I had an eye-opening experience very early this morning.
I have been participating in a men’s outdoor workout group called F3 and I often look up a workout when I travel out of town. Yesterday, I contacted a friend who lives in the area where I was going and asked about a specific workout. He shared that this workout was normally not a running-focused workout. He was wrong…
I arrived at the workout location with a few friends and we joined the circle before the start. One of the guys in the circle shared how we were going to run to join up with another workout because of a special event. He said, “This was shared in an email that went out last night. Sorry if you didn’t get it.”
The group took off running and the ten other men left me and my friends behind. We tried to keep pace but they were way ahead of us. At one point, someone was running the other way and briefly said, “Hi” and then continued on. I thought that it was one of our group who came back to find us but I was mistaken. The rest of the group eventually stopped to wait for us at points and then two of them decided to stay with us in order to lead us to the destination.
We ran to the destination to find a group gathered around a tree. As soon as we arrived, however, the group dispersed and headed in the opposite direction. We followed them and went through the same sequence in terms of trying to catch up and figure out what was going on. They eventually slowed down and included us in the exercises.
We felt lost. We didn’t have a clue what was happening.
What does this have to do with church?
I had a thought a few minutes into the workout that I couldn’t shake. I thought, “This is what it must feel like to come to a church when the people are not welcoming or the pastor doesn’t preach with the ‘normal person’ in mind.” I was honestly convicted by this thought as I considered my life and leadership.
What are some ways that this can play out in the church?
1. New People Do Not Know What “Insiders” Know
The “insiders” with this workout group had received an email that described what was happening but they didn’t explain it to the newcomers. They acted as if everyone should know what was planned. They spoke vaguely about the goal of converging with the other workouts but they didn’t explain it. They simply took off running.
New people in churches oftentimes do not have access or even know what is going on and need help finding out so that they can connect into the community. This leads to the next point.
2. “Insiders” Can Run Ahead and Leave New People Behind
The “insiders” took off running in the dark and we could barely see them in the distance. We were able to stay within range to follow their path but it required a sizable effort. If we were not committed to the workout then we could have easily given up and turned back.
New people in a church can feel left behind if the people do not see them and help them feel connected. The new people do not need to give some effort to connect but the responsibility primarily falls on those welcoming them into the community.
3. A Quick “Hi” is Not Enough
Another runner said “Hi” to us as she ran in the opposite direction. My mind wandered to the image of a greeter saying “Hi” on a Sunday morning before a worship service but then nobody else doing anything more to engage these new people. A welcoming “Hi” can be a warm first impression and helpful starting point but there must be more for a meaningful connection to begin.
4. A Few People Can Help Connect The New People
The good news is that our experience was not a complete disaster. A few of the men noticed that we were new and running behind. They stopped to wait for us and committed to leading us to the final destination.
A few people in a church can help to bridge this gap for newcomers as well if they notice and take action.
5. Intentionally Seeking Ways to Include Others Can Change Everything
We had a better experience on the back half of the workout. The leader decided to include multiple stopping points for everyone to catch up and be together. We experienced a higher sense of connection and participation in light of this change.
Churches need to identify and enact intentional ways to slow down and include others as well. These opportunities can change the experience of new people who want to connect but can easily get lost.
BONUS: This applies to preaching too.
This is the hardest one for me to swallow but I will be thinking about this one for awhile. I see the same patterns playing out in preaching in terms of including people. If a preacher talks above or “ahead” of the listeners then that preacher leaves the people behind. This can come in the form of using big theological words (like “theological”) or in the type of communication.
I will be reviewing my preaching and teaching in light of what I experienced this morning. I am looking forward to asking some trusted friends, church members and colleagues about this as well.
What about you?
What have your experiences been with trying to find a meaningful connection in a church community?
What, if any, of the patterns that I have listed apply to your experience?
From another angle, in what ways have you “run ahead” of others who have been trying to find a meaningful connection in your church community?
How can you intentionally reach out to them so that they don’t feel left out? How can you go beyond a quick “Hi” as you run the other way?
I will be thinking long and hard about these patterns and seeking ways to engage differently. I invite you to do the same.