We run a paradoxical race

A story regarding the operational management of the London marathon emerged yesterday. The start time for the slower runners in the marathon was delayed but, even as they were running (keeping pace with the official pace-setter), organiser began opening roads and clearing up around them. The pacer, Liz Ayres, recounts being sprayed with chemicals by those riding vehicles closely to the runners. She also says the runners were repeatedly verbally abused by those who were keen to make them speed up. You can read the Guardian’s report here.

Now, I am sure you will be surprised to hear that I have never run a marathon. I know, I know – hard to believe. But it’s true. The less cheeky of you are no doubt, extremely politely, asking why not.

It’s not especially because they’re on Sundays (though, should I ever want to run one, that would represent a bit of a problem). I have never run one because I hate long distance running. I have never liked it and I’ve always been terrible at it. I wasn’t always as big, fat and lazy as I am now. I used to be very fit and healthy, playing lots of sports and all sorts. If I ran the London marathon I’d be at the back racing against people in giant chicken outfits and would probably hit ‘the wall’ a couple of times before I even reach the starting line! But even when I was super fit, I just couldn’t do that sort of running.

You will be equally surprised that, given my evident love of running, this post isn’t really about the London marathon. It’s not really about running at all. The story about the London marathon caught my eye because this is often how we handle folks in the church.

We welcome everybody in and tell everyone that we want them to come to know Christ (the starting line, if you will) and then to go on and grow up in him (the marathon itself). We often have a hierarchy of those we consider the elite runners (either those who are particularly mature or those who are especially useful) with the most needy, least mature people the spiritual equivalent of those running the marathon whilst dressed like an emu.

Now, of itself, there is nothing wrong with differentiating where folks are at. It makes little sense quizzing young believers on the merits of infralapsarianism or asking them to explain their particular views on Pauline realised eschatology. It is equally unhelpful to offer nothing but basic evangelistic messages to those who have come to believe it already and need to be built up in the faith they have acquired. We need to know where people are at in order to teach them effectively. So we run Christianity Explored for those who are looking to explore Christianity; we run systematic theology classes with those who have been exploring Christianity for quite some time and have long believed it.

The difficulty comes when we inevitably have churches that have large proportions of people at different places. Where do we pitch the preaching? How do we engage in Bible study that everyone can engage with? How do we make sure that we are simple enough for the new folk to understand whilst having enough meat to chew on for the mature believers? There are ways and means of doing this, but it does make life much more difficult to do it well.

Often, I fear, we take the London marathon approach. We recognise we are not in a sprint and so we are happy to set (what we consider) a gentle pace. But, ultimately, if folks don’t keep up, we begin packing up the water tables, sending in the cleaning crews and re-opening the roads. If you haven’t got it by now, sorry, but it’s get out of the road or you’ll get run over!

Those who are with us on our 3-hour marathon are fine. They’re the elite race leaders, after all. Those who can run a 6-hour marathan – might take them a bit longer but, OK, they ultimately meet us at the finish line too. But if you can only cope with a 7 or 8 hour marathon, we’ve not got time for you. Catering to your needs would just be too slow for everyone else. Allowing you to keep up would mean all sorts of others crucial stuff wouldn’t get done. London would be at a continual standstill if we waited. You either need to shape up, speed up or give up.

‘Hark!’, nobody ever says anymore, ‘are you suggesting we should pander to the lowest common denominator for the sake of the slowest folks in the room and to the detriment of the elite?’ Not exactly, no. But I am suggesting the marathon analogy breaks down when we reckon with Jesus’ teaching to prefer others’ needs above our own. It fails when we think about the command to ‘have the mind of Christ’ and to serve others as he served us. It doesn’t hold when we realise that the Bible uses other analogies, like members of bodies, and gives other commands for the strong to bear with the weak and that we are placed in a church to help each other make it over the finish line. We are not grafted into Christ so that we grow and then revel in how much bigger a branch we are compared to others.

All too often, we want to throw our brothers and sisters under the bus so that we can go on running our individualistic race. After all, we are to throw off every weight aren’t we? If it’s others in the church slowing everything down, then let’s drop them and crack on!

But that’s not how the church is supposed to function. We are in the race together. We are running together. We are to spur one another on, bearing with one another, and setting aside our own preferences and needs so that we might serve those of others. More than that, we often fail to realise that, in this race, we get ahead by serving others. As we choose to limit ourselves and not go ahead, as we run alongside others, helping them to continue on, we find that we are enabled to press on and win the prize.

We have this paradoxical race that is only won as we run with those who are much slower than us. Those of us who go ahead, leaving others behind, may find we missed the point of the race altogether. The guys in costumes at the back of the marathon know they aren’t going to be taking first place. But they run for other reasons. Those of us who stay behind with them know that most will wonder why we’re running a race that we know we aren’t going to win that way. But, in the end, we run for other reasons too. Our aim is less to win and more to help others finish.

That is how we ought to order things at our churches too. We are not setting them up to serve ourselves, so that we can outshine our brothers and sisters. Instead, we enter the race to help others finish. We are in churches to help each other get across the line. Sometimes that means foregoing pole position, or faster times, it means setting aside our desire to go at a faster pace, it often means going slower for the sake of those who couldn’t keep up, and – in the end – we will be far happier to cross the line with those we have run alongside.