December 13, 2017

Ballyard Religion

By Chaplain Mike

I had a vision of the evangelical church today. While coaching at my grandson’s Little League game (6-8 year olds), the heavens opened and a lot of things became clear to me, especially:

  • Why it’s so hard to be a Jesus-shaped follower of Christ in America today.
  • Why the evangelical church is not helping in that regard.

I love these kids at the ballyard, and we have all kinds on our team. There’s this tiny kid, Johnny, who just stares at me with a goofy look on his face whenever I try to tell him something. Then he does whatever he wants. We have Big Jimmy, who has grown faster than his peers. He can hit the ball hard, and we have to make sure the younger ones aren’t picking their noses or playing in the dirt when he’s at the plate. Then we have L’il Jeffrey, the small athletic child who is quick as a fox and plays with abandon. Our team has two little girls in the lineup. They are among the younger ones, and they don’t really get this baseball thing yet. Nor do a few of the boys, who dig their spikes around in the dirt, blow bubbles with their gum, and watch what’s happening in the stands as much as what’s on the field.

The majority still can’t catch a fly ball unless it happens to fall directly into the web of their glove. Catchers duck and let the ball go to the backstop rather than making any effort to stop it—if they even see it coming, that is. The concept of a “force out” mostly eludes them. If you ask one of them what he was thinking when he threw the ball to the wrong base, or kept running when the coach told him to stop, he’ll probably shrug his shoulders and say, “I dunno.”

What they do know is that they get to wear a uniform, swing a cool bat, be with a bunch of other kids, and have a snack at the end of the game. They don’t talk much about winning and losing, and when they do, their words don’t reveal much emotion. They’re kids. It’s about having fun. About the only time tears fall is when someone gets embarrassed or is made to feel ashamed for something he’s done or failed to do. Or gets hit by a ball or scared by one.

This is instructional league. Kids are there to learn the basics and have some organized fun. Coaches focus on teaching proper fundamentals. How to hold a bat and swing it. A good batting stance. How to be ready in the field. Throwing at a target instead of just heaving the ball somewhere. Listening to the coach. What to do and where to look when running the bases. We don’t even have “game situations” to worry about at this age. We just play and help kids learn the game. Hit the ball. Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Run. Support your teammates. Be a good sport.

It’s kinda like church, I thought. Just a bunch of kids trying to be like Jesus.

As I stood there in the third bases coaching box, watching one of our young hitters at bat, it suddenly hit me how loud it was. The kids in the field were chanting in chorus, “Hey batter, batter! Hey batter, batter! Hey batter, batter, SWING!” Our team in the dugout raised their own cry, “Here we go, Johnny, here we go (clap, clap)!” Three or four coaches were yelling encouragement and instruction. “Get a rip, Johnny!” “Johnny, back off the plate!” “Get your bat up!” “Watch the ball now!” “Level swing!” Johnny’s parents and other team parents were in on the act too, of course. “C’mon Johnny! Remember how we practiced it! Get your elbow up! Keep your eye on the ball! Let’s go, Johnny! You can do it!” Between pitches, even the coach on the other team, who was standing behind the catcher to help keep the game moving along, would walk up and help our hitter stand himself correctly in the box and hold his bat in proper position.

With each pitch, the cacophony restarted. When Johnny hit the ball, everyone screamed, “Run! Run!” And then a chorus of admonition rose like a wave from the other team’s bench and stands. “Catch the ball, Billy!” “First base, first base!” “Watch the runner going to third!” “Don’t hang on to the ball, throw it!” “Tag him, Mark!”

Mostly, the kids just played while everyone else was yelling for them and at them. It seemed to me that only a small percentage of what was screamed in their direction was heard. They simply tuned it out. Whether the coaches and their parents liked it or not, the players reverted to their own habits and did it their way. A number of them have shown progress by steps over the course of the year, but rarely do you see them alter their stance or do something dramatically different in the midst of a single game.

And suddenly I thought of something else about the contemporary church.

And how we are supposedly trying to help people be like Jesus and follow Jesus.

And it hit me that what we usually do is yell at them and expect them to perform.

This is the evangelical church. It’s ballyard religion.

A new believer comes up to the plate and we yell encouragement and instruction to him.

  • Read your Bible!
  • Pray every day!
  • Make sure you’re in church each Sunday!
  • Take our discipleship training course!
  • Become a member of the church!
  • Get involved and get busy serving the Lord!
  • Be generous with your money! Give to the church!
  • Discover your spiritual gifts!
  • Have a heart for missions!
  • Take a stand on the important cultural issues of the day!
  • (Pick one:) Husbands, love your wives! Wives, submit to your husbands! Children, obey your parents!
  • Become a member of a small group!
  • Listen to Christian music!
  • Go to this special conference we’re holding!

Every time a believer goes to church, attends a small group or Bible study, turns on Christian media, walks into a Christian bookstore, reads a Christian magazine or goes to an online Christian site, attends a Christian conference or concert, or gets together with evangelical friends at a coffee shop, it seems like the conversation is about what we should be doing, what our church should be doing, what Christians should be doing. What book we should be reading. What seminar we should be attending. What Bible study we should participate in. What concert is coming to town. What friends we should be praying for. What political decision is proof positive that America has finally departed completely from God and is going to hell in a hand basket, and what we should do about it.

The pastor is telling me to keep my eye on the ball. My Bible study leader is challenging me to keep a level swing. Various program leaders in the church are saying, “Run! Run!” Leading evangelical spokespersons are telling me I’m doing it wrong and I need to adjust my stance, get my hands up, and step toward the pitcher when I swing.

Everybody is telling me what to do. At the same time. With urgency.

The ethos of evangelicalism has always been that of activism. We are saved to serve. Growing in Christ happens when we exercise properly. There is no shortage of voices calling out help and encouragement. But it’s often like the ballyard. The voices are white noise. It’s hard to pick out anything that will really help me know Jesus better.

In my earlier coaching days, I used to join the chorus of voices. I don’t think I was very effective. Now, when I want to tell a player something, I call his name until he looks me directly in the face. I say one thing that I want to get across, in as simple language as I can muster. I ask, “Do you understand?” Then I say, “Go get ’em!” I try to get a small victory, a miniscule change, a moment of connection.

I’m convinced evangelicalism has a poor understanding of the processes that lead to true spiritual formation in Christ. We don’t need a ballyard full of people yelling out in a cacophonous chorus of encouragement and instruction. We need pastors who visit us and help us know Jesus better. We need friends who let us be ourselves and patiently walk with us in our journeys. We need mentors who will model the way and take us under their wings. We need spiritual directors who will patiently teach us to listen to the quiet voice of the Spirit. We need to learn spiritual practices that will form us and shape us into the image of Jesus.

We need quiet. And slow. And personal. One voice at a time. Face to face. Unhurried conversations. Time. Patience. A willingness to make mistakes, and a willingness to let others do the same. Small victories. Miniscule changes. Moments of connection.

And it all needs to happen in the context of day to day life, because when it comes to faith, that’s where the game is played.

I love the ballyard, I just don’t want to try and practice my faith when everybody’s yelling at me like that.

Comments

  1. I’m convinced that in the end, the theology of glory keeps the new Christian busy, earning, seeking, serving, speculating, rather than accepting and trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross (theology of the cross).

    The cross is the means and the end not a means to the end.

    If only law is preached (what the Christian must do after the cross), they will hop on the treadmill and go until they are burned out.

  2. Enoch Chee says:

    Thanks for sharing, Mike.

  3. and the new law is possibly in the right or wrong way to love.

  4. We are called to love God and our neighbors. Also, by bearing fruits of the Spirit (I did not say legalistic rules imposed on us by Christian pastors) demonstrates that we are genuinely saved. Therefore, the Holy Spirit will enable the Christian to follow Christ’s law and be effective for the world. That is not law but the demands of the gospel.

    • Right, Mark. But I’m not speaking of law vs. grace per se here. I’m talking about the activist spirit of evangelicalism and the constant screaming to do this and that vs. a way of true spiritual formation.

      • Forgive my ignorance, but what is your understanding of “true spiritual formation”?

        • Check out Michael Spencer’s answer in the FAQs to the question: What is Jesus-shaped spirituality?— “A Christianity that Jesus would recognize as being like him, about him and formed around him, not religion.”

          True spiritual formation involves being formed into a person in the community of faith who is coming to know God, not just about him. Who is being formed into a life of wisdom. A life of love. A life of kindness. A life of generosity. A life of contemplation. A life of service to the poor. A life of ultimate optimism, and thus, joy.

          Not a life of frenetic organizational activism or striving to meet the expectations of church culture.

  5. Patrick Lowthian says:

    You’ve been rereading Peterson’s Practice Resurrection, haven’t you?

  6. It’s not just evangelical Christianity yelling at us. Our whole culture has become one big, thundering din of voices, demands, suggestions, criticisms, opinions, manipulations, and meaningless informational bites bombarding us from every direction. Do this! Don’t do that! Eat this! Don’t eat that! Buy this! and this! and this! and this! and this!
    I fear that mainstream Western Chistianity has bought into the mistaken premise that being heard amidst all the noise pollution requires shouting louder and more persistently than everyone else. I suspect that a little calm and silence and deliberate thoughtfulness would stand out in all this cultural noise more clearly than any shout.

    • Another point: in taking up this approach, evangelicalism betrays its captivity to the culture, not the Word. Thanks, Ron.

      • David Cornwell says:

        Exactly, the culture owns the Church in so many ways today. And thus the culture makes a mockery of the Church. But there are many signs of hope.

    • I often perform at places where the music is not intended to be the main focus of the customers and because of that people will often get “loud”. The temptation is to turn up the volume of the PA and the intensity of the performance to overpower them.

      What actually works is to get quieter. The people who are half listening will quiet down and perk up to hear you, which will also get other people who are not listening at all to pay attention to see what the ones who are are listening to.

  7. Great metaphor! Thanks for the story and the thoughts.

  8. Damaris says:

    This is excellent, Mike. You and RonP both hit the nail on the head. When I was much younger I used to enjoy attending old-style Quaker meetings for the silence, the chance to listen. I like the church we go to now, because every transition is slow and quiet; you have a chance to pray and think after each Bible reading or prayer.

  9. Nice post, Mike.

    I think you analogy fits well. I wonder if it might not actually be The Sandlot (20th Century Fox, 1993), rather than the Little League, though. It isn’t that outsiders are yelling at us so much as we are all yelling at each other.

    On the other hand, few of us appreciate a Mr. Miagi and grow very tired very quickly of “Wax on. Wax off.” Very few of us see the benefit of daily disciplines that appear unrelated to the goals we want to achieve.

    And just out of curiosity, you’re not adding to the cacophony by yelling at us to stop yelling at one another, are you?

    • I hope I wasn’t yelling.

      However, my wife and kids tell me on occasion that I do, even when I don’t realize that is what I am doing.

  10. Great story for Pentecost!! What happened at Pentecost was not just speaking, but listening & understanding. If we as a Church want to speak in a language that the world can understand we will need to try listening & understanding with respect, simplicity, & being humble. Thanks for the Post Mike. peace

  11. Mike, you write, “The ethos of evangelicalism has always been that of activism.”

    If the evangelical church were activists on behalf of the poor or the social outcasts, I do not believe there would be a problem with the ethos. So perhaps it is less that they have a activist ethos than what they are activists for.

    • To follow up, I do agree that quiet and calm are superior ways to approaching the Christian life and that such a life is a tremendous hallmark of Christian change. I simply am sympathetic with the evangelical idea that the Christian life is not a passive one. It is a new life, a renewed creation with renewed hope. Who would not want to step up and really embrace the life that Christ has granted us?

      “Don’t let them bury me. I’m not dead.”

    • I agree that the Jesus-shaped life will be one of good works. Just please help me get there rather than yelling at me all the time.

    • “So perhaps it is less that they have a activist ethos than what they are activists for.”

      Good point.

  12. What an apt metaphor, especially since I managed little league kids some year ago. Not only did coaches yell at them but the parents were the worst. One reason I cannot handle the evangelical scene now (I prefer my newer mainline home) is because I go to worship and get before the Lord’s Word and the Table. Today, Pentecost, is a glorious example. Many evangelicals would be telling me how much I wasn’t filled with the Spirit because I had not led enough people to Jesus this week, or something like that. Activism is not enough to sustain such a movement. I see something else happening as evangelicals discover the ancient church and the wider reality of catholicity. This is where I hope the movement goes over time.

  13. Love the metaphor! Great post!

  14. Quiet, slow, deep, and PERSONAL; love your post, though it makes me more than a little sad. And the comments made about the ev. church and culture resonate with me, we’ve settled for some kind of “success” (response to the cacophony, I suppose) instead of the results slowly gathered by the methods of the Kingdom. Yeast is too darn small, and takes too long to rise.

  15. I remember when going to church was like purposely putting myself in a place to receive all that yelling. No wonder I came home overstimulated, discouraged and exhausted. I got to the point where I couldn’t bear it…especially after I found another church where that approach wasn’t used. I feel as though I have grown spiritually since then, too.

  16. Mike,

    I really like your analogy and would add one thing to it. In Little League, everybody is yelling all the different correct things to do at the same time. In evangelicalism, many of the things being yelled are contrary to each other, thus increasing the confusion.

  17. Another home run for the Chap. This post was a ray of light to me: It helped me to realize how much the simple Baptist church that I belong to is actually doing right: More than one could ever see on the surface. Our leaders aren’t screaming at us, but doing the things Chaplain Mike is advocating for here. I must admit though, we are highly abnormal for our denomination (SBC). Holiness walks hand in hand with obscurity often (take Jesus up to age 30, for example). Often times we evangelicals equate holiness with grandeur. Which it is, but not always. Sometimes we have to seek out that obscure parish that nobody is flocking to because of it’s glitz in order to connect to a community of Jesus without too many distractions.

  18. Sometimes we have to seek out that obscure parish that nobody is flocking to because of it’s glitz in order to connect to a community of Jesus without too many distractions.

    this is just quietly awesome…..well said, Miguel, now if I could just convince myself that obscurity is really not that bad……

  19. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I love these kids at the ballyard, and we have all kinds on our team. There’s this tiny kid…

    I just re-watched Fantastic Mr Fox on DVD last night. Your opening paragraphs made me think of Ash & Kristofferson at Whack-Bat.

    The pastor is telling me to keep my eye on the ball. My Bible study leader is challenging me to keep a level swing. Various program leaders in the church are saying, “Run! Run!” Leading evangelical spokespersons are telling me I’m doing it wrong and I need to adjust my stance, get my hands up, and step toward the pitcher when I swing.

    Everybody is telling me what to do. At the same time. With urgency.

    Urgency as in Wretched Urgency (TM)?

    We need quiet. And slow. And personal. One voice at a time. Face to face. Unhurried conversations. Time. Patience. A willingness to make mistakes, and a willingness to let others do the same. Small victories. Miniscule changes. Moments of connection.

    In other words, you need a life. A life outside of the ballyard. A life away from the no-life fanboys. A life you can just live instead of perform according to all the expectations.

  20. Jonathan M says:

    Right on, Chaplain Mike.

    While I have not participated in a Little League setting in decades, I recently coached a basketball league for 5-6 year olds and during the games, it was pure pandemonium on the court. Coaches and co-coaches were telling the players what to do; parents and older siblings will yelling their advice, referees were trying to keep a handle on things. And most importantly, the kids were not listening to a word any of them were yelling. Myself and my co-coach discovered this principle in the first week and decided that instead of trying to have our voice heard above all the rest on game day, we would instead focus on getting through to the kids during practice.

    This worked out well. In a quiet atmosphere, the kids were able to learn the basics and what to do in different situations. Then, when the game came around, they could naturally tune everybody out and do their thing. Likewise, Christian mentors need to step up and guide new Christians in a quiet and loving manner. This should be done outside the context of Sunday morning services so that the new believers will actually hear the message and remember it when they leave the doors. And we need to find a way to make church a quieter, more peaceful place.

  21. Amen.
    Great Post.

  22. I would like to think that I can tune out all of the “encouraging” voices and their advice and only hear “Coach” talking to me. Trouble is the only thing I can hear is the crowd and He is drowned out by the noise! I’d like to exchage secular deafness for spiritual hearing.