Church

Un-Just

I just want to be friends.

I just want to be consulted.

I just want to play meaningful games in September.

No you don’t. No you don’t. No you don’t.

If you have to qualify a desire with “just,” you’re kidding yourself. Because once you have the thing you “just” wanted, once the sparse conditions of your desire have been met, you want more. Meaningful September baseball games are hollow if you lose them, and being consulted is worthless if your ideas aren’t implemented.

Let’s be clear about what we want and aim–as far as it’s in our power–for that thing.

For the record, I want the Royals to win their division, win the American League, and then win the World Series. Anything less will be disappointing.

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Church

Get in Front of The Ball!

When I was in Little League I was scared of the ball hit or thrown into the dirt. If I was playing on the infield and a ground ball was hit to me I would freeze–try to play it from the side–don’t get in front of it. Coach after coach would yell at me, would demonstrate the proper technique. I never mastered it. Not in Little League, not in high school, not even in two years of collegiate baseball. My instinct was always fear, and my instinct almost always won out over what my brain and my will were trying to force me to do.

Can you learn new instincts? Can you replace fear with confidence? Churches have instincts: take care of the members, protect the property, sympathize with the suffering. If we learn that an instinct that worked in another era holds us back now, can we change it? How? Motivation? Coaching? Repetition?

I play softball once a week now, and I still freeze when ground balls come my way. They deflect off my wrist and glance off my leg, and I despair that I’m too old now to overcome the instinct that has controlled that activity my entire life.

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Church

On Opening Day And Getting Better

Note: we interrupt our normal Monday Morning Quarterback series to offer this annual post on the opening day of baseball season. 

Today is the beginning of the baseball season. I had trouble sleeping last night so I watched the last episode of Ken Burns’ marathon documentary on baseball late into the night.  My day will revolve around a 1:00 pacific start time to my team’s first game. I may even wear my team’s cap into the office. Baseball’s opening day is a big deal for me, and I make no apologies for it.

Yet I know it will end badly. My team isn’t very good. It hasn’t been for nearly three decades. It is among the least successful operations in all of sports.

These days, baseball and the fate of my team is a stand-in for measurements of value. This is for baseball an age of tremendous enlightenment, when fans have access to as much statistical data on teams and players as do the General Managers and owners, data fans can analyze themselves for the sake of long blog posts condemning the decisions of men who are paid millions to make them. This Sabermetric community within baseball has brilliantly re-framed the notion of value when it comes to a baseball player, lifting from obscurity undervalued skills (like this) and packaging valuable player contributions into novel statistics like OPS and VORP. Naturally, this community has elevated the celebrity of the guys spending teams’ money on these players and their skills, which is good if you’re name is Billy Beane but bad if it’s Dayton Moore.

More and more of my life and vocation is taken up with the question of value: where does value really reside and how is my work contributing value to the world? Here, potential is a curse. Potential is only valuable once it’s realized. In my work with youth, students’  potential for a strong faith and a compelling witness to the love of God is far less valuable to me than their actual faith–weak and confused though it may be–and their actual stammering witness to something closer to fairness on God’s part. The latter is theirs, something they can be held to and challenged to grow. The former is my projection, a thing that asks nothing of them and so gives them nothing.

My baseball team is a fitting backdrop for these kinds of considerations, especially on this opening day, because after years of drafting and developing dugouts full of potential, the team traded much of it away last winter for some proven real world value, and the bloggers went crazy in protest. “Why,” they demanded, “would you trade away six years of team control over a player who could be a superstar for two years of a player who’s only a regular star?”

The team’s rationale is simple: trading away the consensus top amateur player to get a star commodity makes the big league roster significantly better today, and six years is a long time. The opposition is fueled by an ideological purity that prizes rationality and analysis over hoping for things to “work out.” Things, they correctly point out, “work out” in increasingly predictable patterns, and if you ignore the pattern, nobody’s going to feel bad for you when it plays out to your detriment.

I have read almost every damning word aimed at my team and nodded my head in dignified agreement with many of them. Likewise, I compulsively read condemnations and dire projections about my church. Those, too, make skillful use of data and eloquently lampoon the decisions of decision makers as badly informed or, worse, immoral. I nod in agreement at some of those as well.

Yet on this opening day I take my stand on the side of measurable improvement and the risky, ill advised move that willingly disappoints ideology for the sake of the good we know we’re getting right now, which, everyone can see, improves what we are immediately. It’s older. It has less potential. It may leave us for greener pastures in 24 months. But it makes us better now. Perhaps not better enough. But better.

Today, I’m for better.

Play ball.

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Church

Jesus Was A Stat Head: A Post for Opening Day

“Fixate on the particular and you miss the big story.”

So says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, in a Bleacher Report post about the damage that sabermetrics have done to baseball.

I’m not buying it, for baseball or religion

For the uninitiated, a brief summary: over the past 20 years, baseball has seen the rise of a kind of player valuation that is based less and less on the perceivable “tools” of players and more and more on a searching analysis of those players’ statistical records. This has applied equally to present-day players, future prospects, and past greats. It has been a move toward measurement and quantification, and its practitioners have spawned their own measurement tools in never-before-heard statistical categories like On Base Percentage (OBP) and Value Above Replacement Player (VORP).

The most accessible account of the embodiment of this trend is Michael Lewis’s excellent book Moneyball. Lewis dug into the story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who used sabermetrics data to put together a string of low-budget winning teams in the early part of the last decade. Even for non-baseball fans, it’s a great read.

The debate that Moneyball popularized, the debate that Thorn is engaging, and the debate at the heart of sabermetrics is this: what has greater value? The things you can measure or the things you can’t? Is a player’s VORP a more useful evaluation tool a scout’s observation that he can flat-out hit?

Now to religion, particularly the mainline protestant Christian version. The scouts of the mainline church have been observing for decades that membership is declining, and they’ve offered their analysis: the church can’t hit the curve balls that postmodern culture is throwing. It has no theological arm strength. It’s leadership is out of touch with the players.

None of this is based on any actual data. Like the observation of a baseball scout, this way of evaluation the church depends entirely on what one can see, and its conclusions fit nicely with the scout’s well-established narrative of success and failure. And these have been the accepted answers to questions of the church’s decline.

But what if it’s been wrong all along? What if a new generation of church sabermetricians created new tools to measure what’s really going on?

Thankfully, that’s starting to happen. In my own denomination, a Research Services division has started publishing some great analytical work that casts serious doubt on the cigar stained conventional wisdom of the church’s scouts. It’s stated goal is to help the church make “fact based decisions,” which strikes me as almost poetically consistent with the aim of sabermetrics. Because it’s debatable whether a pitcher has control problems. But it’s a fact that over the last three seasons he’s walked 6.5 batters per nine innings. It’s debatable whether the church is dying and bad theology is the culprit. But it’s a fact that in 2009 the PC(USA) saw a rise in non-white candidates for ministry, increased Asian membership and leadership, and an increase in female pastors.

The scout calls it dead arm. The sabermetrician calls it a changing delivery.

What Thorn has wrong is the forced choice between the “big story” and the particular. When applied to faith, it’s decidedly anti-incarnational to poo-poo details in favor of a grand narrative. That instinct leads to a contempt for critical study of the Bible and to half-cocked evaluations of the church’s ailments.

The Big Story is made up of the particular, the stuff you can measure and track. Further, that story arises from those particulars; it can’t be forced upon them a priori.

Play Ball and go Royals!

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