Moneyball and the Missional Church

I love the movie Moneyball. I have a love of sports movies in general, and I love underdog movies, as well, and Moneyball certainly fits both of those categories. But, that’s not really why I love it. Every time that I watch Moneyball, it screams “CHURCH!” It’s all about ministry in the US today (if you look at it through those lenses). It inspires me to keep going when I just want to give in. So, I thought that I would write a blog post about some lessons that the missional church can learn from Moneyball. But, first, a re-cap of the movie’s plot:

Moneyball is based on the true story of the Oakland A’s baseball team. The A’s were facing a difficult challenge: they had a tiny budget compared to teams like the Yankees. Therefore, they weren’t able to get—and keep—the big-name players. So, the general manager, Billy Beane, decides to take a different approach. He realizes that he can’t put a team together the same way that teams like the Yankees do. So, he starts looking for a different model. Instead of buying big-name players, he focuses on buying runs. He hits all kinds of challenges on this road. But, in the end, he comes away with a winning team, a team that had a record-breaking, 20-game winning streak.

Now, when I’m making an analogy between Moneyball and the church, let’s be clear that I’m not talking about anything to do with money. I’m talking about the difference between the attractional church model (the old way of looking at things) and the missional church model (a new way of looking at things—actually, it’s an even older way of looking at things, but that’s neither here nor there). In the church, we often talk about things that don’t really matter anymore. “If we only had (fill in the blank…better children’s programs, a really charismatic youth pastor, exceptional music, etc., etc., etc.), then our church would thrive again!” These conversations are exactly like the conversations that the scouts have in the movie. They’re talking about things that simply do not matter anymore (a prospective player having a good body, an ugly girlfriend, or a funny way of throwing the ball). They should be talking about how to buy runs and therefore wins. But, they have a flawed understanding of how the game is played today. They’re still talking like they did when the financial playing field was more even between teams, back when money wasn’t the main focus. Billy Beane tries to change the conversation. And—amid struggles—he does.

And we can learn a lot from him. So, in no particular order, here are the top four things that the missional church can learn from Moneyball.

  1. No one—inside or outside your organization—is going to get what you’re doing. It’ll be harder to fight the people on the inside.

Billy Beane struggles with this throughout the entire movie. Once he embraces this new way of thinking and hires his new assistant, Peter Brand, who also embraces this way of thinking, he heads off and starts making decisions. No one understands what he’s doing, even after he explains it. And they all start going nuts. Billy asks the scouts, “What’s the problem that we’re trying to solve here?” They all start talking about how they need to replace their top players. He tells them that that is not the problem. It may be the surface problem, but it’s not the root problem. He says, “The problem we’re trying to solve is that there are rich teams and there are poor teams. Then there’s fifty feet of crap, and then there’s us. It’s an unfair game. And now we’ve been gutted. We’re like organ donors for the rich. Boston’s taken our kidneys, Yankees have taken our heart. And you guys just sit around talking the same old ‘good body’ nonsense like we’re selling jeans. Like we’re looking for Fabio. We’ve got to think differently. We are the last dog at the bowl. You see what happens to the runt of the litter? He dies.”

That’s the problem for the missional church movement, as well. The old guard is trying to solve the membership problem, the problem of getting butts in the pews and money in the plate. But, that isn’t the problem. It might be the surface problem, but the deeper problem is that the culture can no longer hear the gospel. We’re not speaking in words that they can understand. That’s the problem that we need to solve. Anyone can get butts in the pews. It takes more to transform lives. What’s more is that the more that we try to solve the surface problem without addressing the root problem, the closer we come to death.

Throughout the film, Billy continues to butt heads with the other leaders. Eventually, he has to fire one of his top scouts. He has to let go of some players who are preventing the field manager from playing in the way that Billy wants him to play. The field manager may be the toughest nut to crack. Billy puts a team together that, if played the way that they are designed to play, will win games. But, the manager refuses to play them that way because he doesn’t believe in the theory behind it. So, it fails. Billy tries to talk to him, but he ignores him and keeps doing the only thing that he knows how to do.

This happens in missional church thinking all the time. When one staff member or volunteer or even a small group within a church get the missional bug, they start making changes. And, most missional church people expect some resistance, especially from older people in the pews who are accustomed to a certain way of thinking about the church. But, what no one ever tells you is that it’s other leaders who will bring you down. You can design a missional ministry perfectly, but it will never be effective if it’s not implemented in the right way. And, many of the people in charge—in your congregation, in your presbytery, district, whatever—do not want it to be done in this new way. They will take what you’ve designed and they will apply it to the old model, and when it doesn’t work, they will point the finger at you. Which brings me to…

  1. When things go wrong, you will get the blame. When things go right, others will get—and willingly take—the credit.

There are scenes in the movie when Billy is listening to commentators on the radio. When the team is failing at the beginning, all fingers point to the general manager’s office. When they start to succeed, the field manager gets all of the credit. This is frustrating beyond belief to Billy’s assistant, Peter Brand. He knows that the field manager was the reason for the failure in the beginning and not at all the reason for the success toward the end. He asks Billy if he’s hearing what the commentators are saying. Billy just says, “All I heard was seven [wins] in a row.”

While I can’t tell anyone how to develop this kind of thick skin, I can say that this is exactly what is needed in order to do missional church work. If you’re in it for the credit, walk away now. If you can’t handle taking the blame when it’s completely undeserved, walk away now. It just comes with the territory. You have to be willing to be the villain and watch the real villain be heralded as the hero. It’s not easy.

The problem is that the movie ends well for Billy. He doesn’t get fired. In fact, he gets offered a very lucrative position with the Boston Red Sox (which he does not take). In the missional church life, you very well might get fired (if you’re a staff person), and you might be driven out of your church (if you’re a volunteer). The reason for this is…

  1. This way of thinking is a threat to those who have been doing it differently for so long.

When the Boston Red Sox offer Billy the position at the end of the season, they acknowledge that Billy has been beaten up for this way of thinking. They explain to him why what he’s done is a threat: (I’ve removed the curse word for this family-friendly blog and put in a slightly nicer word.) “It’s the threat of not just the way of doing business, but in their minds it’s threatening the game. But really what it’s threatening is their livelihoods, it’s threatening their jobs, it’s threatening the way that they do things. And every time that happens, whether it’s the government or a way of doing business or whatever it is, the people are holding the reins, have their hands on the switch. They go bat [crap] crazy.”

There are people in the church who have been working (or volunteering) in the church for many, many years. It’s been their life’s work and their passion. They’ve been doing everything that they know to do. And they’re still failing. Then, you come along and tell them that they’ve been doing it wrong for all that time. The threat of their life’s work being a total waste of time scares the living daylights out of them. They don’t want to face that reality. They would rather just get rid of you and keep the delusion that their way of doing things works. It’s easier to lie to themselves than it is to face the truth. And you are expendable. They will expend you. And then they will dig in their heels and continue to do the same thing that they’ve been doing, even more.

The problem with that is, of course, that it doesn’t further the Kingdom. They really do need to change their ways in order to bring the gospel to bear on their community. They really do need to face the fact that how they’ve been doing it isn’t working anymore. Some will. Most won’t. Keep going. Jesus will have his church. I recently heard a sermon where the preacher suggested that the real fear that people have is that they’ll discover that Jesus was there all along, working and ministering, without the help of any of us. Yeah. That’s a real threat. We like to think that we matter in this process. And, of course, we do…but probably not as much as we think that we do. Be sensitive to the fact that you’re criticizing how these people have spent their whole lives. And then gently and firmly coax them into a new way of being.

  1. You can’t do this alone. You have to get people on board.

Billy starts the season out without really explaining his vision to anyone. You get the impression that he just sort of expects it to be obvious and that he thinks that it doesn’t really matter if people get it. That changes midway through the film. There’s a montage of him explaining things to the players. He tells them that he wants them to walk more, he doesn’t want them stealing or bunting. They slowly start to get it, and things start to turn around. I’m not sure that he ever convinces the field manager or the scouts. The movie doesn’t really go into that. But, I think that the point is still the same: you need people on board. You need to cast a vision. You need a small group of people who get it and who will help you execute the plan. The main leaders may never get it. Work around them. You may find some unexpected partners. But, either way, you need a team.

There’s no easy way to do this missional church stuff. And nothing, not even Moneyball, can give us all of the answers. But, when it gets tough (and it WILL get tough), take some inspiration from this movie. A new way of doing things is always going to be a threat to those who are doing it the old way. But, for the last 2,000 years, the church has managed to speak to all different kinds of cultures in all different times and places. And by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do it here and now, as well.

Do you have thoughts on Moneyball? What insights have you gained from the movie? Please share!

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 /

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 /

Questions to consider:

  • In what ways is the missional church way of thinking a threat to my own congregation and its leaders?
  • How would I respond if I were to be ostracized for my thoughts on being missional?
  • Where is Jesus in all of this?