For as long as I can remember I’ve been a baseball fan. Baseball is a wonderful analogy for life and faith: it takes a team effort to win games; home runs happen but they’re rare, more often than not we’re dependent on our teammates to get us home; “home” is both where we start and also our destination. I could go on but you get the picture. As I continue to study and reflect on the practice of evangelism I would like to use baseball (at least how it’s depicted in movies) to illustrate both a right and a wrong way to practice evangelism in our local churches.
Alasdair MacIntyre defines a practice as:
any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence which are appropriate to, and partially definitive of, that form of activity (After Virtue, 1984, p. 187)
To better understand this definition of practice, I turn to the work of Bryan Stone who breaks this definition offered by MacIntyre into four characteristics of how to understand a practice:
- The good that are realized in carrying out a practice are “internal” to that practice
- The criteria for doing well in a practice are determined largely by the practice itself and, indeed, are “partially definitive” of a practice
- A practice is defined by its nature as a “socially established” and “cooperative” human activity
- The practice itself is not the quality of one individual’s practice but a development of the practice within a discipline over time.
What does this mean for evangelism in The United Methodist Church? For starters, it means we have to decide whether we’ll practice evangelism with what I call a “Field of Dreams” approach or a “Major League” approach.
You’ll remember the great speech by James Earl Jones where he tells the stirring account of how baseball has both evolved with and transcended American history. The story of baseball is presented as something larger than any particular team, league, or event. It is that which was here before we were and it will move forward into the future even after we’re gone. What Ray had to do, in essence, was simply have faith that his project would stir something in the hearts of those others–so much so they would come from far and wide to experience it. The character Terrance’s speech speaks to the fact that even on our best days we can only simply hope to participate in and witness to something grander than we are as individuals. Baseball, in its purest form, is the grand vision Ray’s park hopes to witness to. And Terrance reminds us that when this is done faithfully, people will come–they won’t be able to stay away.
The “Major League” approach is very different. It’s a great movie that tells the tale of an inspiring team who, when they band together, can out perform themselves in order to keep from being sold away. It’s an entertaining account of a bunch of misfits who learn to work together, amid the vast diversity present, for a higher goal. In the end they triumph over great odds to achieve their goal.
On the surface this sounds like a worthy analogy for the church in its practice of evangelism. But we need to go back to MacIntyre’s understanding of a practice because there’s a difference between a practice being “good” and being “faithful.”
The “goods internal” to a practice help to define the practice itself. The practice of baseball requires particular goods such as hitting, throwing, pitching, and fielding. To practice it well, you must be able to perform these activities at a particular level. It’s the combination of these activities, within a certain set of rules and standards, that dictates how faithfully you can play baseball.
If evangelism is a practice then it too can be understood as employing a number of skills and activities. But, just like with baseball, you cannot reduce the practice of evangelism to any one of these activities and you have to judge it in terms of how well all of the activities serve the overall practice.
On the other hand, there are activities that we can call external to a practice. For example, The Atlanta Braves are external to the practice of baseball. You can be a fan of the Braves and they can spark your love for the game. But the Atlanta Braves do not define baseball because the game, in essence, will go on even if the Braves no longer existed. In terms of evangelism there are external goods as well. Church growth, buildings, and increased budgets are examples of external goods in the practice of evangelism. They are worthy aspects that can help us appreciate the practice of evangelism.
But there’s a big temptation to make our external goods the ends, or goals, we seek in our practice. If external goods become the aim of our practice, the practice will lose its integrity, and the virtues required for excellence, or faithfulness, will be replaced by a drive for “effectiveness.” External goods can often be measured whereas internal goods can only be appreciated and cultivated, much like art. Therefore one of the most important tasks we have in understanding any practice is distinguishing the difference between internal and external goods.
This distinction doesn’t set one against the other. But it does require us to prioritize the importance various aspects of how we practice evangelism. If, as United Methodists, we are called to lives marked by holiness of heart and life (John Wesley’s terminology), then we must decide what is more important, growth in numbers, power and prestige or growth in the faithfulness of how we live as the church. The emphasis on numbers and growth, while an important emphasis, inevitably leads us down a road similar to the Cleveland Indians in Major League. We’re playing for the preservation of what we already have. On the other hand, the emphasis on being a church marked by an emphasis on holiness of heart and life calls us to participate in a grander vision of God’s ongoing activity in the world. This is an activity that will live long after our buildings, budgets, and members are gone. And it is a participation that, if done faithfully and with the right perspective, will inevitably draw people around us closer as we are drawn closer to the heart of God’s transforming presence in our world.
[I am indebted to my good friend and “office next door neighbor”, Rev. Tommy Perkins, who gave me the movie analogies during one of our conversations where he lets me interupt his work to banter about these sorts of topics]