LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The Major League Baseball season is drawing to a close once again. My favorite team launched the season with the hopeful slogan, “This is our time.” But “our time” quickly faded into “next time” for the Kansas City Royals, and the Royals spent most of their season locked in a contest with the Twins for the uncoveted title, “There Is At Least One Team in the American League Worse Than Us.”
It’s around this time each year that I find myself asking once again, “How exactly was it that I ended up a Kansas City Royals fan?” The last time the Royals were serious contenders for a pennant, Ronald Reagan was residing on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Berlin Wall was still intact, and grunge hadn’t yet made it past the Seattle city limits.
Goodness knows, I’ve tried to stop rooting for a losing team. During my decade of earning graduate degrees, I stopped following baseball altogether, only to discover upon my return that – though Kansas City had fared no better without me than with me – I still could not keep myself from cheering for the same team as before. My second-favorite team has shifted a time or two over the years. Yet not even decades in the cellar has managed to dethrone the Royals from first position in my sporting allegiances.
Why keep choosing a losing team?
I am clearly not the only person who persists in prioritizing a particular team even when that team never earns a place in the postseason. After all, someone, somewhere, purchases the kitsch and clothing that memorabilia manufacturers adorn with the logos of Indians and Mariners, Pirates and Cubs.
Why is it that human beings select certain teams and stick with them? At least three patterns seem to drive this irrational rationality of persistent loyalty – and these patterns may help us to think a bit more carefully about what we try to do to grow our churches.
1) Commonalities: They come from a place where people are more like me. I am a Midwesterner. Tea with more than a touch of sugar is a travesty to my taste buds, and seeing saltwater has always meant at least two days of travel. As a result, I’m pretty much incapable of cheering for a team from any state that seceded from the Union or from any city west of the Great Plains or east of the Great Lakes. I don’t think I’m alone in my affinity for teams from locations near past or present places of residence. With the fewest of exceptions, fans of the Braves have roots somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon Line, New Englanders aren’t rooting for the Mariners, and folks that hope the Indians do better next year don’t live near a coastline.
2) Memories: The power of past recollections. In a box in my basement, there are three white-and-blue shirts that I wore as a 3-year-old, each one imprinted with a face and faux signature. My Grandma Lu was the source of these t-shirts that are inked with the likenesses of George Brett, Hal McRae, and Frank White. Grandma Lu lived most of her life in Kansas City; my parents met one another in Kansas City; I earned my master’s degree in Kansas City; I remember games at Kauffman Stadium with my parents, my sister and her husband, my wife and oldest daughter. Despite a disappointing record over the past two decades, there are traditions and ties to Kansas City that are threaded through some of my deepest and most cherished memories. When I am rooting for the Royals, I’m not merely hoping for a certain team to triumph; I am also remembering – and many of these memories are tinged with white and blue.
3) Affinities: Random preferences and prejudices, quibbles and quirks. For certain fans, the designated-hitter rule is such a deal-breaker that they’re incapable of rooting for any American League franchise. Others select and reject teams because they’re excited or annoyed by particular players. For me, long-term rootedness in a particular place is vitally important, so a skip from one city to another permanently besmirches a team’s reputation. And, of course, everyone in his or her right mind recognizes that the Yankees deserve to be beaten at every possible turn. Such are the less-conscious quibbles and quirks by which we choose between teams that might otherwise have been equal in our allegiances.
Thinking through this, it has occurred to me that some of these patterns may also explain what pulls many people to churches. According to a Gallup poll conducted not too many years ago, three of the top reasons why Americans attend church are a sense of fellowship, family traditions and how the experience at church personally inspires them – reasons similar in some ways to the patterns of affinity, memory and commonality that drive fans to persist in their faithfulness to particular teams.
Being tied to a church by memories might be a positive pattern as long as family traditions don’t compete with the church’s commitment to the Great Commission. When it comes to using affinity and commonality to attract people to church, however, I’m not so certain that these patterns are in any way positive. And yet, whether intentionally or not, this is often how we aim people toward particular congregations: “Lots of children about the same age as your kids go there; you should try it.” “The music there is amazing!” “That campus might be a bit too traditional for your taste.” “You probably wouldn’t feel comfortable there anyway – that church is mostly college students.”
The problem with choosing a church the same way you choose a team
When choosing which team to cheer for in the postseason, looking to one’s own commonalities, memories and affinities is perfectly harmless. And yet, when these phenomena form the foundations for trying to grow a community of faith, the results fall far short of God’s design. Appealing to people’s commonalities, memories and personal affinities tends to turn churches into a homogeneous conglomeration of spectators instead of a diverse community of gospel-centered servants.
Suppose I encourage people to attend my church because the church matches their pre-existing affinities or because the people in the congregation are a lot like them. This mentality meshes well with the “homogeneous unit principle” that once dominated church growth literature. This principle urged churches to avoid mingling “diverse social and cultural elements” because culturally diverse congregations make it impossible “to maintain a sense of community.”
This idea isn’t new, of course. In the first century A.D., when ex-idol-worshipers showed up to worship alongside Jewish Believers, churches in Ephesus and Rome cooked up their own versions of the homogeneous unit principle – but the Apostle Paul vehemently rejected the notion of a church fragmented along cultural fault lines.
Paul claimed that the death of Jesus had so thoroughly shattered the walls between diverse cultures that pork-eaters and Sabbath-keepers could now worship and serve together as one body (Ephesians 2:11-18). In the process, Paul unmasked the homogeneous unit principle for what it really is: a repudiation of the power of the gospel. The church’s capacity for community originates not in human homogeneity but in the Holy Spirit of God (Ephesians 4:1-3).
And yet, let’s be honest about ourselves and our churches: This divinely ordained capacity for diversity is far from the reality experienced by most American Christians. In fact, even with the regional commonalities that attract baseball fans to particular franchises, the spectatorship at a typical professional game reflects more racial and socioeconomic diversity than the membership of most churches. If the world is ever to glimpse the peacemaking power of the gospel, God’s people must recognize that homogeneity is not God’s design for the growth of his church. Part of the beautiful foolishness of the cross is the fact that those who rub shoulders in the shadow of the cross are people that the world would never dream of mingling together (1 Corinthians 1:18-29).
Regional commonality, familial memory, and personal affinities can be – like sports – wondrous expressions of common grace. They may even, at times, provide bridges for the proclamation of the gospel. But the church is called to a greater and better communion, a fellowship that points explicitly and unmistakably toward the cross and the empty tomb formerly occupied by King Jesus. He is the head of the church, and He gave his life for the church so that the cosmos could be filled with glory divine (Ephesians 1:22-23). It is His character and His alone that must shape the church’s identity and constitution (Ephesians 4:11-16).
In Christ, there are no season-end laments about “next time” because He has already triumphed once and for all, and His triumph purchased people “from every tribe and every language, every people and every nation” (Revelation 5:9). To this people, He has provided “hope that does not disappoint” (Romans 5:5). Through this people, God is forming a new family, a family brought together not by shared memories or preferences or similarities but by adoption on the basis the blood of Jesus Christ.
So don’t point people toward a fellowship based on shallow and fleeting human affinities; such commonalities are fine at the ballpark but disastrous in the body of Christ. Point people instead to their shared need for divine rescue from the domain of darkness, a rescue that results in fellowship that lasts forever.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This column first appeared at www.timothypauljones.com, the website of Timothy Paul Jones. Jones is associate professor of leadership and church ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Jones is the author or co-author of several books, including “Christian History Made Easy” and “Misquoting Truth: A Guide to the Fallacies of Bart Ehrman’s ‘Misquoting Jesus.’”)
 C. Peter Wagner, “How to Grow a Church” (Glendale: Regal, 1973) .