For the Race Set before Us: Training and the Church

In John 17:21, Jesus prays for his followers all over the world: “May they be one, as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. May they also be one in us, so the world may believe that you sent me.” One of the things that excites me most about the Lausanne Movement is that it is a reflection of God’s desire for unity among his followers around the world, the Church of Jesus Christ coming together to bring the whole gospel to the whole world. Here we will discuss the importance of training Christians to be authentic followers of Jesus as a pathway for the Church to accomplish its mission in the world.

Finding the Endurance and Training Analogy in Life
Over the past several years I have been training and competing in adventure races in and around southern California (USA). I have competed in a 250-mile relay in the Mohave Desert, obstacle course runs, half marathons, a 30k run, and the Los Angeles Marathon.

Training is important in athletic competition, and it is important
in our spiritual lives so that we will be able to not only finish
the race, but win the prize.

Most recently, I rode in my first road bike race, a 26-miler. This is a distance I have ridden many times, so I thought this was a good place to begin a new category of adventure. As the starting buzzer rang out, we began to follow a pace vehicle that led us out of the starting area and onto the course. For the first time in my life, I found myself riding in the famed “peloton” (the main field or group of cyclists in a race) that I had seen so many times watching the Tour de France.

The race was surreal. The peloton took on a life of its own, like an organism, moving in unison, communicating directions and warnings from the front for those laced into the middle. I remember thinking that I really could not see where we were going through the mass of bikes; I could only trust those intertwined with me. I remember thinking to myself, “If I make a mistake or someone else does, it could mean disaster for all of us.” I continued on, being pulled by the momentum and draft of the peloton.

About eight miles into the race we encountered our first hill. I began to fall to the back of the peloton. However, without much effort I caught up to my previous position. At the second hill, which was much steeper than the first, and I had the feeling of being unplugged as I fell behind and lost the peloton for good. It was as if there was nothing I could do to regain my position.

My preparation was not enough to meet the task of riding with the peloton. My training was inadequate, a wrong move was made, and I finished the race in the middle of the heap, riding most of the remainder of the race alone.

We have heard and probably used the metaphor of a race to describe the experience of following Christ. Living the Christian life is like running a race, a marathon, an endurance contest to the very end. In my bike race, I started out strong, experiencing the exhilaration of the peloton; however, in the end I did not have the skill or endurance to keep up with the demands required of me, and I was left behind.

Like seeds falling on rocky or thorny soil, many who have responded to the call to follow Christ either fall away or live ineffective lives for God. The issue is in part training. Training is important in athletic competition, and it is important in our spiritual lives so that we will be able not only to finish the race, but to win the prize.

Why Do We Train?
As a leader and shepherd in a Christian community, I realize the responsibility that lies with me to train and equip followers of Jesus to “run the race.” In the words of the Apostle Paul:

Remember that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize. You also must run in such a way that you will win. All athletes practice strict self-control. They do it to win a prize that will fade away, but we do it for an eternal prize. So I run straight to the goal with purpose in every step. I am not like a boxer who misses his punches. I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise, I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

For the Christian, “the race” is the role or calling God has given to us, a purpose and plan for each of his followers to fulfill in his redemptive story. We train to win the prize. I like the words of the chorus of one song: “I come tonight to yield my right. I give my life as an offering, like the one you gave me. It may not make a difference, it may not change a single life, it may not move a single stone, but it pleases you, it pleases you, it pleases you. Because it pleases you, I come, I come, I come.” It pleases God when we follow him in obedience and steward the life he has given us. In doing so, we win “the prize.” As we all know, obedience does not come easily but requires training and discipline.

We also train so that when we finish our race, we won’t be disqualified. Some of the most sobering words in scripture are Jesus’ words on eternal judgment in the story of the sheep and goats:

Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, “Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his demons! For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me anything to drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me no clothing. I was sick and in prison and you didn’t visit me.” Then they will reply, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?” And he will answer, “I assure you, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-44)

The people Jesus is condemning to hell called him “Lord, Lord.” They thought they were following him. Easy beliefism is a growing cancer in the Western Church and leads to a false security. One can give intellectual assent to belief in Christ, but in reality there is no change of heart. And without a change of heart, there can be no spiritual transformation.

Whom Do We Train?
“And he gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the Body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

We are to use the gifts God has given us to train and equip “the saints.” According to Jon Courson, “Contrary to what many think, the Church does not exist primarily to evangelize. It exists to build the saints so that they, in turn, will do the work of the ministry.”1 What we are talking about here is the living out of 1 Peter 2:5:“You yourselves are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” It seems we may need another reformation of the Church, a transformation of the clergy. Clergy need to move from being the ministers in the church to being those who train, empower, and shepherd the laity as ministers.

How Do We Train?
When it comes to methodology for equipping, we have no better example than Jesus himself. Jesus used the school of life to train his disciples; he was all about relationships. In the words of Bill Hybels, he had the “be with” factor. Jesus spent time with his disciples: they ate, slept, and traveled together. Where Jesus went, they all went. Through this small, focused band of disciples, Jesus created the spark that would light the world on fire and ensure the spread of Christianity throughout the world.

Jesus understood how to be with people, to spend time with them, and to impart important lessons in that context. Jesus modeled for his disciples what he wanted them to do, and then told them to go do the same. Paul also modeled for us Jesus’ style of training: “You have heard me teach many things that have been confirmed by many reliable witnesses. Teach these great truths to trustworthy people who are able to pass these on to others” (2 Timothy 2:2).

Jesus passed on his love and compassion for children, women, and the discarded. He fed five thousand, calmed the storm, and raised the dead. Through each of these “experiences” they had together, Jesus’ disciples developed a heart for people and a confidence in their own calling and giftedness.

What Do We Train?
We have no record in the Bible of Jesus teaching his disciples skills like “how to lead a small group discussion.” He always worked on character transformation and modeled care of people. He taught his disciples to trust him and to live by faith, believing in that which they could not see. He shattered their conceptions about society and people and reformed them in his own image. We must do the same. We must train people to be followers of Jesus, to live life as he did. We must help them know him and obey him.

I believe at least three things lead people to spiritual transformation: (1) relationships with more mature followers of Christ where life is shared, (2) faith-stretching experiences with God that cause them to have to put their trust in him, and (3) exposure to and training in the spiritual disciplines. These things lead to life transformation and fulfilling their part in God’s redemptive plan.

With the 2010 Lausanne World Congress approaching, we have a unique and perhaps unprecedented opportunity to impact the world with the forward progress of the gospel. In fact, it may be one of the most significant opportunities in this decade to envision, train, and equip the Church to fulfill its mission in the world. Let’s make the most of it.


1. Courson, Jon. 2003. Application Commentary on the New Testament. Nashville, Tennessee, USA: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Rick Allen Dunn is pastor of outreach ministries at Coast Hills Church in Aliso Viejo, California, USA. Previously, he served as Campus Crusade for Christ campus director at San Diego State University and as an area leader in small group ministry at Willowcreek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois, USA.