Major League Baseball is speeding up the game to hold fan interest. Speeding up is old news, however. The church is supposed to speed the return of the Lord. But the approach it uses lately seems to yield believers with the attention span of an eight-year-old.
If you’ve watched a baseball game this year, you might have noticed new clocks installed on outfield scoreboards and on facades behind home plate. Inning breaks are being counted down from 2:25 for locally televised games and 2:45 for nationally televised games. Pitchers must throw their last warm-up pitches before 30 seconds remain.
This is all part of an agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union to speed up the game. Last year, the average time of nine-inning games was a record 3 hours, 2 minutes, up from 2:33 in 1981. Fans are losing interest. While three hours might be too long for a game, the bigger problem is continuous partial attention.
Linda Stone, a former VP at Microsoft, coined the term continuous partial attention in 1998. It’s operating with split focus—multi-tasking—continuously. The debilitating effect is constant stress and intense mental exhaustion. People with this condition get bored easily. Their remedy is constant churn—texting and emailing and Googling and… They have difficulty sitting still for three-hour baseball games.
Researchers have been studying the “speeding up” phenomenon since the 1980s. Scientist Harold Pashler has shown that “revved up” people, when they do two cognitive tasks at once, see a drop in their cognitive capacity from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old.1 That’s troubling, but especially so when speeding things up unwittingly creeps into many houses of worship.
That’s the conclusion of C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison, authors of Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus. They note how fast-food, consumer-culture values—an obsession with efficiency, calculability, and predictability—yield a “Franchise faith” or “McDonaldization.” The product is Christians who can hardly pay attention. I notice this when I preach. Fidgety Christians fiddle with their iPhones. It’s rude but not as recent a phenomenon as Smith and Pattison think.
It seems that many early nineteenth century American evangelists espoused “speeding things up.” They interpreted Matthew 24:14 (“this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world… and then the end will come”) to mean evangelizing the world hastens the return of the Lord. But Jesus said his return merely follows the worldwide evangelization—it isn’t accelerated by it. Many evangelists misinterpreted this verse, displaying a kind of simplistic thinking that troubled many Christians of that era, including President Andrew Jackson.2
There is a passage that speaks of speeding the return of the Lord—II Peter 3:11-12. Peter frames it as a question—what sort of people should we be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God? For centuries, it was assumed that holiness hastens the return of the Lord. This has roots in a strong Jewish tradition found in Isaiah 60:22 where the coming of the Messiah is held back by the sins of the people (the Septuagint uses the same Greek word “speed”).
This is why the authors of Slow Church are on to something. According to Gallup surveys, about 34 percent of Americans confess to a “new birth” experience. But they aren’t very holy. Dallas Willard noted how this figure is “shocking when thoughtfully compared to statistics on the same group for unethical behavior, crime, mental distress and disorder, family failures, addictions, financial misdealings, and the like.”3 The fast-food approach to faith yields conversions but fall shorts in crafting holy conduct.
Speeding up Major League Baseball might be a good thing but the biblical notion of speeding up is supposed to foster faith communities recognized for holy conduct and eagerness to meet Jesus. This sort of conduct is cultivated slowly, requiring time and diligence. Practicing the disciplines of silence and solitude is a good place to start. Otherwise, we end up with Christians exhibiting the attention span of an eight-year-old.
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1 David Rock, Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long (New York: Harper Business, 2009), pp. 35-36.
2 John Meacham, American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House (New York: Random House, 2009).
3 Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 38.