In 1954 Ted Williams batted .345, topping Cleveland’s Bobby Avila, who hit .341. But Williams didn’t win the batting title. He didn’t have enough plate appearances. Baseball measures consistency as well as connecting. If the same holds true for the Christian faith, this raises a troubling question: why are we so inconsistent in church attendance?
Williams was a two-time American League MVP. He led the league in batting six times and won the Triple Crown twice. And he was the last player in Major League Baseball to bat over .400 in a single season, hitting .406 in 1941. But Williams missed winning the batting title in 1954 because he had only 386 plate appearances. In the 154-game schedule, the required number was 477.
Plate appearances might seem like an odd way to think of church attendance. This strangeness subsides when we remember the ancient church’s goal: unconscious competence in loving God and neighbors. Unconsciously competent? Yes. Jesus said one measure of maturity is the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. Not knowing is enculturation—doing something that’s second nature. Second nature is habit, which is why practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes habit. In the sports world, it’s called muscle memory. It’s why winning a batting title requires sufficient data points.
In the early church, the data points included making culture in banks, in business, in politics, law, and in education—as well as in the church. To enculturate meant taking seriously the mandate to “make culture” 24/7/365. The church recognized you can’t make disciples without making lots of culture. This meant innovation, which includes disruption—two sides of the same coin. Unconscious competences in innovation included repeatedly experiencing the deepest disruption of the created order, take and eat. Congregants made sufficient “plate appearances” in order to be convinced of this reality. That’s critical, since conviction is more the result of enculturation than cognition. Concepts are merely the result of cognition. A concept is an idea you can explain but haven’t necessarily experienced. Tithing, for example, is a concept for most Christians.
For the longest time, the church assumed consistent experiences create culture. They recognized the Old Testament pictures culture as a worn path. Congregants beat a path to their faith community, week in and week out, to take and eat. Today, week in and week out, it’s stand and sing, or sit and listen. Communion in most churches is tacked on at the tail end of a service… sometimes monthly, more frequently, quarterly. As such it is not very helpful. People more often need to be reminded than informed, Samuel Johnson noted. Forgetfulness is lacking muscle memory. For centuries, the centerpiece of the service was the sacraments and remembering. Today, it’s the sermon and informing. Small wonder Christians are so infrequent in attendance. You can download sermons and access information on the Internet. Why go to church that often?
That’s a hard question for many modern Christians to answer. So they lie about attendance. The reality is that inconsistent church attendance is the result of the three core characteristics of American culture—individualism, choice, and consumerism.
Individualism is a word Alexis de Tocqueville coined in 1835 “to express a new idea” in America. Scripture speaks of Adam and Eve as individuals. Individualism is idolatry of self, making me the center of my choices. Thus, if a headache, hangover, hurt feeling, holidays, or hangnails hassle me, I skip church. Consumerism reduces worship to “what I get out of it.” As a result, Americans claim to attend church about 50 percent of the time. But they’re lying. “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., a professor of theology and culture. He says actual churchgoing is half the professed rate.1
It would take many years and plate appearances to become persuaded that disruption yields innovation—that death brings life. Persuasions are things that have become second nature. They’re gained by practice making habit. Principles on the other hand are abstractions. A principle is an idea you can explain but haven’t necessarily experienced. In a stand and sing, sit and listen church, you get boatloads of ‘em.
We can’t solve this problem in the same mind that created it. Making a plate appearance when we feel like it, or when it accommodates our hectic schedules, guarantees that shalom will never rise above the level of concept. It takes practice, practice, practice.
In the early 60s, the Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere. In February of 1964, they electrified America on The Ed Sullivan Show. But their success didn’t come out of the blue. It was the result of “The 10,000-Hour Rule.” Between 1960 and 1962, the band played in a Hamburg, Germany club. “And what was so special about Hamburg?” Malcolm Gladwell asks. “It wasn’t that it paid well. It didn’t. Or that the acoustics were fantastic. They weren’t. Or that the audiences were savvy and appreciative. They were anything but. It was the sheer amount of time the band was forced to play.”2 All told, the Beatles performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half. By the time they had their first flush of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated 1200 times. “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,” writes neurologist Daniel Levitin.3
“Four-chapter” gospel churches aren’t concerned with acoustics or pleasing the audience. The Audience numbers exactly One. The aim is conforming to the deepest reality of the universe, take and eat. The recognition is the many hours of practice required to achieve a level of mastery associated with enacting shalom. It is these churches that, in 1996, Robert Bellah found to be healthy exceptions to individualism. The effectiveness of worship was not in the preaching but in the Eucharist, which drew people to “the source of life that is present at the heart of worship.”4
Major League Baseball plays a 162-game schedule today. The required number of plate appearances is 502. That’s why the Baltimore Orioles’ Oscar Salazar didn’t win the batting title in 2009. He did hit .419. But he only made 33 plate appearances. We live in a 52-week year. Even if you go to church every week, when communion is quarterly, it’s only 13 hours in an 8,736-hour year. If it’s tacked on, it’s less than that. Is this enough to become unconsciously competent in loving God and our neighbors?
1 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook. Fall 2002. pp. 40-44.
2 Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, 2008), p. 49.
3 Gladwell, Outliers, p. 40.
4 Robert Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1996), p. 185.