Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Finding the Sweet Spot

By David Horn
Director, The Ockenga Institute

I woke up this morning to the news in the Boston Globe that has all of New England concerned. David Ortiz has lost his swing. More to the point, the Red Sox slugger who bats at the “sweet spot” in the batting order, has lost his ability to hit the ball consistently on the “sweet spot” of the bat. It’s that fertile part of hickory geography--between the handle and the very tip of the bat, where the round ball perfectly connects with the roundness of the barrel of the bat--that batters are forever seeking after. If this geography is compromised by a fraction of an inch, a would-be triple is dinked off into the left field grandstands or a hoped-for homer falls lifelessly into the glove of the right fielder.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to lead a retreat with a group of people in our church who are no longer in the sweet spot of our church. They playfully call themselves the Half Century Club. The geography these individuals represent sits on the out side of the bat, as it were: Lot’s of gray hair, lots of no hair, lots of sags and aches, lots of pills to remedy failing systems, lots of individuals on the other side of their dreams. What a great group they were, as they attentively discussed the Prologue of the Book of Job with me. You could see the message of that book written deeply in many of their eyes. Like Job, certainly several of them had seen many a curve ball in their own lives. Long gone are the days when they have felt comfortable at the plate, when they have felt fully productive in ways they once have been. Most of them have been pushed further down the batting order.

Churches have “sweet spots” as well. If the church literature is to be believed, the sweet spot in our churches is: Married…late 20’s to late 40’s…with children and teenagers… middle and upper middle class. These are the people we like to fill our pews because they make great volunteers for our programs. In fact, they have the children to fill these programs. And, they also are in prime positions to provide the resources to fund these programs. If we were going to start a church plant, these would certainly be the persons we would want to show up the first day we open our doors.

Churches, in fact, are measured by how they hit this demographic sweet spot. I always cringe a little when I hear people describe their churches as dying communities filled with “old people.” New England is filled with these kind of churches. On the one hand, I understand that “healthy” churches are deemed to be places that consistently seek to accommodate new people into the lives of their communities. They are vital places where new ideas are heard and accepted, institutions that are not stuck in the past. For this reason, “healthy” churches tend to be multi-generational that include persons of all ages.

But, I am not convinced that this is often what is meant by these comments. After all, who would start a church with the demographic found in the Half Century Club? Too often, functionality is the measure of community in our churches. That is, persons are too often measured by their ability to contribute. Like the Red Sox, the value a player has in our churches is measured by their ability to consistently hit the sweet spot.

But isn’t this what James is speaking against when he admonishes his brothers and sisters not to show favoritism in their churches? He speaks in economic terms—“Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in shabby clothes also comes in (James 2.2).”—but he could just as well be speaking of my elderly friends. The point is, community should not be measured in terms of the transient form of functional value found from those in our midst. After all, when all is said and done, when Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God earlier in the New Testament, who are those who inherit the earth?: The poor in spirit, and those who mourn, and the meek…and you know the rest of the Beatitudes.

Perhaps the reason why I am particularly sensitive to this issue is because there is a reason why I was asked to speak at this Half Century Club retreat. I am one of them. How did this happen? In my head, I am still thirty-five years old, still hitting in the sweet spot of the order. All of a sudden, I find myself on the backside of my own productivity, certainly my hopes and dreams. So, I ask my own church what I ask more broadly, “What is my role in the church now that I no longer can hit for average and with power?” (I just hope Ortiz gets his swing back…but I digress!)

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