I remember my first time going to one of those huge mega gyms. There where millions of work out options. It was literally three floors of options for the person who had entered into the community of physical fitness. One of the more impressive things that I remember on my first visit to this particular gym was the amount of treadmills they had to offer people. It seemed like there were hundreds of them. Everyone was moving. Some were running, some walking. Some were running inclined some were not. Some were running fast and some slow… everyone was moving.
In a “clean church” it can seem like you are entering into something more akin to The Hunger Games than a real Christ centered and Gospel influenced race of learning what it means to love God and love your neighbor. Sometimes the race theologically promoted from the pulpit can sound more like survival of the fittest than the Gospel of the grace of God to the new disciple. The new disciple may feel like they are being shot at with arrows of piety and proof text bombs of memorized bible knowledge from some of your more “in shape” members. When I entered into the Christian race of discipleship I did not enter into a holiness competition with other believers. I entered into a grace filled congregation of runners moving together. I am thankful for that. I love Paul’s image here in 1 Corinthians 9:24“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” I am concerned that this image, when theologically isolated, is often misunderstood on some levels in our local churches. Churches can easily create a competitive environment of holiness and righteousness by fiat without even realizing it by flippantly using a verse like 1 Cor 9:24. What I love about the gym is that the person running the fastest and hardest is running with the group not passing them. Christians trying to encourage others Christians to follow Christ through competitive acts of holiness do not understand what Paul is getting at in 1 Cor 9:24. If you desire to cultivate growth in the messy church you need to make sure as a pastor that your church stays one person to every treadmill. Creating an environment that models what it means to be people of imputed righteousness rather than a community of people made righteous by force and determination. I wanted to touch on four simple things that I try to remember when people turn and move toward Jesus in discipleship within the context of the messy local church. So here are four ways to facilitate running together in the messy church without running against or over each other:
(1) Some people are fat (like me). When I joined this particular athletic club I was fat and out of shape believe it or not that’s why I joined. I wanted to get in shape. Remember: Pastors when new people come into our church communities they will more than likely see everyone in motion following Christ. Facilitate a church environment that keeps everyone on their own god controlled treadmill.
(2) Establishing the pace. Everyone has a different pace. Everyone NEEDS a different pace. Within the corporate movement of everyone following Christ there is the individual care and attention that our people need to be reminded of when following Jesus. Remember: Everyone has their own pace in following Christ. Help your people to focus on and find the pace that God is establishing for them. It will be easy for them to look around at others and try to keep pace with them but this can lead to unnecessary burnout or falling away. Pastors help your people with keeping their eyes on their own machine. Help them to keep their eyes on Christ.
(3) Helping people understand the course. The little screen on the treadmill lets me know what’s coming ahead and what I should be prepared for. (In my case when it was time to jump of and grab a doughnut and diet coke) Remember: As a pastor helping people (corporately and individually) see and understand the purpose of trials and difficulties of the race will keep them encouraged. Some in the messy church will be huffing and puffing while others will seem to be running effortlessly.
(4) Sometimes the machine breaks. Some people will be running along and what they are running on lets them down. It breaks or needs maintenance. This is when a pastor can learn much about a person’s theology or presuppositions about God and the race they are really in. Some people are just mimicking treadmill behavior. Remember: The best discipleship happens when the person you are working with has been brought to a place of personal need or distress. You can help them by repairing what is theologically missing or broken in their world view. Help them to see the reality of the problem and get back on a functioning piece of equipment. Some people you will find have been running the race without Jesus as their yolk fellow. In this case what a wonderful time to remind them or introduce them to the person and work of Jesus.