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.