I have been a Houston Astros fan my entire life – a birthright handed down to me by my father, who, as a brand-new Texas resident, not knowing a soul in the entire state, would drive around his new city with only the Astros radio broadcast as company. As a family, we have endured decades of futility and disappointment but, last October, we experienced one glorious season as World Champions! We have wandered with the ‘Stros through the wilderness and have finally emerged in the promised land!
2014 was about as bad as it had ever been - the Astros were in the middle of 3 consecutive, 100-loss seasons – widely regarded as the laughing stock of Major League Baseball. That was the context of the now famous prediction that was made on the June 30, 2014 cover of Sports Illustrated - the historically pathetic Houston Astros would win the 2017 World Series, just three seasons away. I still have a copy of that magazine. I devoured that article – curious to see if this was a tongue-in-cheek jab at my team or a bold sports prophecy.
What I learned (and what was fleshed out in greater detail in a book called “Astroball,” published after the World Series) had led to the author’s confidence to make such an outrageous claim, was the Astros organization’s commitment to looking at baseball through a completely new lens.
More than any other sport, baseball has the largest (and loudest) base of purists and traditionalists. This segment believes the game has a certain pace, a certain history and a certain system of values that sets it apart from other sports and therefore, should be revered and left untainted. This attitude (combined with the economic realities of small market teams, salary caps, luxury taxes, etc.) has led to an environment where innovation is not a driving force.
As a result, the Astros, as a part of the larger baseball culture, were steeped in these values, suspicious of change and largely fine with operating inside the status quo. This also meant however, that little to no progress toward winning was being made.
There were, however, a handful of baseball revolutionaries – reformers, who were challenging this system. This crusade is well documented in the book “Moneyball” – which catalogues the history of the sabermetric movement through the eyes of the Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. The Astros were one of the first teams to take the principles of Moneyball and implement them throughout the entire organization.
The Astros’ shift in philosophy began with the admission that the old-school wing or the traditionalists inside the organization had a limited or at least a heavily biased view of how to win baseball games and therefore managed pitch counts, evaluated talent and drafted players with limited or biased metrics in mind. Because their values were short-sided, their measurements were skewed. The Astros had the presence of mind to take a step back and say, “this is how it’s always been done but is there a different way – an alternative value system that will go unnoticed by other teams and give us a competitive advantage?
This is where my worlds began to collide as a diehard Astros fan and as a church planter in the South. What if, in the same way, that the baseball purist misses the value of a player with a less-than-ideal size, but walks regularly and steals bases – could the religious establishment miss the value in neighborhood based missional communities or bi-vocational pastors or a non-revenue-producing college ministry?
Has the Church developed blind spots because of tenure or fatigue or tradition? Has this led to flawed metrics of success or a misdiagnosis of the culture? What if the Church had become too intimate with partisan politics or too comfortable with middle-class sensibilities to notice that the values (and therefore the measurements) of the kingdom of heaven should be overtly different than the status quo of the surrounding culture?
The metaphors for Jesus’s kingdom in the New Testament suggest that the reality of normative gospel growth is small, slow and incremental and yet our worship environments are built to be large, flashy and professional. Jesus, our founder took the posture of a foot-washing servant while our leaders are promoted as celebrity gurus. The early church grew among the messy margins of society while we continually value strategic platforms and cold pragmatism. We verbally assent to the doctrine “of priesthood of all believers” and yet structure our churches so only professional clergy can meaningfully participate. We claim to value missional sending and yet all of our measurements of success revolve around seating capacity. The Bible clearly upholds ethnic harmony as a kingdom value and yet the Church remains as segregated as any other social institution.
The Church is supposed to be a counter-culture, an alternative city within the city and yet we measure success the same way that any Fortune 500 company would understand. How can this be? Is this vicious hypocrisy or sloppy inconsistency? To quote Billy Beane, “It's hard not to be romantic about baseball. This kind of thing, it's fun for the fans. It sells tickets and hot dogs. Doesn't mean anything...”
Martin Luther and the reformers wrote the ecclesial version of Moneyball 500 years ago, perhaps it’s time for the Church in the South to be like the Astros and actually implement these things and stop worrying about tickets and hot dogs.