly, because it continues to place unrealistic expectations on systems incapable of living up to them. Practically speaking, it is neither realistic nor healthy for churches to expect steroidal box scores tomorrow–or by the next time we draw up the budget. Living life by box scores is a recipe for despair.  Believe me.  I know.  I'm a Chicago Cubs fan.

Not only is impatience a practical problem, though; it’s a theological one. Patience is a theological virtue for a reason. Christians are an eschatological people–which is to say, Christians are a people caught between the “now” and the “not yet,” between the “promise” and the “fulfillment.” We live with the paradox that the war has already been won, when all signs seem to indicate that the battle is still being waged. We are called to a radical hope that can only be sustained by a patience that allows us to say, “We can’t quite yet see how God is working out God’s purposes, but we will continue to live as though those purposes are already accomplished.”

Impatience, when it comes to congregational transformation, from a theological perspective, is the damning admission that our hope in God has been supplanted by our confidence in our own resources to produce the results we think are most important–that is, box scores. That’s the rub: Our impatience is not only a statement about who we are and what we think we’re capable of, it’s also an implicit assertion about who God is and what God is capable of—or, perhaps better, what God is incapable of.

A people shaped by hope cannot but cultivate patience as the very virtue that most clearly articulates a belief that our lives (and the lives of our congregations) are not our own–they are a gift. And there’s no way to quantify that gift in such a way that it will fit in a box score.

  1. Yes, I realize keeping an eye on those numbers is important. My argument is not that those numbers are unimportant, but that they’re not definitive.  ↩