I ran track in high school. I ran the third leg on the 4X100 relay team. I never thought that I was fast, though I clocked at 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Looking back, I’m convinced that I gained my speed running from my neighbor’s German Shepherd named King. King didn’t like me and chased me every morning and evening, getting on and off the school bus.
I admit, I was nowhere near Bo Jackson (4.16) or Usain Bolt level (4.22), but I was the second-fastest on the team behind Mike, who ran the anchor on the team with a 4.4 time (I’m the guy on the left in the picture). I spent most of my time at practice focusing on the hand-off of the baton. Coach Davis often preached, “Guys, the second thing to get right is the hand-off. But the most important thing is finishing the race!”
Following Coach Davis’ instruction, we spent most of our practice time getting the “change over zone” down pat. It was a repetitive exercise until we could do it without thinking. I knew the daily drill: I looked behind me to the location next to the track where we had placed our marker. When my teammate Kenny reached that spot, I was supposed to spring from my starting position, accelerating into a sprint while I reached behind me, hand open, thumb down.
Because Kenny, who ran the second leg, would already have momentum, he would catch up to me quickly, extending the baton forward, lunging toward the moment when we would exchange the baton. I would feel the slap of it into my hand, and for a brief second, we would run in tandem, his hand and mine both clinging to the baton. Slowly he would let go and fade back, and I would charge forward for the final victorious sprint of the race!
Our practicing paid off. Our team went to the Regional Finals at Memorial Stadium at Jefferson High School Track in Jefferson, GA. We had arrived at the big show. If we won our meet, we would go to the state finals.
When we arrived at the regional track meet, the four of us walked the track. This walking the track had become our ritual, and we were a bit superstitious and thought that we needed to continue the practice. Except for this time, it was different. As we walked the track, we saw several fans in the stands. Before this meet, there were no crowds in the stands to watch us run. Being awestruck by the crowd and not paying attention to my surrounding, I accidentally tripped over a hurdle and fell on the track. How embarrassing! I quickly jumped to my feet, hoping that no one saw my blunder. But the laughter of my teammates and the opposing teams told me otherwise.
Before we began the race, I looked to see the third legs from the other teams. I was mentally evaluating each runner to determine his speed and, most notably, his weakness. My job was the same as always: I was to either catch-up time if Kenny was behind or to build a lead for our anchor, Mike, to carry the baton across the ribbon.
When Kenny approached, he was behind, and I took the baton and gained on the race leader. I successfully handed the baton to Mike while yelling, “One, Two, Go!” and watched him take off like a rocket. Mike took the lead, and it appeared that we were going to state. But just as the crowd distracted me, causing me to trip over a hurdle, Mike was distracted by what he thought was the finish line. Mike stopped short of the finish line, raising his hands in excitement. The crowd was so loud that Mike couldn’t hear us screaming, “Mike, don’t stop, that’s not the finish line.” We lost the meet and didn’t qualify for state.
I never forgot that experience, we had focused so much on making the baton work transition seamlessly, but when the race counted, we broke Coach Davis’ rule: we didn’t finish the race!
As our churches begin to “make the transition” to in-person worship, Coach Davis’s words can help. The second most important thing is the hand-off, how we make the transition to get back to a sense of normalcy during in-person worship. But, as Coach Davis reminds us, this is only part of the process. The most important part is to finish the race.
If we focus just on getting people back into our pews and buildings, it will be a short-term win like successfully passing the baton during the "change over zone." However, we can get distracted from finishing the race if all that we focus on is the hand-off and not finishing the race of equipping our people for ministry, disciplining our people to follow Jesus, and becoming like Jesus can do what Jesus does. I encourage every church to work on both the transition hand-off back to in-person worship and continuing virtual worship for those who have joined us online who may not go to our buildings. As my high school track team’s experience at Memorial Stadium, there are onlooking crowds outside our walls. May we run with the endurance the race set before us to make in-person and virtual disciples.
On the Journey,
Technology and Digital Ministry