Running the Church
Poole parkrun began in April 2011, with 65 runners. My first Poole parkrun was at event #5, when there were 90 of us. Last Saturday there were nearly 500 of us there, and Poole is now the second most popular parkrun, with only Bushy Park attracting more runners. Over the summer other parkruns have been launched in the area: Bournemouth parkrun, just a couple of miles down the road, started three weeks ago with nearly 300 people taking part.
I love parkrun and last week was proud to receive my ‘50’ t-shirt [pictured], given (yes, everything is free) to all runners who complete 50 parkruns. There are also t-shirts for those who complete 100 and 250 parkruns, as well as for juniors who complete 10.
If you are non-runner you may have no awareness of parkrun, but it is a phenomenon and, if not already, it will soon be taking place in a park near you.
It has been fascinating to get drawn into the parkrun world while also being part of a movement of churches committed to church planting. The similarities between what parkrun does and what the church is meant to do might not be immediately obvious, but are uncanny.
Where the church has been given the great commission, parkrun has the pithily memorable vision to “have an event in every community that wants one.” The parkrun mission statement is also straightforward: “parkrun organise free, weekly, 5km timed runs around the world. They are open to everyone, free, and are safe and easy to take part in.”
Poole parkrun has certainly felt somewhat like being involved in a (very successful) church plant. A committed core grasped the vision and determined to start an event. They recruited an initial congregation from those already sympathetic to the cause (from local running clubs) and ‘personal evangelism’ led to the event’s growth. The original core team remain in place, devoting considerable time and energy to making the event a success. There is now also a committed congregation – those who (like me) can be relied on to turn up most Saturdays, and also contribute to the event by volunteering on a regular basis. And there is the crowd – the many runners who come infrequently, or maybe only try parkrun once or twice before deciding it’s not for them. From this ‘church’ other events have spun off, using the readily reproducible model that parkrun provides.
Being part of the parkrun family also provides many of the same emotional and community connection points offered by church. It is genuinely inclusive, and this is one of the things I most enjoy about my Saturday morning runs. At Poole we have elite runners, including the current world 50k champion Steve Way, and Liz Yelling who represented Great Britain in the marathon at the Athens and Beijing Olympics. The quickest guys have gone round our course in 15 minutes, but every week there are those taking part who need closer to an hour. There are dads running with babies in buggies, people with their dogs, old people, young people, serious runners and those on a ‘couch to 5k’ program. All are welcome; guests are greeted; newbies are made to feel at home.
There is also a real community buzz. Rather like the post-service coffee at church, I typically spend as long (or longer) hanging around talking to people after knocking off my 5k than I do actually running it. And, like church, parkrun is utterly volunteer dependent. There are clear goals for personal development with many of us hoping (forlornly in my case) to regularly notch up PB’s. We have mentoring – Saturdays when clearly identified pacemakers seek to drag others round in a particular time. Quite often there is cake. There is also the sense of being part of something bigger – it is exciting to hear of new parkruns starting, and there are ‘parkrun tourists’ who try to visit as many events as they can.
parkrun really is like church, and like a church planting movement – only without Jesus. As such I find it very provoking – I don’t think there is any church planting movement in the UK growing so fast as parkrun. It is as if parkrun has taken the church’s model and is doing it better than the church does.
Good for parkrun. Come on church.