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Comebacks: Kansas City Royals & a local church

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Kansas City Royals begin play in Major League Baseball’s World Series tonight (Oct. 21), the first time the team has been in the series — or post-season play — since 1985. Kansas City church planter Mark Clifton draws parallels between the Royals’ resurgence and the re-launch of the Kansas City church he has led.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP) — Most of us who call Kansas City home never thought we’d see another day when our city would host a World Series game. For a decade, from 1976-85, the Royals were one of the dominant teams in baseball. Seven times in 10 years they went to the playoffs. Thanks to a future Hall of Famer, George Brett, and a great cast of supporting players, they were relevant nearly every year.

But the last time the Royals even made the playoffs was 1985, the year my son Trenton was born. This year, 29 years later with the Royals back in the fall classic, his son, my grandson, Jackson, was born.

Yet the 2014 Kansas City Royals almost never happened. In 2002 Major League Baseball’s owners, looking to shore up the sports’ financial situation, actively discussed the possibility of contracting (disbanding) two teams. The Royals were among the teams rumored to be on the list.

Who could have blamed owners if they had done it? The Royals were at the tail end of eight consecutive losing seasons. After a slight rebound the following year, they’d go another nine losing seasons before having a winning season in 2013. In 2002 only three teams drew fewer fans. Only eight teams had lower player payrolls. The Royals looked done in 2002.

But the team didn’t die. And the revitalized Royals now sit four wins from the pinnacle of their sport.

Most evangelical churches in North America have much more in common with the 2002 Royals than the 2014 version. You’ve likely heard the depressing stats. Seven out of 10 Southern Baptist churches are either plateaued or declining. Most haven’t seen a “winning season” in more years than they can count. Southern Baptists alone close more than 900 churches each year, 90 percent of them in metro areas.

Kansas City’s Wornall Road Baptist Church was one of those churches about to close in 2005 when I was asked to become its pastor. At one time it was not only one of the most influential churches in our city, but it was one of the most influential in the entire country. But by the time I came, only 18 people called it home. The church had lost touch with its community and forgotten the primary purpose of its existence.

Like the Royals, Wornall Road’s best days seemed to be over. When I would attend Royals games, I would see the sign in the outfield celebrating the 1985 World Series champions. Rather than making me proud to be a Royals fan, they reminded me that greatness had not been part of this team for a long time. When we began the replant at Wornall Road, you could find memories of the great days of the past all over the church. But those great days seemed so long ago. Rather than serving as an encouragement, they served as a constant reminder of how far the church had fallen.

I knew accepting God’s call to replant Wornall would not be easy. (Any idea how many managers the Royals have gone through since their last playoff appearance? Ten. Losing seasons — whether in baseball or in ministry — tend to devour leaders.)

But God had other plans. The remaining people of Wornall made the extraordinary and all too rare decision of repenting for our past mistakes, praying with passionate focus and embracing meaningful and biblical change. Over the next several years the church began to grow. We became relevant to our community and we planted new churches. Today Wornall has become a church that many across North America have looked to as a model of how a dying church can live again.

Actually, the revitalized Kansas City Royals have much in common with Wornall Road. For example:

1. We both built using the Farm System. In one of the smallest markets in Major League Baseball, the Kansas City Royals could never rely on signing a high-priced free agent. The team’s most important players — like Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez — —came up through the Royals’ minor league system. Same was true for Wornall. We discipled the young people God brought our way. God turned them into leaders.

2. We both focused on what we did best. No team in Major League Baseball had fewer homeruns than the Royals. What the Royals lacked in power, they made up with speed, defense and pitching. When you have only 18 people in the church, you can’t do everything. We weren’t going to compete with the regional mega-churches in the area. We didn’t even try. Instead, we focused on doing what a small neighborhood church could do best. We served our community with radical abandon.

3. We both used what we had. The Royals still play in the same stadium that I visited as a boy. The stadium has been renamed and upgraded in parts, but it hasn’t changed much. In fact, the Royals considered moving downtown a few years back but instead decided to renovate the stadium they had. Our church building was constructed for a church three times our size. We chose not to move into a different existing church building nor build a new one. Instead we sought to redeem the building for Kingdom ministry. Today we use every bit of our building. We use it as an incubator for new churches — nine and counting. It’s also home to a maternity ministry and a children’s placement ministry. We’ve opened up the building for the entire community to use it, as well.

When you watch the World Series this year, you’ll see a completely different team than the 1985 version of the Royals. The 1985 team had power and big-name superstars. The 2014 team has neither. But again, the Royals are relevant in the baseball world.

Today’s Wornall Road Baptist Church doesn’t look much like the 1940s version. We don’t do ministry the same way. We don’t serve the community in the same manner. And we certainly don’t have the same cast of leaders. But we’re relevant and reaching our community once again. The power that enabled the first generation of Wornall members is again empowering this present generation, the power of the Gospel as revealed and lived out in the lives of our members.

    About the Author

  • Mark Clifton

    Mark Clifton is executive director of church replanting and rural ministry at the North American Mission Board.

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