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

By Bob Smietana
baseball empty seats
Large sections of empty seats are shown during the sixth inning of a Major League Baseball game. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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.

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“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. 

“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.

Tom johnson basebell empty
Pitcher Tom Johnson in 1978. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

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.

Fewer than half of Americans in 2021 told Gallup they belong to a house of worship, the lowest percentage since the 1930s. Twenty-nine percent of Americans identify as “Nones” — claiming no religious identity — while only a quarter say they go to church weekly, and less than a third (31%) say they go to services monthly.

Major denominations — United Methodist, Lutheran, Southern Baptist, Presbyterian — have lost millions of members in recent decades.

What have those groups done in the face of that decline? They have turned inward, fighting amongst themselves over sex, race and doctrine while their churches fall apart.

Baseball has seen similar declines.

In 2019, more than 65 million people went to a major league game. In 2021, that number had dropped to 45 million, according to Front Office Sports. Some of the decline in attendance was due to COVID — as the 2021 season started with pandemic restrictions — but attendance at games had already been dropping ever since reaching an all-time high of about 80 million people in 2007, The New York Times reported.

empty seats baseball
Locked gates are shown at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves baseball team, on March 2, 2022. Opening games for all 30 major league teams have been delayed due to a contract dispute. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Those declines are driven in part by changes in the game that have made it boring and joyless. Games start late, run long and are filled with tedious at-bats that most often end in strikeouts and walks. When a player hits the ball hard, it’s usually right into a shift, where the defending player is in perfect position to catch the ball, thanks to advanced analytics.

The only saving grace is that once in a while there is a homer, often followed by a manager’s visit to the mound and a change in pitchers, causing more delays.

Rather than work to improve the game and connect with fans, baseball owners locked out the players, and the two sides are now stalemated over how to split billions in revenue. Baseball’s owners and players might want to pay attention to what is happening on the religious landscape before letting their feud go on too long. 

Because baseball is more than a business. It is a religion of sorts — a vast social movement that shapes people’s lives, that touches on family, identity, regional loyalty and the joy of being together. It gives us something to talk about and can bring us together when life gets messy.

But more and more people are increasingly content to live without religion in the same way Americans are increasingly disinterested in baseball. 

It’s not just the churches and the clubs that are to blame — both baseball and religion are also victims of changes in American culture, said Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, and a longtime baseball fan.

“Baseball as a pastime assumes an America in which people have free time where they can sit down and enjoy a baseball game during the work week,” he said. “The church also assumes that people set aside time — Sunday morning — and when I was growing up, all day Sunday — for church.”

empty church
The Rev. Kip Rush delivers his sermon in a sanctuary filled with mostly empty pews March 15, 2020, during a streamed service at Brenthaven Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Now, he says, both baseball and religion are competing with a host of other options for the attention of Americans who have a dwindling amount of free time. They can no longer assume people will care or want to be involved.

Scott Thumma, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, said baseball and organized religion used to live by a saying made famous in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams”: “If you build it, they will come.”

Put up a new church or new baseball stadium and the crowds would follow.

That might have been true in the past, said Thumma, but neither baseball nor churches can expect people to show up on a regular basis. Instead, they have to work hard to connect with their audience and adapt to the changing world around them.

Otherwise, life will pass both baseball and religion by.

Baseball’s owners and players may eventually resolve their differences and get back to work. The same may happen in religious groups. But the damage has already been done.

When the fights are over — whether in church or in baseball — who will be left to care?

“People are going to move on,” Johnson said. “They are going to learn to live without the church. They are going to learn to live without baseball.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

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9 thoughts on “‘If You Build It They Will Come’ No Longer Works for Baseball or Organized Religion”

  1. I was sitting in church once and the pastor was talking about one member of his congregation that was upset about something and said he was leaving the church. The pastor said leave I don’t care! Then he told us I don’t care who stays or leaves. I thought right just what everyone wants a church that doesn’t care!!!! That church closed its doors!!!

    1. Andrew Thomas

      Julie P,

      Was the pastor was speaking Biblical truth, and the member did not like it?

      Or was the pastor harming the congregation through false teaching/harmful speech/bad behavior, the member called him out on it, and the pastor blew them off?

    2. LORD Jesus is our savior, not our religion. Buildings, institutions, pastors, excetera are not the CHURCH. Born again followers of LORD JESUS are the CHURCH, and then gates of Hell will not prevail against HIS CHURCH.

  2. Bob Smietana is a talented journalist. Classical American journalist one might say. Able to depict and communicate the humanity and lived-lives he is observing and reporting on.
    I agree with returning to what once drew Americans to baseball and religion, at least to reflect; and then perhaps to wisely adjust to an ever changing present.
    Mind and care for the poor and marginalised works for me, as a ground for being and having meaningfullness. The UK needing to do what America needs to do in this regard; whether its UK football or religion.
    Edifying article.

    1. @ericswenson, I agree. We are the church. And our calling is not to fill buildings or pews or programs, though our local bodies of believers may have all of those. Our call is to declare the gospel to those who have ears to hear. If no one wants to hear truth, we are not to change to another gospel. There is only one gospel and if we preach another (false) gospel, then let us be accursed.

      I enjoy baseball, but if no one ever comes to a baseball game, I have little concern.

      Perhaps, there is some confusion between the mission of the church (the Body of Christ) and the mission of Major League Baseball. The church is to declare the gospel, MLB is to fill its coffers through the entertainment of its fans.

      Maybe the business model, the social justice model, the progressive model, the entertainment model, the prosperity model, etc are not declaring the gospel, but other models as their gospel?

      Last thought, I believe we are coming to a day when the church returns to not having buildings and to possibly meeting secretly as truth becomes more and more offensive to our culture. One good to come of that will be that we will no longer confuse the building with the church. Believers, we are the church and the gates of hell will not prevail against us.

  3. Stanley Goodwin

    For me, too much of golf and watching baseball became a form of idolatry. Good riddance. A waste of time that produced nothing. Free at last.

  4. Mark Gunderson

    To be fair to Major League Baseball, Shohei Ohtani in 2021 posted the best two-way season of any player since Babe Ruth (arguably ever). No other player since Ruth’s 1919 season has pitched for 100+ strikeouts and hit for 10+ home runs, and Ohtani pitched for 156 K and hit 46 (!) HR. That’s just cool.

  5. As the article says,

    “They’ve betrayed the people’s trust, …and trust is hard to regain.”

    The Roys Report has documented many examples of this in the church.
    And the baseball cheating scandal in 2017-18 did much to destroy that trust in America’s pastime – even professing Christians were part of it as these articles show.

    https://sportsspectrum.com/sport/baseball/2019/10/28/carlos-correa-thanks-god-astros-brink-world-series-title/

    https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2017/october-web-only/astros-chaplain-play-for-god-and-pray-to-win.html

    https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/february-web-only/baseball-trashcans-signs-numbers-astros-moses.html

    As far as trust being restored in baseball, it doesn’t bode well for the future of the game, but time will tell. Hope does spring eternal in the baseball world.

    As far as trust being restored to the church and individual Christians. God will not forsake his church or His people. But they do have a responsibility:

    “But this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.” – Isaiah 66:2

    A church of people that Isaiah describes will do more to regain the trust it has lost more than any gimmicks and programs. And with God there is always hope for this.

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