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.  ↩

The Coming of the Lord -- Lectionary Meditation

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12

Luke 19:1-10

The Coming of the Lord

Whenever preachers look at the week’s lectionary texts they tend to look for any common threads.  Sometimes, in our eagerness to find the threads, we push the envelope, and I suppose that I could be accused of that in titling today’s meditation.  Except that each of the texts, even the Gospel text, speaks of the coming of the Lord.  It is true that in Luke’s gospel, the Lord is simply inviting himself over for dinner at Zacchaeus’s house, but it still has that “eschatological flavor” that is present in the other two texts.  In the Lord’s coming, there is salvation.  And salvation involves or leads to righteousness – a word that needs defining.

The Habakkuk text closes with the phrase “The righteous shall live by faith,” a phrase that is repeated in Romans 1:17 (not the lectionary reading for the week).  This phrase proved troubling to Martin Luther, who saw in it the possibility of “work’s righteousness,” and so he wanted to emphasize the faith part of it, and insist that whatever righteousness is involved, that righteousness comes from Christ and not our own works.  But that doesn’t seem to be the concern of Habakkuk.  In these two brief selections from this so-called Minor Prophet, we hear the cry of a suffering people, who were witnessing in their midst violence, wrong-doing, and trouble-making.  Indeed, considering the political bickering of the moment, these words stand out:  “strife and contention arise.”  The prophet is wondering when God will respond, going as far as declaring that he would stand at his watch post and keep watch until God answers his complaint.  It is then that the Lord responds, telling him to write down a vision on a tablet that the runner can take around to the people.  And the word that came to the people was this:  “If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come.  It will not delay.”  And then comes the kicker – be sure to look at the proud, for their spirit isn’t right – but “the righteous will live by faith.”  And what is faith?  It is living by trusting God?  What is righteousness?  It is God’s justice – God’s commitment to the poor and the marginalized of society.  It may not have been what Luther had in mind at the time, but that seems to be what was on Habakkuk’s mind.

The second text, the one that comes from 2 Thessalonians serves as a response to concerns that the “parousia” or the return of Christ had already come.  To use the title of a recent series of “apocalyptic themed books” they were afraid they had been “Left Behind,” and so the author (presumably Paul, but there are questions about authorship) offers a word of assurance.  Don’t worry, because before anything like that happens you’ll start seeing the signs of rebellion and the rise of the lawless one, who will seat himself on God’s throne in the Temple, declaring himself to be God.  But, don’t get too concerned, and don’t be alarmed by any “spirit, word, or letter” claiming to be from us declaring that the “day of the Lord” is already here.  The Lord is coming, but don’t believe everything you hear.  But the word that we need to hear comes at the end, in verses 11-12, which offers a word a judgment against those who take “pleasure in unrighteousness.”  That is, those who fail to believe the truth and follow the Lawless One by living lives of unrighteousness.  And what is meant by unrighteousness?  Surely the definition is rooted in the message of the prophets, who call on the people of God to act justly toward those who are poor, to the widow, and the orphan.

Finally, we come to the story of Zacchaeus, one of the best known stories in the New Testament.  We know this story because Zacchaeus seems to always be the butt of “short-people” jokes.  He’s so short, he has to climb a tree to see Jesus.  But it should be noted that this story falls on the heels of the previous week’s lectionary text where the attitudes of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector are compared.  The Pharisee is sure of his own righteousness and needs no help from God; while the tax collector humbly asks that God take mercy on him, for he is a miserable sinner.  Now, in this text, which follows on that parable, we meet up with a real tax collector who is keen on seeing Jesus.  And, as a result the Lord decides to come to his house.  Although the “righteous” folks in town are scandalized that Jesus would hang out with a sinner, Zacchaeus, the chief tax agent in Jericho, is so pleased by Jesus’ willingness to come to his house that he vows to change his life.  And how might he do this?  He commits himself to giving half of his possessions to the poor (an act of righteousness) and will repay those he has defrauded four times the amount that he had taken from them (considering that this is how he made his money – the profit that lies beyond what he had to give to Rome, he was essentially doing what Jesus asked of the rich young man (Luke 17:18ff) – he committed himself to giving everything he had and in return Jesus says that salvation had come to this house.  He had committed himself to live by faith and doing so had become righteous.

The two messages that are embedded in these texts are these:  First, the day of the Lord is coming, so keep watch, because God is faithful and will come at the appropriate time.  And second the “righteous shall live by faith,” which means that if we’re trusting our lives into the care of God, we should live in the interim period in such a way that the righteousness of God will be on display – a righteousness that is illustrated by the decisions made by Zacchaeus.

By Bob Cornwall

Bob Cornwall is Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)of Troy, MI and Editor ofSharing the Practice, the journal of the Academy of Parish Clergy. Holder of a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary, he loves to write, having authored several books, with a book on the Lord’s Prayer due out in November.  Besides contributing to this blog, he writes nearly every day at his personal blogPonderings on a Faith Journey, as well as contributing regularly to the Christian Century blogTheolog.