Alan Iverson understood talking about practice misses the point.
A few years ago, as Alan Iverson’s play declined, the press honed in on his poor practice habits. This incensed the former NBA all-star. “I’m supposed to be the franchise player and we’re talking about practice… not the game… practice. How silly is that?” It’s not so silly. Iverson understood that practice is not the point of the game—a point that often escapes the American faith community when focusing on church attendance.
Throughout church history, Sunday services have been considered practice for playing the game—loving God and neighbors, or shalom. Services were liturgical, Latin for practice. They included the weekly reading of the Great Commandment, the Apostles (or Nicene) Creed, Confession and Assurance of Pardon, a shalom greeting, kneeling, and the sermon. The centerpiece of these “thick” layers of practices was the Eucharist.
These practices aimed to develop desires for God. “According to Maximus the Confessor in One Hundred Chapters of Love, the key to directing and increasing one’s desire for God is the acquisition of the virtues,” writes James K.A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom. “So how does one acquire such virtues? Through participation in concrete Christian practices like confession.”1 Practice didn’t make perfect—it made habit. Just as athletic performance is tied to habits gained from practice, shalom required habits formed by habitual churchgoing. Practice wasn’t silly—it was essential. That’s why roughly two-thirds of the worldwide Christian communion to this day regularly attends church—practicing shalom. Practice however is not the point of the game, a distinction often unclear to many in the faith community. Take churchgoing.
Americans claim to attend church about 50 percent of the time. But beginning in the 1990s, a series of sociological studies showed “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.2 Americans attend church, on average, only once a month. These anemic attendance rates indicate the point of practice is unclear in many contemporary and traditional churches—a distinction that’s a false dichotomy.
In fact, there are no “contemporary” or “traditional” churches. Every church is liturgical, in the sense that whatever is practiced becomes a liturgy. The real difference is between “thin” and “thick” liturgies. Contemporary churches tend to have “thin” ones. The name of their game is evangelism. Parishioners invite friends to church. Services are seeker-sensitive. This means not laying it on thick when it comes to liturgy. But for those in the workaday world, this is a “lean” liturgy as work is simply a platform for evangelism.
Many traditional churches on the other hand have “thick” liturgies such as the weekly reading of the Great Commandment, the Eucharist, and so on. They tend to wax eloquent about ecclesiology yet be so enamored with their practices that they lose sight of the game—loving our neighbors. They talk about practice… not the game… practice. Remember that the Pharisees had the thickest liturgies in their day—but they weren’t in the game. The point is, when any church or institution focuses mostly on attendance, it can prove counterproductive, as it did in a local high school a few years back.
Community High School in Ann Arbor Michigan was founded in 1972 as the city’s first alternative education school. It had few rules yet students performed well. When a state law offered money to Michigan schools to innovate, the school’s faculty went into a feeding frenzy looking for a need. They noticed that highly motivated students regularly came to class while the less enthusiastic took advantage of the loose rules to skip classes. The faculty thought they had found a problem. The solution? Focus on attendance.
“The goal of the pilot project would be to reverse the trend of skipping classes, improve overall attendance, and, in the process, increase student performance,” writes Ori and Rom Brafram in Sway.3 Teachers were paid a bonus if class attendance improved. That didn’t happen. At the end of the project, attendance rates had actually fallen. And it gets worse. The average cumulative student GPA took a nosedive from 2.71 to 2.18. The conclusion was that academic motivation declined with attendance incentives. It took the focus off academic performance and put it on attendance.
Focusing on attendance won’t fix abysmal church attendance. Reframing churchgoing as practice and shalom as the game might. NBA players don’t practice to play the game. They play the game and discover the practices most likely to yield high performance. It works the same way in the faith community. Churchgoing and faith flourishing are linked, just like practice and performance.
Alan Iverson was right. Talking about practice and not the game misses the point. He was also wrong. Practice matters. Toward the close of his press conference, Iverson became fed up with questions about his practice habits: “I am the MVP but it has nothing to do with practice.” “I think you have confused two issues,” was one reporter’s rejoinder. Confusion between church attendance and church aims plagues many faith communities. Churchgoing matters, but it ought to improve performance.
1 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), p. 71.
2 John G. Stackhouse, Jr., “Where Religion Matters.” American Outlook. Fall 2002. pp. 40-44.
3 Ori Brafram and Rom Brafram, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2008), p. 145.