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Pastor/Former Twins pitcher Tom Johnson's perspective on baseball, church


IndianaTwin

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I'm an ordained minister and this is Good Friday, but this is intended as a sociological post, not a theological one.

Tom Johnson was a favorite relief pitcher for me as a kid, though he had a pretty meteoric rise and a similarly quick fall, perhaps at least in part to Gene Mauch using him for 146.2 innings in relief in 1977. He was also the winning pitcher in the most exciting game I've ever been to, the "Rod Carew game" on June 26, 1977, when he threw 6.2 innings in relief (really!) in a 19-12 Twins win. 

I didn't realize that Johnson had entered the ministry following retirement, but he has a really interesting perspective on the challenges facing both baseball and organized religion in today's culture.

https://julieroys.com/if-you-build-it-they-will-come-no-longer-works-baseball-organized-religion/

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One of my sayings is that Iove Jesus Christ, baseball, and rock 'n rock. Which makes me quite a dinosaur. And, that makes me sad. I'm assuming we aren't supposed to get into religion on TD, although this post leads us down that path. If the lockout would have been 30+ days, it might have killed baseball, so good on the players and owners for only delaying a week. 

I can understand why the youth of today are not interested in baseball or church. They've had an entertainment system in their hands their entire lives with unlimited entertainment options instantly available 24/7. My two brothers and I fought over one television. The attention span of humans has been cut significantly in recent years. Baseball and church require concentration and patience. Now, why the kids don't like rock 'n roll over the garbage they listen to today is beyond my comprehension.

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1 hour ago, theBOMisthebomb said:

 Now, why the kids don't like rock 'n roll over the garbage they listen to today is beyond my comprehension.

That was the thrust of the article. Both organizations are stuck in the mode of “we used to attract fans/parishioners this way, it will continue to work this way, just try harder”.

The kids don’t like Rock’n Roll anymore, quit trying to lure them in using rock ‘n roll. Accept it and adapt.

From my own experience, the article may have missed an opportunity to identify the flaw in the comparison. The article did point out that young people want some of their life devoted to philanthropy and volunteerism, but failed to identify that in the old days church and baseball both filled a social experience need that is now filled by other things. Town ball still fills that social experience void. It’s a smaller community at an affordable price, just like Twinsdaily. MLB is neither small nor affordable, it is purely entertainment and needs to be more compelling. Church is not a social experience anymore for the youth, and isn’t entertainment. It could be an outlet for service and philanthropy, but the organizers haven’t quite figured out what that looks like.

Where I agree with the article is if they both don’t figure out how to change, they are very much at risk.

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22 minutes ago, Sconnie said:

 Where I agree with the article is if they both don’t figure out how to change, they are very much at risk.

It's so interesting that in today's society, it's the established organizations that are expected to change and to adapt to today's world and the people and not the other way around. Organizations have always had to adapt to stay relevant, that has always been the case. I think it's great that young people are empowered and respected more than they used to be when I was younger. It seems that now everyone wants the world to cater to them. Baseball is a great team game that has stood the test of time. Now, we have players swinging from their heels only focused on individual stats and the home run. It's sickening to watch the strikeouts and the inability to put the ball in play on the right side to move over a runner, execute a hit and run, (heaven forbid) lay down a successful bunt, or any other number of baseball fundamentals. Today's athletes are extraordinary and so talented, highly skilled. It would be nice if that could translate to an even more entertaining product on the baseball field. I still love the game of baseball and think it will survive and possibly thrive in the future. They are doing a good job of reaching out to new markets - my daughter is participating in an all girls baseball tournament in June hosted by MLB and the Twins. As far as the church, they might have tougher obstacles than MLB to overcome. 

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35 minutes ago, theBOMisthebomb said:

It's so interesting that in today's society, it's the established organizations that are expected to change and to adapt to today's world and the people and not the other way around. Organizations have always had to adapt to stay relevant, that has always been the case. I think it's great that young people are empowered and respected more than they used to be when I was younger. It seems that now everyone wants the world to cater to them. Baseball is a great team game that has stood the test of time. Now, we have players swinging from their heels only focused on individual stats and the home run. It's sickening to watch the strikeouts and the inability to put the ball in play on the right side to move over a runner, execute a hit and run, (heaven forbid) lay down a successful bunt, or any other number of baseball fundamentals. Today's athletes are extraordinary and so talented, highly skilled. It would be nice if that could translate to an even more entertaining product on the baseball field. I still love the game of baseball and think it will survive and possibly thrive in the future. They are doing a good job of reaching out to new markets - my daughter is participating in an all girls baseball tournament in June hosted by MLB and the Twins. As far as the church, they might have tougher obstacles than MLB to overcome. 

Individuals have organized for the benefits provided by the organization since the very first village huddling around a camp fire. People have never been more mobile to choose the organization they belong to. Since Henry Ford made the car affordable, people have had greater ability to choose their organization, but individuals have always been more agile than groups, and groups have always needed to provide the needs of the individuals, in order to grow new members.

Case in point, baseball teams follow the data on winning games instead of the data to attract new fans. While I am a stat head, I don’t like the current brand of baseball either. Homers and strike outs might win games, but It’s boring and too long.

listen to your customers and they become loyal

ignore your customers and they leave.

that is as old school as it comes

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I found it a thought-provoking article on a number of levels. For context, as I mentioned, I'm an ordained minister. I no longer serve in congregational ministry, but serve as a denominational consultant in one particular area of ministry, where I relate to several hundred congregations, primarily through their pastors.

The article barely mentions COVID, but my sense from conversations with these pastors is that many of them are struggling. Already facing the challenge of how to be "relevant" in a highly polarized world, in the last couple of years pastors have needed to face that challenge in a new context that they felt woefully ill-prepared to navigate. The cultural/political/social polarity they were working amidst was compounded by strong polarities on if, how, and when to worship in a gathered fashion amidst COVID, when worshipping in a gathered fashion is seen as a central premise of the faith they are seeking to promote. I spoke with a congregational leader this week who spoke articulately about how the nature of worship in his denominational tradition, which places a particularly high value on "community," is dramatically different when worshiping via Zoom compared to worshiping in a gathered space.

Additionally, while the church has always sought to be "relevant" to the issues of the day, whether in the time of the early church, the Reformation, or any significant movement, the reality is that the church's central narrative is a story that's 2000 years old and its central writings are more than 1900 years old. (Note: I'm referencing the tradition Johnson is a part of, which is also the one I'm part of -- I can't speak to other faith traditions.)

Added to that, my experience with pastors is that we are often a group that values tradition -- we're committed to that centuries-old story told through centuries-old writings, after all. Unfortunately, those of us who value tradition in this way (and I count myself among them) often don't have the "agility" Sconnie references among our primary skill sets as leaders. And, we're leading in an institution (the church) not known for its agility. A greater ability to be agile is probably a primary reason that the churches which ARE growing tend to be non-denominational churches.

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I found this a strange article and a strange comparison, imo. I mean no disrespect when I say that, but it is very odd to me. I guess in the grander scale, talking about relevancy, we could draw comparisons, make analogies, to many things. The only constant is change. If anything wants to remain constant, well, change is inevitable. Adapt or perish. I work in an industry that competes for its own relevancy and we are always trying new things, presenting ourselves in new venues, trying to find new things that relate to others in meaningful ways. Sometimes it means letting go of persons or things that made us relevant at one time but is making us irrelevant in a new time. But baseball is making itself irrelevant on its own. While other entities work toward finding answers, I don't think baseball is trying to that because those who own it, don't really care, truly, about its fanbase and the people that make it relevant. 

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23 hours ago, Sconnie said:

 

listen to your customers and they become loyal

ignore your customers and they leave.

that is as old school as it comes

While that has some merit in baseball, it cannot work in religion.  It's a popular opinion for many but it's wrong.  Jesus never took a vote with the disciples.  Mohammed never had a focus group.  Moses shared with the Lord the complaints of the people but it never dictated what was to be done.  That was God.

Where Smietana (and many) miss the mark is that the issue is education.  There are many "recovering Catholics" in the world (meaning people who struggled with the Catholic church for whatever reason and left).  But most people who leave the Catholic faith do so because they are poorly educated about the Faith.  I think this probably applies to the denominations as well.  If someone is following a church, whether it be Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or Islam, they do it because they believe that their faith is the "True Faith" and therefore contains "The Truth".  While society will change, objectively speaking "the Truth" can't change. Otherwise it wouldn't have ever been true.  

You can market faith but only based on the Truth.   

Also Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Blessed Passover to others and Blessed Ramadan  as well.

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I’m glad we can have a civil conversation here. I’m also an ordained pastor. I don’t think the Church needs to change.

There are institutions that must change, because they exist to follow and serve the culture. I believe the Church and her message transcend culture. We deal with issues that are perpetually relevant: death, sin, brokenness, guilt, shame, etc. We answer these issues with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen to forgive us and give us life.

Instead of adapting to what our members want, we try to teach them why we are the way we are. Then they can learn to appreciate it. My congregation won’t shape the culture. But we are shaping our members. Young and old appreciate this. If it turns out that our message isn’t perpetually relevant, the Church will die, as it should. But if our message does actually address the deepest issues of this world, it will survive any cultural change and continue to transcend culture, as it has for 2000 years. Any religion that thinks it actually has The Answer should stick to it.

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6 hours ago, jgfellows said:

While that has some merit in baseball, it cannot work in religion.  It's a popular opinion for many but it's wrong.  Jesus never took a vote with the disciples.  Mohammed never had a focus group.  Moses shared with the Lord the complaints of the people but it never dictated what was to be done.  That was God.

Where Smietana (and many) miss the mark is that the issue is education.  There are many "recovering Catholics" in the world (meaning people who struggled with the Catholic church for whatever reason and left).  But most people who leave the Catholic faith do so because they are poorly educated about the Faith.  I think this probably applies to the denominations as well.  If someone is following a church, whether it be Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or Islam, they do it because they believe that their faith is the "True Faith" and therefore contains "The Truth".  While society will change, objectively speaking "the Truth" can't change. Otherwise it wouldn't have ever been true.  

You can market faith but only based on the Truth.   

Also Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Blessed Passover to others and Blessed Ramadan  as well.

The article (and my comment of the article) wasn’t recommending baseball should become soccer, because no one likes baseball, as such my comment of listening to your parishioner’s doesn’t mean change the theology. Far from it.

As Squirrel and IndianaTwin point out, relevance doesn’t mean truth is subjective. It means there’s more than one way to learn. Batters don’t have to swing for the fences every pitch.

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This is an interesting read! I will join in with my fellow pastors on commenting in saying that appreciate Johnson's perspective after being intimately involved in both realms. 

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Thanks for posting this. I enjoyed reading this article, and reading the comments so far. I do believe there is an analogy to be had here and I agree organized religion and organized baseball have similar challenges. As a grandfather of 10, I can attest to the youth of today in comparison to 50 years ago. My passion for baseball and Church was born out of habits developed from 5 years old, and from my parents influence. Kids today aren't in after school t-ball, and in Wednesday night youth group from kindergarten en masse like we were. Passions/Interests begin early in life. Habits begin early in life. I grew up on ballfields and in Church. Good comments from all. 

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12 hours ago, Longdistancetwins said:

Kind of fun to see that several Twins Daily posters are pastors!

Don't know if the number of pastor posters is disproportionate to the number of pastors in the general population.

If it is, perhaps it's because being a Twins fan sometimes often requires being willing to spend a significant amount of time in prayer! 🙂

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On 4/17/2022 at 2:21 PM, dantal said:

I’m glad we can have a civil conversation here. I’m also an ordained pastor. I don’t think the Church needs to change.

There are institutions that must change, because they exist to follow and serve the culture. I believe the Church and her message transcend culture. We deal with issues that are perpetually relevant: death, sin, brokenness, guilt, shame, etc. We answer these issues with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen to forgive us and give us life.

Instead of adapting to what our members want, we try to teach them why we are the way we are. Then they can learn to appreciate it. My congregation won’t shape the culture. But we are shaping our members. Young and old appreciate this. If it turns out that our message isn’t perpetually relevant, the Church will die, as it should. But if our message does actually address the deepest issues of this world, it will survive any cultural change and continue to transcend culture, as it has for 2000 years. Any religion that thinks it actually has The Answer should stick to it.

I’ve held off in responding, in part because I was one who posted the original article.

My sense is that we’re very much coming at this from the same perspective. Part of the challenge when I see articles like this is that we all have different understandings of what it means to “be relevant” and to “change.” If by “relevant,” we’re talking about the ability to walk alongside people (and society) in their deepest pain, you’re right — being “relevant” doesn’t “change.” At its core, loving God and loving neighbor don’t change.

Yet “relevant” does “change” in other ways. Some of that is the recognition that our deepest pains (as individuals and in our society) do change, In some aspects of the faith, we can also gain different understandings of scripture over time. In my tradition, for example, there is a different understanding of the place of women in leadership compared to decades ago. When I was a child, the inability of women to use their gifts in certain areas of ministry brought pain, for example, both to them and to those who appreciated their gifts. Amidst a broader society that was reshaping gender roles, that’s a “change” that brough “relevance” to some. I recognize as well that not all strands of the faith are at the same point on this particular topic, but there are other examples I could name from my tradition, ranging from some that feel quite significant to other examples that feel pretty insignificant now, but at one point in time, were quite significant to those involved in the conversations. Perhaps there are examples of those in your tradition as well.

But you’ve captured the challenge in identifying the tendency to define “relevant” as the need to “adapt to what our members want.” In a denominational magazine a few years ago, a pastor wrote to the effect of “Find a church that you don’t like, and stay.” His premise was that our tendency to go “church shopping” for the church with the hippest this and coolest that turns us into “consumers” of church rather than being committed to our local worshipping community. Another friend compared “church shopping” to that of a buffet, reminding me that in the line at Pizza Ranch/Ponderosa/China Buffet, our tendency is to take more of the stuff we don’t need and less of the stuff that we do need.

I’m not suggesting that it should be our goal to take part in the church that makes us the most miserable. And you’re exactly right in that it’s our task as a church to talk about the “why” in why we do what we do, shaping people in faith along the way, whether that shaping is in how we worship on Sunday (or other day) or how we live out our faith seven days a week. Unfortunately, in the world of the sound bite and bumper sticker, we often feel we don’t have the time for that shaping, and we compare ourselves to the church down the street with flasheier programming and watch it get bigger and bigger while ours gets smaller and smaller.

And yet, there’s an element of truth in that we as a church probably do need to “change” in some ways to become more “relevant.” I confess that I cringe when the church in town has a drawing for a motorcycle on Father’s Day to try attracting men. I don’t think I could do that as a pastor. But I also have to confess that this church is indeed ministering to the men who end up coming as a result. From the field I work with (financial stewardship), I lament no longer passing the offering plate. I miss feeling the tangible act of worship in putting my offering in the basket each week. I  worry about how we will model generosity to our children, recognizing that I learned to give by watching the weekly model of my parents. But I also know that my congregation received 47 percent of its giving electronically last year, plus more that came in through Qualified Charitable Distributions or Donor Advised Fund gifts. How we “do” the offering needed to change to become relevant to people’s giving patterns.

I gotta stop now. I think it’s wrestling with some of these questions has also contributed to the tiredness many of us in ministry are feeling. (I’ve also named in other settings that brevity is not one of my spiritual gifts, so I need to stop for that reason as well!)

I think it would be great enjoyable to pick up this conversation as we watch a game together sometime, Dantal!

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On 4/18/2022 at 9:35 AM, Nate Palmer said:

This is an interesting read! I will join in with my fellow pastors on commenting in saying that appreciate Johnson's perspective after being intimately involved in both realms. 

You can join Dantal and me as well, Nate!

(As can anyone else. 😀)

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On 4/16/2022 at 11:14 AM, Sconnie said:

…. Church is not a social experience anymore for the youth, and isn’t entertainment. It could be an outlet for service and philanthropy, but the organizers haven’t quite figured out what that looks like.

Where I agree with the article is if they both don’t figure out how to change, they are very much at risk.

Very valid critique of the church, Sconnie, and a perspective that I don’t think is limited to being held by youth. (Unless I get to count myself, a 56-year-old, as a “youth.”🤣)

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On 4/17/2022 at 12:38 PM, jgfellows said:

While that has some merit in baseball, it cannot work in religion.  It's a popular opinion for many but it's wrong.  Jesus never took a vote with the disciples.  Mohammed never had a focus group.  Moses shared with the Lord the complaints of the people but it never dictated what was to be done.  That was God.

Where Smietana (and many) miss the mark is that the issue is education.  There are many "recovering Catholics" in the world (meaning people who struggled with the Catholic church for whatever reason and left).  But most people who leave the Catholic faith do so because they are poorly educated about the Faith.  I think this probably applies to the denominations as well.  If someone is following a church, whether it be Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or Islam, they do it because they believe that their faith is the "True Faith" and therefore contains "The Truth".  While society will change, objectively speaking "the Truth" can't change. Otherwise it wouldn't have ever been true.  

You can market faith but only based on the Truth.   

Also Happy Easter to those who celebrate! Blessed Passover to others and Blessed Ramadan  as well.

I appreciate what you’re saying — a “formational” approach to faith very similar to what others have named/implied.

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11 hours ago, IndianaTwin said:

I’ve held off in responding, in part because I was one who posted the original article.

My sense is that we’re very much coming at this from the same perspective. Part of the challenge when I see articles like this is that we all have different understandings of what it means to “be relevant” and to “change.” If by “relevant,” we’re talking about the ability to walk alongside people (and society) in their deepest pain, you’re right — being “relevant” doesn’t “change.” At its core, loving God and loving neighbor don’t change.

Yet “relevant” does “change” in other ways. Some of that is the recognition that our deepest pains (as individuals and in our society) do change, In some aspects of the faith, we can also gain different understandings of scripture over time. In my tradition, for example, there is a different understanding of the place of women in leadership compared to decades ago. When I was a child, the inability of women to use their gifts in certain areas of ministry brought pain, for example, both to them and to those who appreciated their gifts. Amidst a broader society that was reshaping gender roles, that’s a “change” that brough “relevance” to some. I recognize as well that not all strands of the faith are at the same point on this particular topic, but there are other examples I could name from my tradition, ranging from some that feel quite significant to other examples that feel pretty insignificant now, but at one point in time, were quite significant to those involved in the conversations. Perhaps there are examples of those in your tradition as well.

But you’ve captured the challenge in identifying the tendency to define “relevant” as the need to “adapt to what our members want.” In a denominational magazine a few years ago, a pastor wrote to the effect of “Find a church that you don’t like, and stay.” His premise was that our tendency to go “church shopping” for the church with the hippest this and coolest that turns us into “consumers” of church rather than being committed to our local worshipping community. Another friend compared “church shopping” to that of a buffet, reminding me that in the line at Pizza Ranch/Ponderosa/China Buffet, our tendency is to take more of the stuff we don’t need and less of the stuff that we do need.

I’m not suggesting that it should be our goal to take part in the church that makes us the most miserable. And you’re exactly right in that it’s our task as a church to talk about the “why” in why we do what we do, shaping people in faith along the way, whether that shaping is in how we worship on Sunday (or other day) or how we live out our faith seven days a week. Unfortunately, in the world of the sound bite and bumper sticker, we often feel we don’t have the time for that shaping, and we compare ourselves to the church down the street with flasheier programming and watch it get bigger and bigger while ours gets smaller and smaller.

And yet, there’s an element of truth in that we as a church probably do need to “change” in some ways to become more “relevant.” I confess that I cringe when the church in town has a drawing for a motorcycle on Father’s Day to try attracting men. I don’t think I could do that as a pastor. But I also have to confess that this church is indeed ministering to the men who end up coming as a result. From the field I work with (financial stewardship), I lament no longer passing the offering plate. I miss feeling the tangible act of worship in putting my offering in the basket each week. I  worry about how we will model generosity to our children, recognizing that I learned to give by watching the weekly model of my parents. But I also know that my congregation received 47 percent of its giving electronically last year, plus more that came in through Qualified Charitable Distributions or Donor Advised Fund gifts. How we “do” the offering needed to change to become relevant to people’s giving patterns.

I gotta stop now. I think it’s wrestling with some of these questions has also contributed to the tiredness many of us in ministry are feeling. (I’ve also named in other settings that brevity is not one of my spiritual gifts, so I need to stop for that reason as well!)

I think it would be great enjoyable to pick up this conversation as we watch a game together sometime, Dantal!

The results of our efforts here in this world can often times be discouraging. I hear your heart and it sounds like it is in the right place. It is difficult sometimes to remember we are working for an audience of one, and there is only one that we should aspire to please. In study and in prayer we find our affirmation, and our encouragement to press on. Press on soldier!

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Not ordained myself, but in a past life I did doctoral work in historical theology.  I consider myself an agnostic at worst, a lapsed believe at best. 

I think religion, and to a lesser degree, baseball, are suffering from a distrust in institutions.  The church, government, media, public education are not trusted in the way they used to be 30 or 40 years ago.  Some of this may be warranted, but the wholesale distrust of institutions really weakens the social fabric.  

Baseball is a different type off institution that doesn't suffer in the same way that other public institutions do, but when billionaires are arguing with millionaires, people tune out.  Baseball used to be the national pastime. No longer, but there is still a hold that it has on our culture. People may not watch MLB, but there are still plenty of little league, townball baseball, and beer (and church!) softball teams.  Do kids still play kickball? Baseball, with a big red ball.  I think if you care about the game, you work within the realms of the cultural hold it has. Let MLB figure out their mess.

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On 4/23/2022 at 7:10 PM, snotboogie said:

Not ordained myself, but in a past life I did doctoral work in historical theology.  I consider myself an agnostic at worst, a lapsed believe at best. 

I think religion, and to a lesser degree, baseball, are suffering from a distrust in institutions.  The church, government, media, public education are not trusted in the way they used to be 30 or 40 years ago.  Some of this may be warranted, but the wholesale distrust of institutions really weakens the social fabric.  

Baseball is a different type off institution that doesn't suffer in the same way that other public institutions do, but when billionaires are arguing with millionaires, people tune out.  Baseball used to be the national pastime. No longer, but there is still a hold that it has on our culture. People may not watch MLB, but there are still plenty of little league, townball baseball, and beer (and church!) softball teams.  Do kids still play kickball? Baseball, with a big red ball.  I think if you care about the game, you work within the realms of the cultural hold it has. Let MLB figure out their mess.

Very accurate on the distrust in institutions as a part of this conversation!

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