You can't make this stuff up. A colleague's church participates in a church softball league. At risk of making the understatement of the year, I am not athletic. Sure, I can walk great distances, but that is the extent of my athletic prowess. Yet, a church softball league ought to be a safe haven...a place where even the likes of me can find a place on the team. A church softball league ought to be a place where competition is not a significant source of motivation. A church softball league ought to be a place that welcomes the least of these and gives them a jersey.
My colleague uncovered some uncomfortable truths about the church softball team. First, a majority of the players were not church members...and, yes, I know that perhaps these lost souls could come to know Jesus by the crack of a bat, but they weren't recruited as a form of evangelism. They were recruited for their abilities and the 'edge' that they could give the team. Their "edge" came at the expense of younger church members who were relegated to the bench because "this game is too aggressive." Really? If church softball is too aggressive, then please don't call it "church." "Real World" softball, maybe. Dog eats dog softball. Ratrace softball. Win at all costs softball. Look out for number one softball. But, not "church" softball.
This story set something off in me - competition and rivalry are not healthy operating guidelines for the church. But, how quickly they sink in...and not just in softball. We take votes on major decisions - immediately setting up winners and losers. Some churches vote for church leadership - potential deacons running against each other - setting the stage for hurt feelings. We have preaching awards, lists of "most influential men or women" in religion, top ten churches in evangelism awards, and numerous opportunities for recognition as the brightest and the best. Christian leaders keep track of their numbers ("How big is your congregation?" is a frequent pastoral question). Christian writers track their rankings on Amazon. We pay attention to those identified as "someone to watch" and we look for leaders who are "going places."
Sometimes, I think that with the mindset of competition and rivalry, the church world could be a reality show - let's shoot for a perfect score every time and let's hope somebody else gets voted off.
But, what if we just stopped? What if we stopped pursuing the world's trophies? What if we measured our success by our relationships and not our numbers? Better yet, what if we threw away the desire to be "successful" and gave deeper consideration to the desire to be faithful? What if we started gladly warming the bench and even preferring the bench over rivalry? What if we recognized competition as a dangerous in the life of faith? Sure, some people can handle it gracefully, but most of us get too invested in the win.
Or, maybe I'm just projecting my own mid-life crisis on the church! However, it does seem to me that the call of Christ leads us deeper...not higher. All of our recognitions and awards and medals can lead us to crave these things and to feel self-satisfied when we achieve them. These days, Jesus is inviting me to something else - something that does not insist on perfection - something that does insist on cooling my heels and on taking it all in with a glad and generous heart. Honestly, I don't know exactly what that "something" is. But, I'm pretty sure it doesn't involve a blue ribbon.