Is your church more like a biker or a car driver?

The antagonism between bikers and drivers is similar to the antagonism between the different ways we “do” church.

While riding my bike home from work the other day, I was the recipient of an expletive-laden diatribe complete with honking and hand gestures about how I did not belong on the road.

I get it. Bikes can be frustrating to motorists. Bike riders have a reputation for weaving through traffic and rolling through stop signs. They make us nervous if not a bit jealous. Our roads aren’t built to share, and bicyclists sometimes ride in the middle of the lane, pedaling at a tortoise’s pace. When I’m in my car, running late, and stuck behind a bicyclist, I’m equal parts anxious to pass the rider and terrified of an accident if I try to pass. We are set up for an antagonistic relationship between cars and bikes.

In this particular moment, I had “taken the lane” (that’s bike-speak for riding in the middle of the lane) on a narrow street filled with parked cars, pedestrians and stoplights. Cars can’t go much faster than I can pedal, so taking the lane ensures that pedestrians and motorists see me and I won’t get “doored” by a driver exiting a parked vehicle. I bike the street often and am fairly confident that my decision balances courteousness and safety. Even so, my practice has likely annoyed someone before, but this was the first time someone made it known.

As the angry driver zoomed past me (only to hit a stoplight at the next block), I reminded myself that drivers in North Carolina aren’t given any education around bicycles. This lack of information, combined with a sense of entitlement and a bad day, can create a dangerous situation for everyone involved. After learning how to ride my bike confidently around town, I have become a much more sensitive and careful driver. I’ve also learned that getting yelled at is par for the course.

Life in the church is infinitely more complex than life riding down the streets, yet I find the antagonism between bikers and drivers similar to the antagonism between the various ways we “do” church.

My friends who belong to house churches remind me a great deal of life from a biker’s perspective. Their weekend worship times often change reflexively to respond to the events in the lives of the people gathered. As new churches grow and include new members, their focus rapidly changes to include the interests and skills of the growing community. They can rapidly build consensus and move into new territory without much ado. They can afford to break some of the “rules” because the stakes aren’t as high as they are in traditional churches. Consequently, these small churches sometimes stir up resentment from larger or more traditional churches.

But they struggle to pay their pastors a full-time living wage. They are hard to find because they change locations and time. And they have a difficult time getting denominational support, making an impact in their communities and receiving recognition outside of their tightly knit church community. As a bicyclist learns to climb hills and go long distances at a slow and steady pace, the small church has to be careful to not take on too much.

When I worked for a larger suburban church, ministry felt more like driving in a car. There were certain kinds of protections and advantages: budget stability; significant impact within the community and denomination; and accomplishments in music, worship and education.

On the other hand, when everyone’s watching rule-bending is out of the question. My work was largely focused on sustaining existing programs by making only minor internal changes. While some reflexivity is necessary in any ministry setting, our adaptability was greatly reduced by our size. It takes more time, more meetings, more energy to change the minds of large groups of people.

The differences in these two ways of doing church can’t be reduced to size but my experience as a driver who also bikes or a biker who also drives has taught me to see the benefit in both ways of living out the church.

We need the agility and energy of the small church and the impact and stability of the large church. When new churches are started down the street from the large downtown church, the infrastructure might not seem to have space for both. Yet, if we approach our sisters and brothers in different church settings as sojourners in the gospel journey, rather than competitors on a track, we can appreciate the gifts each one brings to our community. We can defend and protect, energize and inspire one another.

Recently, I was driving down a narrow winding road with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour. When I turned a corner and saw a bicyclist pedaling rapidly on the shoulder, I slowed down to his pace. Rather than attempt an unsafe pass, I followed him at a safe distance and prevented other cars from attempting their own unsafe passes. We soon reached an intersection where he turned onto a side street.

I have no idea if the rider intended to put himself in a somewhat unsafe setting, but it didn’t matter. In that moment, my job was to use my four-door sedan to create a buffer zone and make sure he journeyed safely.