The other day I wrote about my struggle to keep running after completing my first marathon, an effort that was itself a capstone to an amazing year of running after 17 years of inactivity and poor eating habits. You see, for a year – and particularly for the few months leading up to the marathon – I somehow got up the gumption to change my life, to commit to running, and to run a race I never thought I would be able to run. But I did it. And I felt great.
And then I stopped. Goal achieved. Box checked. Motivation, it seems, left somewhere out on 26.2 miles of asphalt in the District of Columbia.
My experience with running is not unlike many people's experience with church.
I've seen people get really involved in church for a while, as if to complete a project – a very tangible "project" such as the Confirmation of their teenager, or a more "spiritual" project of healing following a personal trauma. But once the project is complete, they drift away, having "achieved" what they first came to church seeking, but not having made the patterns of church or faith routine enough to be part of everyday life.
I can relate.
My project was to run a marathon. Since the physically and emotionally rewarding experience of running the marathon, however, my commitment to running has dropped off. Likewise, many people experience a period of intensive involvement in church, but then later drop off.
I don't begrudge folks who slip into the church for a time and then find themselves away, and not only because I can relate with this experience within the realm of running. Rather, part of what we're called to do in the church is to walk with people where they're at, and in that moment strive to be a welcoming community of Christ for them. Our doors are open.
Some come and sit for years on end. Others just wander through and take a look. Others hang out for a while but then move on. That's OK with me. Life-long membership is not the goal. Meeting people in their spiritual need and awakening them to the saving presence of the Triune God in their life – through shared practices of faith, including worship & praise, Bible study, prayer, service, fellowship, and giving – is what we're about, it seems to me.
In my own struggle to make running a daily and on-going routine rather than a time-limited project, perhaps I'm learning a little about those who come to church for a good, long stretch, and then who are absent for an even longer stretch.
As I try yet again to re-re-commit myself to running, I am grateful for friends who know the joy of running and who make running a part of their everyday life. They share their joy with me, and they encourage me despite my inconsistent commitment to running.
May I be as good a pastor, and our church as welcoming a community of faith, as these running friends are to this on-again, off-again, on-again wannabe runner.