On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Jul 28, 2023

Some of you know I have been training for the “IRONMAN” triathlon—1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and 13.1 mike run—in Jones Beach this September. Contrary to popular belief, I’m not really good at any of that stuff (i.e. running, biking, and swimming…especially swimming). This goal was originally something I set a few years back to challenge myself to do something new in the year I turned forty. Since I first set the goal, I have also seen some significant and difficult life changes. So, it’s now become a journey of recovery and resilience, too.

This past weekend, I ran the “New Jersey State Triathlon” as a “warm up” to the race I’ll do later this year. It was an amazing event, with over 3500 competitors from around the world—swimming, biking, and running side by side. For the most part, participants are there to compete against themselves, and to become better and healthier versions of themselves.

Here’s me at the start line, right before the race began.

I took this picture by this (admittedly cheesy) sign because it felt indicative of something important I’ve been feeling.

More and more these days, I hear leaders in the church criticize athletics and athletic culture—not only for being cliche and hokey (like the sign), but also for being too “masc” or too “testosterone fueled” or too “aggressive” (or whatever). I would never say there are no problems with athletic culture, or that everyone needs to run triathlons (play sports, etc.). But this growing condescension and dismissive attitude toward sports is deeply troubling to me.

The reality is, in my experience, these races (and, sports in general) are a great metaphor for what healthy churches can look like. For what it’s worth, the Bible seems to agree (Cf. Hebrews 12:1, Philippians 2:16, Galatians 2:2, Galatians 5:7, 2 Timothy 4:7, 1 Corinthians 9:24–26, Timothy 2:5).

Here’s a few observations about this past weekend, along with a few questions for us to consider as a church.

(1) Over the weekend, almost four thousand people paid their hard earned money to participate in this event—an event which most of them had prepared for with months/years of daily training. How many churches are capable of reaching that many people? Or motivating and sustaining that kind of “whole life” commitment? To develop new disciplines, new habits, and ultimately, healthier versions of themselves?

What would it look like if Christians took their “training” in the faith as seriously as these athletes take their race training? How might we be different as individuals? How might our churches be different? What sort of good might we find ourselves doing for the world outside our doors?

(2) Being on the course is far more inspirational and supportive than many (most?) of the churches I’ve been in. Sure, it’s “competitive” in a sense. But deeper than the competition is the camaraderie and community. What you see far more of (in droves) is people cheering on and encouraging strangers, no matter what their pace, and celebrating them in a big way for doing nothing more than putting themselves out there and making the attempt. Like Paul’s “great cloud of witnesses” (an athletic metaphor itself, by the way).

How could we bring this heart into the church? This wholehearted enthusiasm, support, and celebration of our friends, our neighbors, and even of the stranger? How might that change our relationships with those already in our midst? How might it change the way we welcome those who are not here yet?

(3) Not surprisingly, given all this, the participants in these races are way more diverse than our congregations—in every sense. More racially diverse. More economically diverse. More diversity across age demographics. More authentically honoring of body and gender diversity—from young women to old men; from the very small to the very large; including those with physical disabilities. Even, more neurodiverse—one of the most inspiring things during the race was seeing teams of partnered racers pulling partners in rafts during the swim, or pulling/pushing partners in chairs on the bike and run, working together to cross the finish line.

This is, of course, also a picture of “the kingdom of God”—a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7.9).

As someone who studies and writes about racial identity and justice, it can often feel like we’re beating our heads against a wall as we try to break down the divisions between us. Yet somehow, in ways that are both imperfect and yet profoundly true, athletics does break down those walls. We should ask: How does it do this? And why can’t we? What is getting in our way, that’s not getting in the their way? And what would we have to change for the church to be as diverse as those events?