Do the Math

It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

Not really. It was 50 years ago, during the summer of 1962. Over the course of 300 nights the Beatles mastered their music. Their success raises a serious question however. When you do the math, how will many Christians ever get enough practice to get good at their faith?

“I was born in Liverpool, but I grew up in Hamburg,” John Lennon once said, referring to the more than 300 nights the Beatles spent playing in clubs along the raunchy Reeperbahn red-light district of the north German port city. Lennon and four friends formed the group that moved to Hamburg in the summer of 1960. They made their debut to dispiritingly small crowds at the Indra on Aug. 17th.

After 48 grueling consecutive nights of performing there, the Indra’s owner, Bruno Koschmider, moved the Beatles to his other club, the Kaiserkeller. That stay proved short, as Pete Best and Paul McCartney got caught in a condom-burning incident that Koschmider conveniently used to accuse them of arson and have them deported (the band was just about to move to another club).

When the Beatles returned to Hamburg in 1962, the band was down to four. Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bassist, left in 1961 to study art and live with his fiancée (tragically, he died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962). A local Hamburg bar owner, Manfred Weissleder, offered the Beatles a gig at his new place, the Star-Club. The band played on opening night, April 13, 1962, and did three series of gigs in the following few months. By the time they returned to the Star-Club for late November and December, the Beatles had released their debut single, “Love Me Do.”

The Beatles’ success was the result of “The 10,000-Hour Rule” described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.1 In February of 1964, when the Beatles electrified America on The Ed Sullivan Show, the band had practiced for over 10,000 hours. They were unconsciously competent. As neurologist Daniel Levitin notes, “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert in anything.”

For hundreds of years, the Christian faith was considered a world-class expert in how reality works. Christians understood the deepest reality of the created order – take and eat – death renews life. This dynamic is described in creation, where God invites Adam and Eve to take and eat. Fruit that is plucked – killing it – renews life. This dynamic was distorted in the fall, as Lucifer deceived Eve by urging her to wrongly take and eat. It’s redeemed at the Last Supper, where Jesus invites his disciples to take and eat. It is fully restored in eternity at the wedding banquet, where believers will take and eat.

Early Christians gained mastery over this reality, “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes” (Acts 2:46). They became unconsciously competent in exercising their faith and practicing liturgies (liturgy means public duty), learning how to do their public duty, including seeking the flourishing of their cities.

These findings from science and scripture support faith traditions founded before the modern age. In medieval times, children became diminutive adults at the age of seven and entered the adult world, including participating in the services.2 Many older faith traditions celebrate the Eucharist every day, so if a seven-year-old did this every day, by their mid-30s they’d reach 10,000 hours and become unconsciously competent in living the reality of death renewing life. They’d master their faith. Perhaps this is why Jesus didn’t become a rabbi, a master, until the age of 30. Perhaps this is why most modern Christians never master their faith.

Facts, John Adams reminds us, are stubborn things. When you do the math, the stubborn fact is that few Western Christians will ever master their faith. They claim to attend church only about 50 percent of the time (August is an especially anemic month). But “beginning in the 1990s, a series of sociological studies has shown that many more Americans tell pollsters that they attend church regularly than can be found in church when teams actually count,” writes John G. Stackhouse, Jr. He says actual churchgoing is half the professed rate.3 The typical believer attends church once or twice a month. If the Eucharist is celebrated only once a month – as is the case in many modern churches – believers partake of communion about six to nine times a year. At that rate, it would take over 1,000 years to master the faith. The numbers are stubborn, but don’t lie.

Nor do the results. Tim Keller describes much of modern evangelicalism as “highly individualistic and consumerist.” I attend church when I feel like it or it’s convenient. Dallas Willard says this is why few evangelicals ever master their faith. “Numerous studies reveal that, when compared to the general public, evangelical Christians exhibit the same behaviors in terms of unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealing, and the like.”4 However, when we do the math, what else should we expect?

At the John Jay Institute in Philadelphia, fellows participate in daily services, including vespers, an evening prayer service in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgies. Under the leadership of Alan Crippen, the institute is the only faith-based, intercollegiate organization in America exclusively dedicated to developing leaders for public service. The results are impressive.

Albert Einstein said you could not solve a problem inside the frame that created it. The frame forming much of modern evangelicalism provides too little time for Christians to master the faith. Believers, like the Beatles, can only succeed by submitting to reality. Perhaps this is why some evangelicals, in doing the math, are looking into other Christian traditions. How else can mastery be achieved?

___________________
1 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, 2008), p. 49.
2 James Davison Hunter, “Wither Adulthood?” The Hedgehog Review, Spring 2009.
3 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook, Fall 2002. pp. 40-44.
4 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 38.

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7 Comments

  1. I do think it is possible to practice faith throughout our entire life, so I think that your reduction to “church service” as the time we practice faith can miss the point, but I agree with your overall point and you have to start somewhere.

    I mean to say the trend you point out (reduced service attendance) may be an indicator of the real problem (reduced living of the christian life).

  2. Dwight:

    Perhaps. But it should give us pause that earlier faith renditions understood a corporate, shared experience of “take and eat” to be more formative than other practices.

  3. I think Dwight raises a critical point: what exactly *are* the skills we are supposed to master as followers of Christ? Living in community is essential, but after a certain point we may only become “masters at attending church”, which isn’t exactly what I think you’re asking for.

    I very much like your concept of “liturgy as public duty” — we need enough time as “the church gathered” to envision, equip, and empower us to practice that as “the church scattered”; no less, but also no more.

    Maybe if we church leaders (I include myself as an elder who needs to preach this Sunday!) better understood how to prepare people to practice Christianity *outside* the church, they’d be more inclined to spend time *inside* the church.

  4. Hi Mike,

    > earlier faith renditions understood a corporate, shared experience of “take and eat” to be more formative than other practices.

    I agree, and am sympathetic to that viewpoint — but empirically, were they any more effective at *doing* formation and engaging culture than we evangelicals are?

    I am all for fighting against the disembodied “brain on a stick” gospel of modern evangelicalism. But I’m not sure a traditional “butt on a seat” gospel [forgive my crudity, but you started it :-] of church attendance is a huge improvement.

    I can’t help but feel we need a whole new holistic mind-heart-soul-strength understanding of the gospel, that would learn from yet transcend the evangelical, sacramental, and Pentecostal models of Christian formation. And would ultimately result in very different (and diverse!) mechanisms and structures.

    God definitely seems to be up to something — but exactly what is still far from clear, at least to me:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Transformationalism

  5. The general principle is sound, but I agree with Dwight that time in “church service” is the wrong metric. Time spent in prayer (especially quiet time), worship and service are all part of growing as a Christian and should count toward your 10,000 hours. Doing the Eucharist every day from age 7 to mid 30’s would create a very “religious” person expert in this one rite, but would hardly develop a well-rounded Christian. Or maybe I’ve missed the point by taking you too literally?

    On a slightly different tack, I think that Brother Lawrence’s “Practicing the Presence” is an excellent approach to reaching the 10,000 hours through your day to day activities.

  6. Dwight, Mike,

    Sitting in a church, regardless of how often, does not make a person a Christian, just as sitting in a garage does not make a person a car.
    Reading the Bible, practicing the Bible, and living your faith is what makes you a Christian capable of bearing witness. What about having a relationship with God? What about accepting Jesus into your heart? It is not all head knowledge, reading, understanding. There is so much we do not understand, yet we believe with out seeing.

  7. What a fantastic thought provoking piece! The 10,000 hour rule is interesting because it’s no trifling number. I know what I’ve put 10,000 hours into and I know it’s even been more than that. Like the Beatles, it was just the beginning, not the end. 10,000 hours gives one a great deal of confidence, but also humility in knowing as a fallen man how any sense of perfection/completion/arrival will never be achieved.

    I like Mike’s single response to the question asked several times, that “a corporate, shared experience of take and eat [was] more formative than other practices.” I too (it appears I’m not alone in this – ha! – a corporate experience!) “feel” it’s not about “church” but about intentionality with fellow believers headed in a similar direction. And I think Mike would similarly agree? My 100,000 hours (?) in a chain of Campus Crusade leadership/mentorship/discipleship/servanthoodship whatever you want to call it was without a doubt transformative. I think if one spent the same time inside organized football it would be as formative in a similar way. I’m no longer in that chain but it has taught me so much, including how it’s not in any sense about perfection/completion/arrival.

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