my first 5K race: or, ten things the church can learn from runDisney

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On Thursday, January 7, 2016 I completed my first ever 5K run: the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend 5K. I’m not a runner (apparently I am now!), but I am a Disney lover and I decided a long time ago – back when I thought I could just jump out of bed and run a 5K without any running experience whatsoever – that my first race would be a Disney race. The people who advised me on the race also warned me that it’s addictive and I’d soon be hooked.

I had no idea what was in store for me. There is no way to prepare someone adequately for their first runDisney event. It’s not possible, no matter how hard one tries.

Being a Disney-fanatic and supposedly now a runner, when I began assessing the event and my emotional experience, I realized that runDisney has a lot to share with the world in terms of the way we execute and present. And then I dug a bit deeper, being a pastor and all, and thought of the ways that the church could learn from runDisney events. The educator in me thinks we are always learning. The PR major in me is in awe of the Disney brand and marketing anyway, and even more so in how it spills over into yet another area. The pastor in me thinks The Mouse has a lot to share with our congregations.

In absolutely no particular order, I offer you my thoughts on my first 5K race: or, ten things the church can learn from runDisney.

Energy & Excitement: Y’all, this race. The whole of Disney World with this race. There is so much energy and excitement. From the moment we arrived and started asking questions about where to go and whatnot, cast members wished us luck and told us to have fun. The expo was crazy nuts busy, but every volunteer we encountered was so excited for the runners and wished us luck. There was music EV.ERY.WHERE. Lights, energy, excitement…it was truly magical. (Sorry for the pun, but there’s no other way to describe it all.) On the morning of the race, there were celebrities (yes, I mean that I ran the same race as Uzo Aduba!), DJs, Disney Character appearances on stage and around the course – and people stopped for photo-ops – and FIREWORKS for the start of each corral’s race. The stage crew and DJs played a song that corresponded with the letter of the corral being called to the starting line to add to the energy. I was corral E, so we Electric Slide-d our way to the starting line. Corral C had the Cha-Cha Slide, while Corral D danced to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing and everyone sang along.

Cast members showed up super early to work and stood along the back-lot route to cheer us as we ran. People bought special packages that allowed them to be members of the Cheer Squad, meaning they could be in the parks along the course to cheer for their runners, too. Y’all…the energy and excitement made for a truly electric experience. Translate that to church…energy is contagious. Even the most terrified of the participants (read: me)  were laughing and having such a great time that by the end of the day I was already planning my next race with Disney. Isn’t that what we want for our visitors and members? Don’t we want them just bursting at the seems to come back next Sunday and encourage others to come with them? I’m not suggesting we hire a DJ or change the style of our worship services to be dance parties on Sunday morning – although that’s a thought – but I’m suggesting we work to infuse a culture of energy, excitement, and pride in our congregations where we don’t exclude the newbie, but rather welcome her with open arms, excitedly, and eager to get to know her. What if we wished her greetings of welcome and when we saw her after the service, we told her thanks, and genuinely told her family that we were so glad they came and we hoped to see her again? Embrace a bit of the cast members who congratulated every.single.runner wearing his medal after the race with a hearty “Congratulations on your race!” or “Way to go!” Let’s get excited that people are worshipping God with us, and get to know their stories while they are with us. And, maybe send them off singing a bit of Journey or dancing an Electric Slide on they way to their car.

Signage: I was terrified that I’d not know what to do or how to get to where I needed to be in the time I needed to be there, but when we arrived at our resort to check-in, right there in the lobby was a huge sign with all the details about race weekend. And that was just the first of many. Each participant knew where to go because everything was clearly marked. Busses were marked and staff were present to help remind you of the proper signs to follow. The proper lines for registration check-in were clearly marked. Bag drop according to last name was so well marked I could see it clearly, from a distance, without my glasses, and in the dark of 5:00am. Corrals for runners were marked by lettered, lighted balloons floating high above the area. And we knew were the starting line and finish line were based on the fireworks at the start and the cheering family members and fans at the finish.

How well marked are our buildings? Can first-timers find the bathroom easily? Will parents be comfortable leaving their children in your nursery and where can they find the names of the volunteers or staff keeping watch over their children? Will someone absolutely terrified to walk into your building feel comfortable making their way around and knowing where to go without having to ask a lot of embarrassing questions of the regulars? As a first-timer amidst literally thousands who’d been there before, I was terrified to step off the bus alone, much less ask questions, but signage made my morning just a wee bit less anxiety-ridden.

Fellowship: These races are like cults…the good kind of cults. People sign up for them 6-8 months in advance and sign up for every single one that they can throughout the year. And I think there are a minimum of 8 runDisney race weekends a year. (Don’t quote me on that. Remember, I’m still a newbie.) Veterans reunite with runDisney friends and welcome openly new friends into their fold. When they learn it’s your first race, they cheer you on and encourage you and give you a hearty pat on the back as they pass you during the race. (And somehow, it’s not at all a demoralizing pat, but an encouraging one.) Disney does a wonderful job of working with individuals, groups, and charities alike to foster community building. And magically (there’s that Disney word again) individuals who join in don’t feel like outsiders. My family chose to participate in Pasta in the Park, which was a special meal at Epcot featuring character appearances, a pasta dinner, dessert, and reserved seating for Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, the fireworks and lights show. There are “reunion areas” and the Expo and kids races. Racers wear shirts, race bibs and medals through the parks. Families get congratulatory high-fives, too. Fellowship isn’t just about eating and doing things internally.

Community (Involvement & Building): Piggy-backing on fellowship is community involvement and community building. I ran for charity: Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Uzo Aduba ran with Cigna. Many people were running for Team in Training with the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society. The New Balance booth in the expo featured 2016 runDisney character-based shoes available only at runDisney events. KT Tape’s booth offered free taping for runners, and I took advantage of it for my plantar fasciitis with bright pink tape. My kids loved the games at the Chiquita and Good Sense booths where they won prizes including bananas, apple slices, gel pain-relief packs, and cowbells. Organizations want to be a part of what runDisney is doing. What organizations want to be a part of what your congregation is doing?

Churches think of fellowship and community building as a pot-luck lunch or a Wednesday evening dinner followed by Bible study or choir rehearsals. How can we re-define fellowship? How can we expand our idea of community-building? What if we wore our shirts one Saturday a month and walked around the neighborhood picking up trash? My husband’s church created notes to share and encouraged members to do little random things for others around town and in the community. If your town hosts a marathon or big run event, sign up to be a host table for water and refreshments along the course. I’ve even heard of churches taking one Sunday a month off as a mission Sunday. The congregation worshipped “together” by going out and serving in the community and then gathering back together for dinner that evening to share stories and bring new friends they met during their day. Let’s work to create an electric and appreciative community outside our doors, too.

Merchandise: I bought a mug. And a car magnet shaped like Mickey Mouse that says  3.1. Then I went to the Christmas store at Disney Springs and bought an ornament, paid for extra designs to have 1.7.16, a Mickey medal, and 5K personalized on the ornament. And I’m considering buying outrageously overpriced marathon weekend photos, too. I’ve already worn my 5K shirt about 3 times in 10 days. I’m proud of my accomplishment and I’m proud to now be a part of this community. I want to re-live that weekend as often as I can until my next runDisney experience…and then I’ll re-live that one over and over again, too.

Do we have shirts, ornaments, magnets, coffee mugs…anything to help our community re-live their experience and share it with others? None of these are necessary to spread the word and life of our church communities, of course, but they can’t hurt. I was once a part of a church that gave away Bibles each Sunday. The pew Bibles were paperback with stickers inside with the church information. Before the scripture was read weekly, by a lay member, they made an announcement saying that if you came to church but didn’t have a Bible, you were encouraged to take that one with you after worship. People did it, y’all. And the ushers replenished the Bibles weekly after worship. What can our churches do to get “merchandise” in the hands of those who have life-changing experiences inside our doors to help them re-live those experiences regularly?

Discipleship: I met a new friend on your bus ride to the race on Thursday morning. Mike is a veteran. He’s done the marathon before. When I shared, shyly, that this was my first ever race, he smiled and stuck by my side until we had to part ways for our corrals. He walked me to my corral and as we parted, he said, “I’ll see you at the finish line.” “Okay!” I replied, thinking there’s no way I’d see him again amid the thousands of people. Especially since he’d finished the race before I even started in my corral…and it’d be another 45 minutes or so until I’d finish. However, when I made it through the maze of post-race blankets, drinks, medals, congratulatory photos, snacks, and gear check, Mike walked up and hugged me. He’d waited for me to finish. He congratulated me and we exchanged contact information. He rode the bus back to the resort with me and we texted with each other throughout the weekend. I followed him on his half and full marathon runs, and he encouraged me into my triathlon in Naples that Sunday. My experience with Mike is not unique. When I had questions about packing for the race, I reached out to other runDisney veteran friends and they were more than willing to offer advice and encouragement.

I told Mike I was glad we met. Mike said to me: “I’m glad we met also and it goes to show you randomly meet friends at the right time.”

Y’all. Why can’t the church be the place where we randomly meet new friends? Why do people feel isolated when they walk into and then out of our doors? We rely upon a select few families each month who sign up to be greeters who then pass the baton to their kids to hand out the bulletins while the parents talk to their friends or grab their coffee nearby. What would our church look like if discipleship and outreach meant finding that random person on the bus, walking them to their corral, and then waiting for them to finish no matter how inconvenient it may be for us, only to exchange contact information and check in with them randomly throughout the week or month? That’s radical hospitality, friends! Discipleship is learning a story and helping someone else grow into their ability to connect their story to God’s story.

Transportation: Do you offer transportation for shut-ins? Does your church offer guest parking? Are spaces clearly marked? Transportation is included in all runDisney race registrations. If one decides to drive on his or her own, he or she doesn’t pay for parking during the race events. Maps are clearly marked with where to park, traffic flows, and bus routes. They even have a website dedicated to runDisney race weekend transportation information, y’all. I see this as an extension of hospitality, community building, and possibly even discipleship.

Two years ago I visited Passion City Church in Atlanta, GA. At the conclusion of the service, the skies had split in half and I think we all were wishing we’d had an ark to get home. I had two small children with me, and two very protective grandparents who were discussing how we’d best get to the car. An usher walked up, offered umbrellas to us, and then walked with us to our cars, y’all, covering us with his umbrellas. He stood there in the deluge getting drenched and made sure we were all safely in our cars before departing. We offered a ride back and he refused, instead finding another couple to jog toward with his umbrellas.

On a smaller scale, do we have marked parking spots? If it’s cold outside with a potential for weather, make sure the parking areas are salted and scraped. Consider having the young adults offer valet parking for the elderly members of the church, if that’s a possibility. And don’t just offer pick-up/drop-off for Sunday worship – think about all church ministry gatherings and do what’s possible to include every member of the church body. If someone needs a ride, help them find one.

High Expectations: Runners sign up for these races a minimum of 6-8 months in advance. The financial cost is high. Running these events requires a certain amount of training commitment. Race registrations are non-transferable. Race packets must be picked up at the Expo at least the night before your event. Start times are unbearably early in the morning. Racers are encouraged to wear costumes, but must follow instructions or they would be disqualified from the run. No matter the expectations, the runners volunteer to participate and therefore live up to what’s required of them for participation.

I remember Bruce Reyes-Chow once spoke about the requirements for membership at his new worshipping community. He spoke about a church with high expectations for members, but a church that doesn’t push membership because the requirements are intense. I recently joined a committee of my presbytery and attended my first meeting where I was utterly unprepared (which I hate to be!) because the persons who asked me to join didn’t spell out the requirements for my involvement. I now know, but I had a lot of unnecessary mud on my face over what was expected of me that I wasn’t told. Too often we seek to rush adults through the membership process, but we require so much more of our teenagers going through the confirmation process to membership.

I think we need to set the bar high. I think we need to model discipleship in Christ for our congregations by requiring a lot of their membership. I love this definition of Who We Are from Mission Bay Community Church: “We cannot be Christians in isolation. The intrinsic nature of Christ’s teaching is all about our lives as part of and in relationship to a community. Being in community forces us to understand and confront complex issues of compassion, justice, morality, behavior, faith, and love together. Community is a fundamental part of being Christian, and without a commitment to it, we are not being faithful to God’s claim on us as created children of God.” Retired education professor Roger Schank notes that the more work a story requires of the listeners, the more effective the story. This transfers well into congregations – the more work (involvement) we require of members, the more effective members of the body of Christ we all become.

God created us for more – let’s start expecting it of our membership. Let’s make a commitment to one another and ask the same of those in our midst. Let’s be faithful to the claim God has made on us as the created children of God. If God can commit to us, I think it’s fair to say that we can expect our congregations to at least attempt a similar commitment to God. I say we aim high in our congregations and ask them to participate fully in relationship with Jesus Christ through the Spirit in our churches.

Communication: I mentioned my friend Mike. I followed him during his longer runs for the rest of the weekend. I’d text him based on the texts I got from runDisney. I’d offer words of encouragement, silly messages, and cheer him on after completion. And crazy guy that he is, he texted me back while he was running, too.

runDisney is amazing at communication. There are blogs to follow. Emails come regularly to prepare you for the race, encourage you during the weekend, entice you to buy the pictures of you running, and congratulate you after you’ve finished. Dates for future events are published more than a year in advance. Weather alerts arrive by text. Buses are clearly marked. Announcements are made constantly and in multiple languages. Attendants know what’s going on and are available nearly everywhere one turns to answer his questions. runDisney is a master at social media and sharing pictures.

How well do we communicate? Do we update our social media? Do we encourage our members to utilize it too? What about during worship? Have you ever live-tweeted a sermon with a custom hashtag? I love the idea that one congregation uses of an up-close weekly Instagram picture of something random from the sanctuary for members to guess the item and then post a full-size picture of it when they’ve solved the mystery. Are we educating our welcome committees with the most up-to-date information about our activities? When we make announcements, we must be sure to share every detail and not expect people to know about what we’re talking. When it comes to disseminating information, you can never overshare, in my opinion.

Early Start Time:  Setting my alarm for 3:35am was not ideal for vacation, but it meant I’d run a race, finish, shower, eat, travel to and attend (and run) my kids’ two races, finish them, and head back to my resort all before lunchtime. Let’s think about that for a moment. On Thursday morning I had done all of the following before 8:30am: wake up, dress for the day, board two forms of public transportation, travel to my event, meet new friends and spend some quality time with them, danced three line dances, run a 5K, had several photo-ops, gathered my stuff and my family, boarded two more public buses, returned to my resort, showered, and dressed the kids for their races. Oh, and I’d already hit my 10,000 steps Fitbit goal. Yes, by the time lunch rolled around I was exhausted, but I’d accomplished so much so early in the day. Nap time was amazing, and then we had a great family afternoon and evening, including all of us going to bed at a decent hour, too.

How can this translate to our church? Is it fair to ask our Pastors and volunteers to be at church early in the morning on a Sunday? What will this mean for attendance? Participation? Involvement? I don’t know the answers to all of these, but if one of the biggest reasons people say they “can’t attend church” on Sunday mornings is because of service times and other obligations – kids sports leagues, etc. – then I think an incredibly, ridiculously early start time on Sunday morning just might be an answer. Pastors will arrive even earlier, and then really enjoy their afternoons off. This would mean that we’d have to be thoughtful about other events we schedule for Sunday afternoons – maybe we do away with them altogether and just focus on worship as our main/only event for Sunday – but it just might make for better attended service with more present and focused worshippers. And what Pastor doesn’t want more engaged worshippers?

As you see there are more questions than answers. I do feel, however, that they are vital questions we need to be thinking and addressing in our congregations.

We are always learning. After all we are made in the image of an incredibly creative God and therefore have the capacity to always be creating and thinking and learning ourselves. runDisney is a huge enterprise that’s an off-shoot of one of the largest media/entertainment conglomerates in the world. I’m not proposing that we turn the church into entertainment conglomerates or large businesses, but I am proposing that we take the opportunity to learn from others who are doing things well so that we may also do things well. As I mentioned before, the pastor in me thinks Mickey Mouse has a lot to teach our churches. The biggest question: Are our congregations willing to examine introspectively so that we may live outwardly?

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