January 27, 2021

Game or Practice?

I have many friends in local baseball community. Many of them go to church. Some of them find it boring.

I’ve had several conversations with a acquaintance who goes to the Roman Catholic Church. He did not grow up Catholic, but his wife did, and they agreed to participate in the congregation as a family, and to raise their kids in the church. Most of the time, he puts up with the weekly Mass. He doesn’t understand why people get together and say the same things over and over again each Sunday. Some of this grows out of his lack of theological grounding. More of it comes from his intensely practical approach to life.

My friend is a professional and he understands the difference between effectiveness and wasted effort. When he commits himself to doing something, he likes to see results. You set goals, develop a plan, plot out a strategy, assemble your resources, put your team together, work the process, hold team members accountable, and work hard until you’ve achieved your goals. If a project is not working, you tweak it until it does, or you scrap it and develop another plan. This is how he approaches his work. My friend has also been involved at baseball at various levels, some of them pretty high up, and that was how he coached. He developed teams that played hard, played well, and won regularly.

He tells me he wouldn’t mind going to church each week if he felt like he would “get something out of it.” What I hear is that he would appreciate it more if the worship service were like a professional lecture or seminar, or even a ballgame or concert. If only he could take something away from the service — inspiration, information, enjoyment. If he could just feel he had spent time doing something productive, something he could measure.

What can I say to him about church, worship, and the liturgy that will help him understand what it’s all about?

What I say to him is, “You should think of worship as practice, not as the game.”

You see, I get the idea my professional/coach friend conceives of worship as an event, something you play in or attend as you would a ballgame (or a concert, a play, or a lecture). He imagines the priest and other up-front participants as the players, who are there to provide something of value for the spectators (the congregation).

With this perspective, he doesn’t understand why the “audience” is required to stand, sit, and kneel, sing, speak, and perform other sacred actions — the same ones over and over again each week. It doesn’t fit his conception of what spectators do at an event.

But worship is not an event. It is not the game. The corporate worship service, like all spiritual practices, is more like preparation for the game. The game is life.

The 2012 baseball season starts this week. For a couple of months now, teams have been engaged in spring training. The players have been participating in drills, taking batting and fielding practice, and meeting together to learn their team’s particular strategies for having a winning season. In essence, they have been doing the same things over and over and over again. And they will continue to have practices throughout the season during which they will run the same drills the same way until they can do them with their eyes closed. Before every game they will take infield, they will hit in the batting cages. Pitchers will run and throw their bullpens. They will have regular team meetings. Baseball and all other sports require continual practice and preparation.

Those practices will form them, as individual players and as a team. And then, on 162 different occasions (plus the playoffs if they’re successful), they will take the field, hear the National Anthem, and play ball. The game. If they have practiced well, if they have mastered the fundamentals, if they have gotten into game shape, if they have developed team chemistry, if they have bought into the manager’s vision, and so on, then they have a much better chance of being a good team with a winning record.

Now I know my friend understands the importance of practice. He recognizes the value of participating in repetitive drills, training muscle memory, developing steady work habits. He was an excellent “fundamentals” coach who developed players who did well in games.

Worship is Christian “practice”: our constant re-engagement with the fundamentals of life — God, the saving work of Christ, the ministry of the Spirit, the Word and Table, prayer and praise, the family of God. Week in and week out, we meet in worship, study, and fellowship and participate in practices together that form us to “play the game” of life the way it was meant to be played — loving God and our neighbors from transformed hearts.


  1. Sounds like the perfect cure for the common churchianity.

  2. Moonshadow says

    Huh, and I thought this post was about something else.

    I’ve long seen a strong analogy between baseball and Christianity, primarily in terms of commitment and depth of knowledge. Some people, like me, cannot recite statistics of famous players. Others understand strategy so well that a coach’s decision in the bottom of the 8th with two outs and runners in scoring position is a no-brainer.

    Despite differences across the board in terms of knowledge and ability, there’s something for everyone in baseball … and in Christianity. While we’re striving to understand better and act more, we can take pleasure in where we’re at.

  3. “I have many friends in local baseball community. Many of them go to church. Some of them find it boring.”

    I have many friends in the local church community. Some of them go to baseball games. Most of them find it boring… though I think the analogy breaks down after that. 🙂

    • And, as Yogi Berra said, “Baseball is like church — many attend, few understand.”

    • His reasoning is what attracted me to evangelicalism. Lights, excitement, plans, vision, “How to get to _____ in so much amount of time…” The other day in the mail I got an Easter flyer from a church in the DC area called Capital Bapist (not to be confused with Capital Hill Baptist). Anyhow… it was all sleek and slick and was advertsing the “Bod for God” program of weight loss. I went to the church’s wesbite and the church seemed stuck between the world and SBC ideals. The website if you are interested is http://www.capitalbaptist.org

  4. I think he’s right, as a rule. Most churches I’ve ever been to are a waste of time by any standards – mundane or religious. Whatever church you go to, you should achieve something in the world as a result. Something that is pleasing to God. If you keep going to church and you don’t do any works that are pleasing to the Lord, your church isn’t teaching you anything. I often say that church is the locker room and the world is where the game happens. If you leave church and don’t do anything for the Lord on the outside, why were you in church in the first place?

  5. Church is more than practice; it’s is a window outside the matrix. In Church, you receive rebirth in baptism, you receive food in communion, and you receive true wisdom in the Word. In church, you see how the real world works, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven praising Christ. It is timeless and beautiful.

    Church is helpful for our lives in this world because we remember that this world is temporary, and there is another, new world that will replace it. Christ will unplug the matrix and bring us into the new world we saw and experienced in Word and Sacrament.

    • I happen to agree with you, Boaz. It is more than practice. But I was looking for a metaphor my friend would understand and appreciate. I doubt if what you said here would help him. Even though I like it very much.

      • Thinking about it more, I think you can make the practice metaphor work. In watching tape and perfecting mechanics, you don’t really see any progress, but you are building muscle memory that is activated later without thinking.

        In the liturgy, you are building muscle memory for faith. The framework guides one to reject one’s own selfish will (confession of oneself as a sinner) and replace it with Christ’s will for selfless, sacrificial love, though faith.

        I’ve seen it in my own grandparents, and I often hear it from pastors, about how the last thing to slip away in old age is the Word taught in the liturgy and catechism. Lord’s prayer, creed, kyrie, agnus dei, etc.

        It’s also the easiest way to teach kids in a way that sticks with them. While many kids leave liturgical churches, the liturgical formation keeps them Christian in some church or another, and they very often come back later when find other forms of worship insubstantial failing to provide comfort or have kids and start to see how key the liturgy was in their own Christian formation. It bugs me to no end how many churches take kids out of church to give them a goofball kiddy church. Ugh. Worship isn’t just learning a few key doctrines and stories, it’s connecting those doctrines to the overall church in time and space in a way that is reverent and beautiful.

        • Well said, boaz. That’s exactly what I was trying to get across.

          • A tweak I’d make is to say the game we prepare for is suffering and death. Those hard times are when we grasp about and find the most benefit in the liturgy. A person’s whose life is going swell probably would rather listen to classic rock or talk radio than sing an old, half-forgotten hymn by Gerhard.

  6. I know where he is coming from CM, being pragmatic is a great thing.

    When I was protestant, I looked for churches that would give *ME* what I needed, a good message, teaching, things that I could use to hammer out my faith. But when your looking for something more, it never ends until finally you find that nothing meets your needs anymore.

    I know what your saying about Church being practice and I guess that’s true in a way, but I think there’s more too it. The question that I would ask is “why do you go to Mass?”

    It’s a simple question really, but it can change everything once you stop thinking in terms of what you can get, and instead think of what you can give.

    Mass isn’t about the homily, or the singing, or the coffee afterwards. It’s not about any of those things, its about worshiping a creator who so loved us that he gave his own life for ours, and every week in the liturgy we get to thanks him for his grace and mercy.

    Even horrible sinners like myself, who don’t have a righteous bone in my body, get to partake in a mystery and worship my creator. Can Mass be boring, yep, the homilies can he be horrid at times. I’ve been lost more than once by where the priest was going. The singing is pretty bad, we could really take a lesson from the protestants in that area. There are lots of things that you could pick apart, but none of that matters.

    So you could call it practice, but I like to think of it in terms of giving a Merciful and Loving God, the worship he so richly deserves. And when I stop worrying about what I’m getting out of it, and just give. I always get more than I went in expecting.



    • Paul,

      I like what you say about worship and where our focus should be. But for some in the Church, especially guys, they have to first move into the phase of actually caring and paying attention (many come because the wife gives them grief if they don’t – we’re talking Catholic here) and then move from the phase of ‘What’s in it for me’ or the applied Bible mentaility of how its suppose to be a self help service. But once they move from expecting something to giving something as you mentioned above liturgy becomes a wide open experience.

      For me there are two things that helped me make the transition. First was reading scripture often, because the more I read it, the more I picked up scripture snippets in the liturgy, and came to realize I was participating in it as community. Second, I read a lot of the mystical masters and that helped with my depth.

      So now we are coming up to my favorite part of the liturgical year with the Tenebrae being one of my favorite liturgical events with its Lauds and Matins. In my expecting phase this would have bored me to tears. And I am hoping to avoid my pastor before the service lest he have me work the lights again which defeats the whole experience for me – there I go again thinkin about me….

  7. What can I say to him about church, worship, and the liturgy that will help him understand what it’s all about?

    It sounds like his greater need is to know and understand Jesus. Why don’t you start meeting with him on a regular basis to share the Gospel?

    • He’s a Christian, Eric. I’m trying to help him appreciate the value of the liturgy.

      • From what you wrote, it doesn’t sound like his Christianity is in sync with the RCC version of Christianity. Maybe he’s wired for Lutheranism and the Gospel according to Luther, as opposed to the Gospel according to the CCC.

        • … or he could be wired for rock bands, or a simple thanks be to God while building houses for the poor in Mississippi…. I think that if he isn’t yet wired for Liturgy he will by pass all other forms of Christianity that celebrate it and go for the free form style…

  8. I don’t think this will satisfy your friend.

    If we take the practice approach, then practice should be more productive. If worship is practice then a good sermon with real life experience (or a well organized lecture) makes perfect sense. That kind of sermon gives you the tools you need for when you get to the Big Show called life.

    Who goes to practice whithout the goal of “getting something out of it”?

    The practice argument may be a good defense for modern evangelical worship style and content.

    • Actually, I think the opposite, Pastor Brendan. The image came to mind because I’ve been there with him, in the batting cages and the field house throughout the winter, doing the same things over and over again, with no apparent productivity. The modern evangelical worship style is just the opposite. If there is no immediate gratification or “sense of God’s presence,” then it is disappointing to the worshiper. The worshiper in a liturgical church goes through the same motions, says the same words, repeats the same patterns over and over again. It is not always clear how many of the elements relate to my life or to modern life. In fact, they seem strange and unconnected to it. And yet they form us deeply.

      • Having done both I think what sells people on liturgy is that constant practice of worship. For example, in fundagelical services its all about lights, sermons, brownnosing your friends, numbing yourself by singing your lungs out. It’s a liturgy that many evangelicals are in denial about. Well as life happens and people get cancer, lose their jobs, families change, loved one die, etc.. People want stability…and you can’t have that stability in a modern fundagelical service. The liturgy offers that stability in a crazy and changing world. Look at how much the world has changed.. Technology, communications, entertainment, transportation, computers, etc.. I mean your I-phone or smart phone is going to be out of date in a couple of years. But in this era of upheavel the liturgy offers stability. That’s what I would say….

        • I understand your jadedness concerning evangelical worship but that’s not everyone’s experience. Your thoughts about liturgy I have heard echoed by former Lutherans and Catholics in our church when I started re-introducing traditional elements in worship.

      • CM,

        I think I can kind of agree with that.

    • …That kind of sermon gives you the tools you need for when you get to the Big Show called life…

      Also known as an Applied Bible seminar. I agree that’s what some are looking for especially the “me” oriented. If I want that I tend to read it in books since someone delivering that message will deliver it much slower than I want it from the pulpit.

      My focus is a little different. I am not expecting anything, I am simply spending time with the Lord. Kind of like when I go over and visit my aging parents – I am not expecting anything from them. But I admit there is a certain amount of spiritual maturity that has to take place first and its hard to guide people to that thought process until they’ve gone through the phases. Many just want to stop at a certain phase and go no further because it may require change. And change is hard to do. Or they just don’t care to which is what I encounter more often because the pull of secular life is more appealing or it may require more work or change (there’s that word again).

      I spend a lot of time with nominal christians, in my work life, in my coaching life (those folks don’t get me at all sometimes -especially if all their focus goes to putting little Johnnyn or Susie on a pedistal) – so I understand that the ideal answer and the realistic answer do not mesh most of the time.

  9. I agree that church is practice for the Big Show. But there needs to be far more practice than just the church service. The reason we gather for church is to do the corporate stuff—the forms of worship that we can’t do solo. Like communion, sharing testimonies, sharing needs and getting them prayed for, group prayer, group singing, hearing what God’s been teaching the preacher, and so forth.

    If the solitary practices aren’t part of a Christian’s life, they’re not gonna fully engage in the group practices. They won’t see the point of half of them. They’ll be that much more empty.

  10. Biggus D. says

    Practice? Naw, it’s more like a pep rally.

  11. Randy Thompson says

    I’d respond to your friend by citing his complaint that he doesn’t “get anything out of” church, and then turn his complaint on its head.

    If you go to church to “get something out of it,” you’re trying to squeeze God into your own set of priorities; you’re cannibalizing the things of God for the sake of your own agenda. If you go to church so that God can get something out of you, you’re on the right track. Participating in worship is as much about making oneself known to God as it is to try to know God better. It is to lose yourself, in some small way at least, in what’s eternal. And, when you’ve spent some time in the presence of eternity, you find that you are fitting the rest of your life in its context, not vice versa.

    A mountain-climbing illustration: When climbing Mt. Everest, almost all climbers need to take oxygen with them to survive, especially as they enter the “death zone” of the highest altitudes. The oxygen enables them to climb to the summit, and to look down on the whole world around them and below them. Worship, liturgy and church are like the oxygen taken by climbers of Mt. Everest. If you want to attain the spiritual “summit” where God is, you need oxygen–the grace of worship–to do it. Church and worship are the spiritual oxygen we breath so that we pilgrims can make it to the “high places.”

    And, in the Bible, don’t both Greek and Hebrew have one word that stands for Spirit, air, and, most importantly for my purposes here, breath? Church, worship and liturgy is the place where we can breath deeply of God’s Spirit as we try to survive in the thin air of the “death zone” that is (fallen) life on this planet.

    • “If you want to attain the spiritual “summit” where God is, you need oxygen–the grace of worship–to do it. Church and worship are the spiritual oxygen we breath so that we pilgrims can make it to the ‘high places.’ ”

      I love this, Randy!

  12. It sounds to me like the law hasn’t done it’s job on your friend yet.

    To be fair…it probably hasn’t done it’s job on most Christians yet.

    When one realizes that one is just a step away from death, and that our lives are a testament to our lostness and need of a Savior…then the whole church thing becomes a little more exciting and relevant.

  13. Radagast says


    Boy does this resonate with me. I talk to a lot of Catholic men about this very thing. And I have some thoughts…

    Many Catholics are cultural Catholics and have not really taken the faith as their own. They are going through the motions. Two ways to possibly reach these folk is through action (give them something to do or solve), or peak their intellectual curiosity. That is why a lot of Catholic men join men’s groups which is not to be confused with a Bible study. I can usually picked them out of a group because they address others as needing “religion” instead of talking about spirtuality in terms of a faith life.

    CM – I think your analogy is great and I will use it in the future – but I think until they make the choice to go deeper than just hanging out on the surface, they will really not understand liturgy except that its a lot of canned responses and boring words (and kneeling, don’t forget the kneeling).

  14. Final Anonymous says

    You had me at the picture of the Cardinals in spring training. Especially Matheny at spring training.

    I’m intrigued by the fact that I am a baseball person and feel similarly to your friend. Except I am not necessarily looking to GET something out of worship, I am looking to GIVE. I am looking for a way that I can show the love of Christ and help spread it to the world.

    Many, many, MANY church programs feel like a waste of time (to me) in that light. Adding weekly rituals that don’t seem to connect me to anything divine just adds to that feeling. I don’t feel I’m helping the community. I don’t feel I’m connecting to the people next to me at church just because we say the same words at the same time. And I don’t feel like the liturgy gives me strength or any tool to take back out to the world to help me show the love of Christ during the week.

    Which makes me wonder again if I am trying to fit my personality into a liturgical box, just because others (different personality types?) do find meaning in it.

    • “Which makes me wonder again if I am trying to fit my personality into a liturgical box, just because others (different personality types?) do find meaning in it.”

      Liturgy doesn’t work for me. And I have tried many different liturgical churches of different traditions. To quote my son, “It seems the intent of liturgy is to put you to sleep in time for the sermon.” For me, I like to praise. And I am not talking lights and show here. Just voices raised together in praise of the Almighty. King of like it is going to be in Heaven.

      • I should note that the one exception to the above was at a Charismatic Evangelical Anglican service. I felt the combination of the three elements made for a wonderfully balanced service.

  15. The Previous Dan says

    “You set goals, develop a plan, plot out a strategy, assemble your resources, put your team together, work the process, hold team members accountable, and work hard until you’ve achieved your goals.”

    “What I hear is that he would appreciate it more if the worship service were like a professional lecture or seminar, or even a ballgame or concert.”

    Maybe your friend is in the wrong denomination. He sounds like the perfect candidate for evangelical church membership. Reread what you wrote and tell me if that wouldn’t be a good fit for this phase of his Christian walk. In trying to get him to appreciate liturgy, you may be trying to force something on him that he can’t appreciate right now. Wasn’t your time in an evangelical church beneficial and formative at a certain phase in your walk?

    • I hear what you are saying, and I have become an ersatz minister to him. What you suggest is certainly a possibility in theory, but for his family’s sake I think he will continue in his current tradition.

      • Time in an evangelical church is more likely to crush him with law than the Catholic church, ironically enough.

        • As opposed to crush him with guilt?

        • The Previous Dan says


          I disagree. I have benefited from each of the various Christian traditions I have participated in during my life so far. Everyone is convinced of their current tradition and thinks “this time I REALLY found it”, but honestly each has strengths and weaknesses. I would be a much narrower person I had been stuck in one tradition my whole life. I believe God led me through all those traditions and gave me something to take away from each.

          The heart led by the Holy Spirit knows what it needs down deep and should be free to explore various streams of Christianity to fill those needs.

  16. The Previous Dan says

    I suspected that would be the case since you wrote that he and his wife had an agreement. Maybe involvement in a parachurch organization like Christian Businessmen’s Association may aid his growth.

    BTW- I can’t see the term “ersatz minister” fitting you. What is here testifies that you are the genuine article in every way.

  17. Donalbain says

    There is a point to practice. Without practice you are bad at something. The more you practice, the better you get at that activity. The better you get at, for example a sport, the more likely you are to hit the ball, or catch the ball, or throw the ball in such away that the other guy doesn’t hit it. What do you get better at by going to church, and how do you measure that improvement?

  18. The metaphor that comes to my mind is that of a marriage. There are times that both husband and wife are doing something together they both enjoy. There are other times my husband wants to go to a ball game (and wants me to go with him). I go and try not to complain because I love him and love to be with him. There are times I want to go to the ballet and want him to go with me. And he goes because he loves me and wants to be with me. And surprisingly sometimes we each discover that we kindof enjoy the activity. But mostly we do it because we want to be with the other person, and being together enhances the relationship. Now, that’s not to say that my husband and I do everything together, so that’s where the metaphor might break down. But if our goal in a relationship is to grow closer and to have a deeper relationship then we will spend time together for the sake of the other and the relationship.

    • Final Anonymous says

      I guess for this to apply one has to feel their liturgical church service is the only (or best) place to find God and spend time with Him?

      • I didn’t mean that at all. Maybe my metaphor breaks down or something. I think we can encounter God anytime or anyplace, inside or outside a church building, etc. Just like a human relationship grows through a variety of experiences so does our relationship with God.

  19. Kelby Carlson says

    Gonna have to agree with Donalbain. As a musician, I have to practice quite a bit to maintain my craft. Now, not every single practice session is awesome–I’m not always making technical breakthroughs or leaping hurtles in the art. But each time I practice I do “get something out of it”, and that something is not intangible or unknowable. What do I “get” out of worship? The gospel proclaimed. The bread and the wine. THe presence of God amongst his people. These things are good in and of themselves, so if we’re going to use the practice metaphor we need to admit that, like practice, these things do and can have immediate benefits.

  20. Jesus layed down the all time sacrificial bunt with his blood, flesh, life and honor. To be crowned the Eternal MVP.

  21. Great analogy! Very helpful, and I intend to use it.

    Some maqy want to object that the analogy doesn’t compare on all levels (What would be the equivolent of the fans who watch ghe game, but don’t watch practice?), but that’s employing the fallacy of false analogy. Analogies don’t prove, the illustrate–they help us better understand by drawing a comparision to something intentionally diffrerent but familiar, helping us better understand the less familiar. To insist an analogy must be comparable on all and other levels than intended and shown is to try to force an analogy into being a proof–it’s using a screw driver on a nail. Wrong tool.

    Mike adeptly uses this analogy in the same way Jesus compared his kingdom to a seed. Those who want to object with, “That doesn’t prove anything,” should be met with the retort, “Exactly. That’s not the point of an analogy.”

    Just like anecdotes, analogies and other illustrations don’t prove, but they do help us understand and better apply the truth to life.

    I intend to use this analogy just for that purpose . . . especially with sports-fan friends.

  22. Christiane says

    when my memere (grandmother) was no longer able to talk, and didn’t understand us anymore, we could see her fingers moving over the beads of her rosary, beads worn thin as watermelon seeds from years of devotion . . .

    what we have prayed faithfully during our lives remains with us and does not leave us at our ending . . . as the Anglican hymn goes:

    ‘God be in my heart and in my keeping . . . God be at my end and at my departing’

    My grandmother was comforted at her departing.

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