The Passing of Power

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.

13 replies

  1. As someone who only rooted for the Yankees back in 1996 when the Braves were trying to repeat (I root for the Phillies when I watch baseball), Steinbrenner was someone that I could happily loath and could even indulge in pleasure when the team with the highest payroll couldn’t win the Series. Yet, anybody who paid any attention would see that Steinbrenner (like everybody) is not all yin or yang. He gave a lot to help high school sports in Tampa, FL. He kept people on the payroll after tragic events, etc.

    Among the many differences between MLB and The UMC, is that COR or Woodland Heights, etc. aren’t pulling people away from the 80% of churches that have less than 300 members even though they only have 36% of our membership. Fans in Yankee Stadium cheered when Steinbrenner got a “lifetime ban” (that only lasted three years) because Steinbrenner wasn’t producing good results. Accountability is not a strength of our current polity.

  2. Good to hear you are finding a place where you see the church doing what it was meant to do.

    You’ve written before about the system of making disciples in the UMC – one that is often not put in place.

    Proclaim, seek, gather, welcome
    Lead persons to commit their lives to God
    Nurture them in Christian living
    Equip and send them into the world

    Isn’t the difference between you and those you critique in this post primarily a matter of emphasis? You appear to me to see “equip and send” as the purpose and meaning of the church. It is the vital center around which the rest of the church revolves. Those you target in your post appear to be putting more emphasis on the first two parts of the process.

    But they don’t ignore nurturing and sending, do they? I’ve only observed things from afar, but the Steinbrenners of the UMC appear to me to attempt to nurture and send. Maybe they don’t do these as well as they gather, but do you really see them as caught up in a “materialistic and imperialistic drive to win”?

    You’ve written before about the real problem of “celebrity” pastors is that their model fits contextually in only some places, yet we try to mass produce and export it everywhere. That strikes me as a fundamentally different issue than saying the mega-pastors themselves are somehow destructive to the real purpose of the church.

    Perhaps I am misreading your post.

    • Pop Pastors are only a problem when they market themselves and exploit their name — not all celebrity pastors are problems, but having worked with a couple of their congregations where stated strategic objectives were things like, “guarantee that the conference can’t touch our pastor or tell us what to do,” “get name out as synonymous with United Methodism,” “become the best known church with the best known pastor,” and “become as well-known and popular as Rick Warren,” I don’t feel I am far off the mark. Pretending that a single pastor is an appropriate poster child for other leaders in other contexts is simplistic and silly.

      Part of the problem for me is not to look at the pastor, but the impact their approach has on the larger system. There are those who believe that Steinbrenner was the best thing that ever happened to baseball; there are those that think the church growth movement was the best thing that ever happened to the religion industry in the U.S. Same mentality, same period of time, similar results.

  3. Hey Dan!
    Glad you’re have a great time at SOCM. How do you get the folks there to return to their local church with the same enthusiasm and dedication they exhibit when they’re at SOCM? I’ve watched many go to the school only to return and fall back into the same ol’ pattern of – gasp! – power and popularity. I’ve watched the same thing happen with youth who have been set ablaze at a summer camp only to be told when they returned that such action was “okay for camp, but not here.”

  4. In our neck of the woods, we call it SCM, and it has been my primary activity with UMW. It is an opportunity to gather with like-minded people, and it is a challenge to return to a home church that may be of different minds. I think we often miss the message that we are learning, not for our own sake, but in order to teach & share with others in all the different ways we can. This may be inside our churches or in the community at large. I am convinced SCM is a great treasure and resource for our whole church. I have some concerns how we shape the experience to fit 21st Century life, but I’m looking forward to my weekend at the MN SCM.

  5. Bigger draw, more revenue, bigger marketing budgets. Are we talking about the religion industry or the entertainment industry? Are we sure, as industries, that the religion industry is NOT part of the entertainment industry? How are we drawing people to church? What are we promising them?

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