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‘If You Build It They Will Come’ No Longer Works for Baseball — Or Organized Religion

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Locked gates are shown at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, Wednesday, March 2, 2022, in Atlanta. With owners and players unable to agree on a labor contract to replace the collective bargaining agreement that expired Dec. 1, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred followed through with his threat on Tuesday and canceled the first two series for each of the 30 major league teams. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

(RNS) — Tom Johnson loves baseball.

And he loves the church.

Both, said Johnson, a former Minnesota Twins pitcher turned pastor, are in trouble.

They’ve lost touch with their past and with ordinary people. They’ve become too much of a show, their leaders too disconnected from their audience, he said. Both religion and baseball see the people in the pews and the fans in the seats as sources of revenue rather than valued partners or supporters. They’ve betrayed the people’s trust, he said, and trust is hard to regain.

He worries about the recent lockout in Major League Baseball, which led to the news that opening day of the 2022 season would be cancelled and concerns that games may not return until May.

“It is hard to take something away and then say, we really care about you and come back,” he said. “And by the way, we are going to charge you more when you get back.”

Johnson also worries about the decline of churches and other forms of organized religion in the United States. He knows younger Americans are looking for something to believe in and want to change the world. But they often find that churches lack a compelling vision that would attract them.

Pitcher Tom Johnson in 1978. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Pitcher Tom Johnson in 1978. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Twins/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

“The church has shot itself in the foot by not adhering to the values that have attracted it to people down through the centuries — that is, caring about the poor and those who are on the margins,” said Johnson, missions pastor at Church of the Open Door in Maple Grove, Minnesota.

Johnson pitched for parts of five seasons in the major leagues in the 1970s before an injury cut his career short, leading to a second career in ministry and as director of GoodSports International, a nonprofit that runs sports camps and youth centers in Slovakia.

Baseball’s feud has also taken a personal toll on Johnson. He is one of about 500 older former players who did not have enough service time to get a pension but get a small stipend in their retirement. Those payments have been cut off during the labor dispute.

Baseball’s cancellation of Opening Day happened the same week leaders of the United Methodist Church announced plans to delay the denomination’s General Convention till 2024 —the third time the meeting has been delayed by COVID-19. That meeting was supposed to resolve a long-running dispute over sexuality in the denomination by allowing more conservative churches to leave.

Instead, any resolution has been put off. Churches may leave without knowing whether they will be able to keep their buildings, and internal feuds will likely continue. All the while, the denomination’s membership is in free-fall. In 1970, the UMC numbered more than 10.5 million. By 2019, there were 6.47 million United Methodists, and the decline shows no sign of stopping.