George Steinbrenner died at 80. This news brought to mind a flurry of memories and images. When I was younger, I absolutely LOVED baseball. I followed the Big Red Machine in the 1970s and memorized volumes of stats and stories. There was something pure and fun and inspiring and simply American (in the best sense of the word) about baseball. I grew up in the mystique of the American pastime. It was great. Then Steinbrenner changed everything. Baseball stopped being a sport and became a business as Steinbrenner changed all the rules and paid exorbitant and obscene amounts of money to buy championships. Rarely did I ever hear a good story about George Steinbrenner. He obtained the status of baseball antiChrist — representing everything wrong with the “game.” He opened to door to free-agency, the baseball strikes, and ended the possibility of multiple players spending an entire career with one team.
Power corrupts. Absolute power etcetera, etcetera. This week I have been reflecting on divisions within the church, and the fact that our greatest threats do not come from the outside, but from within. This was certainly true of baseball. Football and basketball were not the greatest threat to baseball. Baseball did it to itself as greed, money, media, politics, and power plays became more important than competition, loyalty, and athletic performance. Think of the influence that money, greed, politics and power plays have on our church today. The parallels are a little scary, but they simply reflect the larger shifts in cultural values.
But when did church become about power, size, material possessions, popularity, and media savvy? It kind of makes sense with baseball — an entertainment industry. It is a for-profit pursuit. But the church? Why are we following this same set of values? Yes, we have some “box store” style churches that crank out a pile of programs and products, and they do some good. But is this what we’re really all about? Sure, we have a few “franchise” pastors who call all the shots, but is this a good thing? We certainly love to keep score and track stats — even though most of them reflect losing seasons.
I am currently attending and teaching at a School of Christian Mission in Wisconsin, and it is so wonderful to be with a large group of Christians whose focus is on doing good for others. We’re not talking about growing the church, but living the gospel. We’re not talking about the needs of the institution to receive financial support, but how we can give to the poor. We’re not talking about how to get more people to come to us, but how to equip people to go and serve others. We’re not talking about how to get bigger, but how to be better. It is a refreshing meeting, and a reminder of what we’re really all about.
Steinbrenner represents for me the “win at any cost” mentality that is so destructive in our culture. This may be very unfair — I never met the man and I base most of my impressions on what I have heard and read. What really upsets me is when I see such values of materialism, manipulation, competition, conquest and condescension leech from the dominant culture into the church. Instead of the church influencing culture for the better, the culture corrupts the church. What’s up with that?
Neither baseball nor the church are likely to return to kinder, simpler states. We’ve “grown up” for better or for worse into what we are today, but hopefully we can “mature” beyond our current limitations. Perhaps we can emerge from our current infatuation with big churches and fancy technology and pop pastors and MORE, MORE, MORE and seek a sane alternative that aligns our greatest efforts with our deepest values. It’s never too late, except for Steinbrenner. I wonder if he ever questioned his materialist and imperialistic drive to win, or if he was happy and content all along the way. Thankfully in the church there are those who question, and those who desire something better.