10 to 12.
That’s how many dozens of baseballs are used in an average 9-inning MLB game. Once a baseball is taken out of play, it simply will not return. It may, however, be demoted to a practice ball or be sent down to the minor league system, where it will have a similar life-expectancy. Minnesota Twins Hall of Fame curve-ball pitcher, Bert Blyleven said, “We used to be fined if we threw a ball in the stands; [baseballs] were like a piece of jewelry. The game has changed.” Nowadays, it is rare for a baseball to be used for an entire at-bat, disqualified by the slightest imperfection. This is a far cry from my Little League baseball experience where snow-cone tickets incentivized the immediate return of a foul ball, without a second thought about the scuffs it received from the concrete walkways or rough red-brick walls of the concession stand.
The number of balls needed to play is not the only example of how baseball has evolved into the more involved game that many still love today. Gloves for fielding the ball were not introduced for decades, and first basemen didn’t have their own style of glove until the 1940s. It wasn’t until the 1970s, after almost one-hundred years of play, that batting helmets were enforced as mandatory by Major League Baseball. Before the early 1980s, batting gloves weren’t as common, and certainly were not considered essential equipment. These modifications to baseball, and many more like them, are obvious improvements. We would expect nothing less from a game that is approximately 130 years old and organized by people concerned about and committed to performance and safety. But, at the core of it all is a pure, child-like love for the game that transcends these concerns and doesn’t insist the game “improve” at all. Right?!
Could this be a parable for the Christian about why we enjoy and how we engage in the local church? Is it possible that helpful improvements to how the church is organized and how it functions, in time, come to be considered essentials, without which a church is deficient? Is it possible that the equipment and resources depended upon so heavily in many churches today, not be as critical to our mission of making disciples as we might think? Is it possible that the innovative programs and services offered by our churches be so esteemed, we cannot fathom life-change without them? What is, in fact, needed to “do church,” and what are the risks associated with thinking too highly of our inevitable additions? While vitally important to do so, it is not enough to simply identify the irreducible minimum of what is necessary for church ministry and spiritual growth. We must demonstrate a deep reliance on these things that regards any of our additions as unnecessary, though often helpful.
The Irreducible Minimum.
To play baseball, you don’t need as many things as you might think. You certainly don’t need as nice of things as you might think. You don’t necessarily need 9 players; 6 or 7 will do ok. You don’t necessarily need a Louisville Slugger; just something long, straight, and sturdy enough to hit a ball. You don’t necessarily need four white padded bases; a faded spot in the grass or a tree will substitute just fine. Biblically, what does the church really need. A building? Professional musicians? A large kid’s ministry staff? Discipleship pastor? Projection screens and Apple computers? Hundreds of people? International mission trip? Coffee? Ok, the last one is a bad joke. But, these and countless other helpful additions to the first-church (read: Acts 2 and the epistles) are simply not necessary to function as the church. The reality is, we don’t need as many things as we have come to think.
In order to fulfill its biblical mandate of making disciples, the church needs the following, nothing more, and nothing less: God, the Father and Christ, the Gospel of Christ, the Holy Spirit of Christ, the people of Christ, and the Word of Christ. In the interest of subcategories, the church also needs qualified biblical leadership (pastors) and a place to gather together. However, that about does it. In terms of supplies, the rest is icing, optional, negotiable, secondary. As I have stated, additions and changes to how we implement and enjoy these things are inevitable. And we are free to appreciate them all and to see them as helpful, just as long as we keep them in perspective. Any strategy or methodology we employ must continue to be seen as a means to an end, or we run the risk of crediting own ingenuity with our spiritual results.
Enough Is Enough.
No one is saying sandlot baseball is this the best or highest form of baseball possible; that isn’t the point. The point is that, for someone who loves the game, it is enough to play and enjoy. Similarly, I am not advocating a stripped-down version of church, simply for the sake of being stripped-down. The point, though, is that if you have only what Scripture requires, you have enough to be thoroughly effective for the glory of God. More than that, you have enough to fully enjoy all that Christ intended His church to offer. If your church has everything you need as well as some (or all) of the blessed benefits of our day, praise God. You may even consider what extra responsibility you have as a disciple with such abundant resources at your disposal, with which to both serve your church and be served by it. If, however, your church does not, praise God. You and your family are not in the slightest at a disadvantage. Such churches compel the Christian to depend more wholly on the simple sufficient realities of the Gospel and on the community of faith. A church with this sort of emphasis, which cannot afford many helpful benefits, is often refreshing to those who have previously been somewhere that has (however unintentionally) abused those benefits.
For small churches, and certain small church-plants, there are certain benefits which are more helpful and desired than others. There are ways even small content churches ought to desire to grow in order to afford or justify certain resources or support. The only concern a church should have regarding numerical growth and financial increase is that it has what it needs in the bank and in the office of spiritual leadership (pastor/elder) in order to adequately minister to its people and reach its community. There may well be programs, services, events, equipment, staff support, etc. that are worth praying about making a priority in your church one day as the Lord allows. But a patient, prayerful attitude toward these things is the key. From a place of contentment in all God, through Christ, has given His Church, we are free to humbly request and then, Lord-willing, enjoy certain things that often make ministry more efficient, or perhaps, more effective. Yet, if our desire for these things are driven by worldly values or the carnal desires of man, we are in danger of compromising our message and diminishing our need for God to do what only He can do.
A High Price Was Paid.
Growing up, one of my favorite movies was “The Sandlot.” The coming-of-age classic about a group of boys who frequented the sandy and poorly-kept neighborhood baseball field. Besides learning to talk to girls, their biggest problem in life was making sure they had a baseball to play with. After the neighborhood slugger, “Ham”hits a ball over the fence into a mysterious neighbor’s backyard, all the sudden they couldn’t “play no more.” Why? Because, they played one ball at a time. The film is set is the 60s, when minimum wage was just over a dollar, about the price of a new Spaulding baseball in the movie.They couldn’t afford the “bucket-o-balls” you will commonly find at baseball practices today. The rest of the movie is centered around the team’s death-defying pursuit of a very special baseball. The point: they didn’t take for granted one of the basic necessities of the game, a baseball. They didn’t have the fancy uniforms, numerous fans, or the well-groomed field that the other kids had, but they understood the irreplaceable value of a good ball. With it, they could play, and without, they couldn’t. God purchased the church, with his own blood (Acts 20:28) and it is by the ministry of His church that we are to grow to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13). May we not take for granted all He has given His church but grow in a contentment that honors and glorifies Him.
(For the full Fox News article that inspired the introduction, go here.)