What Wearing Lycra Taught Me About Christian Ministry
Yes it’s true. MAMIL. I’ve become one of them.
For the uninitiated, MAMIL stands for ‘Middle-Aged Men In Lycra’. We’re not your casual cyclists who only commute to work and casually cruise beside your favourite picnic spot. We ride expensive road bikes. We have specialised cycling paraphernalia. We (supposedly) adhere to a rule book that makes the Old Testament look like a pamphlet. We ride in groups on weekends and hog up your cafes. We wake up before dawn. Our wives and girlfriends feel like widows. And of course, we wear lycra. The tight, crotch-enhancing, mankini-looking ones. MAMILs.
And I’ve become one of them.
It didn’t start out like that. When I got into cycling, I had a bike with normal handlebars. I mocked my MAMIL friend and colleague and his love for lycra. I wanted to cycle for exercise and leisure, but I didn’t want to be one of those guys.
But then the ‘turning’ happened. It didn’t happen all at once. But it happened fairly quickly. Now I’m one of them. And proud.
Now I know that some of my fellow MAMILs are reading this with unbridled (or should I say, unsaddled) delight. But I imagine for most of you, you’re cringing and cursing the mental image of me in tight bike-pants. So let me cut to the chase. This thing, this lycra-wearing-becoming-a-MAMIL thing, has actually taught me a lot about Christian ministry.
Let me share them with you:
1. It’s hard being a newcomer
When I went on my first group ride, it was such a disorientating experience. Not only did I not have the right lycra, I didn’t know the rules of group riding. There are a host of cycling etiquette rules and hand-signals that group riders use to keep one another safe.
Add to that a bunch of blokes you’ve never met, riding at a time when you’re usually in bed, going distances that make your muscles cramp and seize up… all of this makes for a very tough initiation.
Kind of like church for an unchurched person, right?
Do you remember what it was like? Walking into a religious building, with particular unspoken rules like when to stand, when to sit, what to do. There’s singing and praying; there’s reading from the Bible (where do I find Lamentations?!!!); there’s liturgy and creeds. There are new people all around you. It’s so disorientating as a newcomer. But then….
2. That one friend makes a huge difference
The MAMIL friend who introduced me to the cycling group was my safety net. Even before my first group ride he rode with me. He gave me a handle of some of the basic rules. He encouraged me. He introduced me to other guys in the group. He stayed with me at the back of the pack when I was dying up those hills.
That made a huge difference
And that one person can make all the difference for newcomers to our churches. Talk to any newcomer who’ve worked through the initial disorientation and have decided to stay (even if they haven’t yet become a Christian). There’s always that one person, or maybe a couple of people, who’ve welcomed them, explained things to them, introduced others to them. Don’t underestimate the power of this sort of ‘ministry of the pew’. It’s the key way to keep the backdoors of our churches closed.
3. Make the main thing the main thing
I hear there are some cycling groups that will make the newcomer really feel like a ‘noob’ (cool talk for ‘newbie’). If you ride a non-branded, non-carbon bike with cheap components, you’d feel it. If you don’t know how to talk the talk, you’d feel it. If you struggle up those climbs, you’d be dropped. If you have a puncture or mechanical problem, you’d have to learn the hard way and DIY (and then get dropped).
The group I ride with has some serious riders, but they never made me feel any of that. Why? Because for them it’s not just about the gear and the other badges of belonging. It’s all about the passion. It’s all about cycling. It matters very little what you ride, you just have to love cycling. And that’s enough.
When it comes to our churches, we have to be exactly the same. Because what happens when we major on the other good-but-not-central stuff that makes for church, it confuses newcomers and creates unnecessary barriers for them to really know Jesus.
Yes music and singing is important. Yes serving is important. Yes morning teas and socials are important, as is creche etiquette and bringing your own Bibles and a whole host of other stuff. But what’s the main thing? Isn’t it the gospel? Isn’t Jesus the reason why we’re there, gathered in worship and service?
So do we make Jesus our passion? And is it clear to the newcomer?
Do we give off the impression that they have to be ‘more like us’ in order to belong? Or is it enough that they want to know Jesus better, and so we make every effort to encourage them to do that?
Churches that make the gospel and keep the gospel central are infectious.
Just like my cycling group.
And that’s how I became a MAMIL. Their passion for cycling, their ability to welcome, their openness to include newcomers – all of that drew me in. It got me to feel comfortable with the hand gestures, and the bike talk, and the early morning rides, and of course, the lycra. I’ve grown to love the lycra. I’ve become one of them.
Which leads to my final point:
4. Shared experiences are powerful
Watch MAMILs on the road. They nod or wave at each other when they pass. They’ll stop to help a stranger change a flat. They’re a big lycra-wearing family.
Don’t for a moment think that this only happens at church. It’s a sociological phenomenon. Shared experiences are powerful. And the more transforming the experience and the greater the cost of the experience (think tragedy or suffering), the more powerful the bonds it creates.
The gospel is our shared experience. It is uniquely transforming and costly (for Jesus). What a tragedy when some of our churches feel less like family than a weekend cycling club!
So there it is, my journey to MAMILdom is nearly complete. Hopefully it’s not just a fad. But even if it is, I want these lessons to remain.
And so I can’t wait to invite a fellow MAMIL to church and tell him, ‘Yep, it’s a little strange to begin with, but just like our cycling group, we’re really just about one thing – one PERSON to be precise. And that’s enough. Come and check him out. I’ll help you with the rest.’