The Major League Baseball season is drawing to a close once again. My favorite team launched the season with the most hopeful of slogans: “This is our time.” But “our time” quickly faded into “next time” for Kansas City, and the Royals spent most of the season locked in a contest with the Minnesota 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 years of earning graduate degrees, I stopped following baseball altogether. Upon my return, I realized that—though Kansas City had fared no better without me than with me—not even decades in the cellar of season-end standings had managed to dethrone the Royals from first place in my sporting allegiances.
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 imprint with the logos of Indians and Mariners, Pirates and Cubs.
So why is it that human beings select certain teams and stick with them even when these franchises have no reasonable chance at a championship?
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 how we try 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 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 three-year-old, each one emblazoned 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 from the Royals over the past two decades, ties to Kansas City are threaded through some of my deepest and most cherished memories. When I root for someone from Kansas City, 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 sporting the logo of any American League team. Others select and reject teams because they’re excited or annoyed by particular players. For me, long-term rootedness in a particular place matters deeply, 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 have always been insufferably arrogant and 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.
In thinking through this, it has occurred to me that some of these patterns also explain what pulls many people to churches. According to a Gallup poll a few 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 many 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 familial memories could 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 affinities and commonalities to attract people to church, however, I’m not so certain that these patterns are in any way positive. And yet, intentionally or not, this is how we aim people toward particular congregations at times: “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.”
When choosing which team to cheer 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 affinities tends to turn churches into conglomerations of spectators centered on their own similarities instead of divinely-diversified communities of gospel-driven 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 a form of the “homogeneous unit principle” that dominated church growth literature for many years. This principle urged churches to avoid mingling “diverse social and cultural elements” because culturally-diverse congregations made it impossible “to maintain a sense of community.”* This principle isn’t new, of course. In the first century A.D., when ex-idol-worshipers showed up to worship alongside Jewish believers in the Messiah, churches in Ephesus and Rome cooked up their own versions of the homogeneous unit principle—but the apostle Paul vehemently rejected the notion of congregations organized along social fault lines. According to Paul, the death of Jesus so thoroughly shattered the walls between diverse social structures that pork-eaters and Sabbath-keepers could now worship and serve together as one body (Ephesians 2:11-18). In the process, Paul unmasked this form of 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 work of God’s Holy Spirit (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 in most American churches. In fact, even with the regional affinities that attract baseball fans to particular franchises, the spectatorship at a typical professional ballgame reflects greater racial and socioeconomic diversity than the membership in most evangelical churches. Nevertheless, if the world is ever to glimpse the peacemaking power of the gospel, it must be recognized that homogeneous units are not God’s plan 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 affinity can be—like sports—wondrous expressions of the common grace that surges beneath the surface of every centimeter of God’s creation. These patterns may even, at times, provide starting-points for the proclamation of the gospel. But the church is the outpost of a kingdom that is at once more particular and more diverse than anything the world could ever conjure. The church is called to grow into a multi-hued fellowship from every side of the tracks that points explicitly and unmistakably toward the cross and empty tomb formerly occupied by King Jesus. He is the head of the church, and his affinities alone are the ones that must shape the church’s identity and constitution (Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:11-16). In him, there are no season-end laments about “next time” because he has already triumphed once and for all, and his triumph purchased particular 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 anything so shallow and fleeting as human affinities and similarities. Such commonalities may be useful at the ballpark but they are disastrous as a basis for unity in the body of Christ. Point people instead to their universal need for divine rescue, for the rescue that removes us from the domain of darkness and binds us in the fellowship that will outlast every human connection and family tie.
* C. Peter Wagner, in Win Arn and Donald McGavran, How to Grow a Church (Glendale: Regal, 1973) 47-48. The homogeneous unit principle—which Donald McGavran championed as a strategy to assist in contextualizing gospel presentations and to utilize human similarities as bridges to begin gospel conversations—became in C. Peter Wagner’s work a prescriptive foundation for church planting. While I am not in complete agreement with McGavran’s formulation of this principle, McGavran’s work was not without its merits and has been helpful in many contexts. The form of this principle that I critique here owes far more to Wagner’s reappropriation than to McGavran’s initial formulation.