With the arrival of spring training, a new season of professional baseball is underway. Each one of the MLB’s 30 organizations has temporarily relocated to the warmer climates of Arizona or Florida. The warmth and sun gives teams a chance to knock off the rust and work out the kinks that have accumulated over the several months since they last played.
For many people, the start of a new baseball season is like seeing the first flowers of spring. It’s an omen that warmer, brighter, greener days are on the way. And it also means—for those who love baseball—that a new baseball season has finally arrived.
But, as much as spring training might be celebrated, it’s not quite the real thing. After all, it’s called “spring training” for a reason. It is—by its very name—training. Sure, it’s baseball. It’s even professional baseball. But it isn’t “the Show” just yet. Spring training is preparation for the regular season.
Whether or not you enjoy training, everyone knows its value. It’s an axiom of living that you’re either getting better or worse. Nobody stays the same. And so we train. Whether we’re professional athletes or retirees—we must put effort into our improvement.
The same is true of our spiritual lives. When it comes to our lives as Christians, we are always getting better or worse. If we fail to make an effort at following Jesus, we should not be surprised when we find ourselves sliding backwards. It is true that spiritual improvement is of God and from God, but it is not therefore something that happens passively. We are active participants in God’s work of sanctification in us (Philippians 2:12–13). If we are unwilling to walk the walk, we will inevitably fall behind.
Now this is the part where you probably expect me to tell you about training. You should read your Bible (Matthew 4:4). You should pray (Philippians 4:6). You should participate in a small group (John 13:34–35). And you should most definitely go to church (Hebrews 10:24–25).
What you probably aren’t expecting is for me to say that church is not a training ground. Church is—with reference back to baseball—the regular season.
Church tends to be thought of as the place we go to learn more about our faith as well as more about living it out. As we sing, pray, and meditate together on Scripture, we strengthen our faith and make it easier to carry into the rest of our lives. We go to church to take batting practice, to field grounders, and to catch fly balls. Our jobs and our families—and maybe even our neighborhoods—are the places we put those skills into action.
But this is a failure to understand God’s purposes in the world. Living this way implies that God is most concerned with you and I becoming better people. While it’s true that sanctification is the will of God (1 Thessalonians 4:3), this is not God’s ultimate goal. Creation began in God’s presence (Genesis 1–2). Creation will one day rest in God’s presence (Revelation 21–22). The direction of Creation—the arc of history—is not one of self-improvement, but one of “with-God-ness”.
The church—not as an institution made up of budgets, by-laws, buildings and staffs, but as the people of God united in love for one another that is rooted in love for Christ—that church is God’s special project of “with-God-ness”. God’s mission is forming a heavenly kingdom from every tribe, tongue, and nation that will dwell with him in joy forever. In other words, God’s ultimate mission is the church.
This isn’t to say that we don’t improve by going to church. The fact that we grow by our participation in church creates some of the confusion about what the church is for. It’s not unlike baseball. Baseball players (hopefully) get better as they play the game. Ideally, we go to church and encounter God. We meet him through the word: prayed, preached, and sung. We find him in the sacrament of communion. And through these encounters with God—beholding his glory—we are changed (2 Corinthians 3:18).
But the point isn’t necessarily “the changing”. In baseball, you train with batting practice and by taking grounders, running bases and throwing the ball. But at the end of the day, you can love the game and play without ever training any of these skills. And in the process of playing the game, you may find your skills being refined. The training can make the playing more enjoyable, but the point of the training is always to enjoy the game.
The goal of living is to behold and enjoy the Lord. And church is the main event. It’s not an optional training ground. It is the place where we most clearly see and participate in the work of God establishing his beloved people in the world by the power of the Gospel. If we neglect to gather together with our fellow believers, we are denying ourselves the privilege of enjoying God’s most precious handiwork.
The church is not spring training for the rest of your life. It is the regular season for knowing and beholding our God.