Plate Appearances

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. Instead of communion, isn’t it more about vision – seeing that a small investment of time, energy, effort yields a bigger reward than one could ever hope for? As Willard says: vision, when combined with intention and means, leads to real change. Or are you saying that communion is the primary driver of vision? I think vision is seeing, hearing about, even experiencing actual acts of supernatural love in action. In that sense, communion clearly does impart vision. But vision is also helping people re-imagine themselves doing those same acts themselves, even if not now capable. We can do this by providing concrete examples of love in action. Isn’t this essentially what Jesus did in Mt 5?

    I do think that communion provides a reminder, and in that sense does impart vision, but is it’s weekly frequency a critical?

  2. I once read of a major league hitter whose daily batting practice included swinging through a narrow area on a hanging string defined by two knots, one just below the other. He did so several hundred times a day so that swinging through the sweet spot became second nature. That’s what I’m picturing from your statements regarding “unconscious competence.” I’m also thinking about how unconscious competence is supported by James K. A. Smith in “Desiring the Kingdom.” Smith believes that we move through life from womb to tomb more by feeling our way through it than thinking our way through it. The center of gravity for every human, he says, is the heart “kardia” (the seat of all physical AND spiritual life) not the head, the seat of cognition. He says rituals make habits that form practices which ultimately become liturgies. If I’m melding what you’re saying about “unconscious competence” with what Smith is saying, I’m understanding that to develop successful life practices that bless God, my neighbors, and my loved ones requires daily rituals of shalom that become second nature. For me, that means taking a road less traveled than the road I’ve been on. For sure, I’m not there yet…not because I don’t want to be, but because I need to develop some new habits.

  3. Larry: Nice summation. You got it. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I wish I hadn’t included Jesus’ “right hand left hand” statements. It blurs the main point, as you have stated so well. Left hand right hand is built off the assumption that culture is whatever is habituated – points I don’t bring up in the short column. The old maxim is: don’t try to make two points in one column!

    I blurred the main point because, when it comes to giving, the right hand left hand statement leaves out too much. Some giving is private (as Jesus discusses here) and some is public (as in the case of the Philippians gift). It’s a tension – giving is cognitive, planned, and regular. Yet the desire to give sacrificially ought to become a habit. Both/and.

  4. Hey Mike,

    You’ve pointed out in this and other posts that we need to be conscientious about our habits, even overwriting negative ones with positive ones. In regards to communion, is it merely enough to engrain the habit in us? Is it any more meaningful that we do communion out of habit, instead of a conscious decision? As you stated in your article: “practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes habit.” It doesn’t mean that we understand why we are doing a thing, it just means that we know how to do it. Throughout your article you hit on this again and again.

    I agree with you that conviction is not a mere matter of cognition, but are we really better off with enculturation? I assume that culture, whether it be in an institution or in our society, is built out norms that come from repetition and habituation. But does habit alone prove our belief in the system, or only our uncritical compliance with the status quo? Belief does not just mean a change of outer behaviour, because if it did there would be no need to chastise hypocrites; it also means a change of the heart.

    I also agree that sporadic church attendance is problematic, because it takes continual immersion in the church and in the things of God to achieve shaloam. As you put it: “It takes practice, practice, practice.” I just wonder how much of meaningful worship and obedience is habituated practice and how much is choice. Given that human beings are prone to become acclimatized to their surroundings, would it not be better to celebrate communion say once a month as a conscious reminder of why we do what we do, as opposed to getting into an unconscious rut by doing it every Sunday?

  5. Peter: Thank you for taking the time to comment. Here’s my take: choice is overrated. Second, we aren’t “better off with enculturation,” as you put it. It is reality. Rotate with planet or get splinters. James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom” is the best take on that fact that we are enculturated beings – and these cultures form our desires. It takes an extraordinarily conscientious individual to continually place themselves in cultures that makes them increasingly self-aware. In “The Quest for the Holy Grail,” it was called a Roundtable.

    This is why any habit, from golf to God, takes practice. If I play 18 holes once a month, it won’t be much of a habit. But habitual doesn’t necessarily mean acclimated, as you suggest. I know men and women who never – and I mean never – tire of playing golf. They are enculturated without it becoming a boring routine.

  6. Hi Mark:

    Dallas Willard writes: “The ‘Western’ segment of the church today lives in a bubble of historical illusion about the meaning of discipleship and the gospel. We are dominated by the essentially Enlightenment values that rule American culture.” Willard goes on to say this is evident in our disembodied approach to transformation. Vision is embodied in means – our body and its practices.

    “In creating human beings in his likeness so that we could govern in his manner, God gave us a measure of independent power,” Dallas Willard writes. “Without such power, we absolutely could not resemble God in the close manner he intended, nor could we be God’s co-workers. The locus or depository of this necessary power is the human body. This explains, in theological terms, why we have a body at all. That body is our primary area of power, freedom, and—therefore—responsibility.”

    For thousands of years before the Enlightenment, people believed we learn by our bodies, not just our brains. The ancient Judeo-Christian tradition pointed to the first two recorded stories of human knowledge. “And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food… she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” Knowledge for Adam and Eve, even the corrupted kind, involved their bodies, not just their brains.

    If you look closely at this story, you see the deepest reality of the crated order – take and eat. This is experienced by most of us at least three times a day. How often it is experienced in your church?

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