In my early years as a Special Olympics track coach I knew an athlete named Frank. He was one of the few who enjoyed running the mile (which has since been reduced to 1500 meters). In California the athletes rotated from event to event in their age groups. When Frank was scheduled to run the mile, the age group I was coaching was setting up at the last turn, preparing to be called for the 100 meter run. Every time the mile runners came around that turn, therefore, I would cheer them on. As Frank came around the fourth and final time, I stood on the infield at the turn, encouraging him to run hard to the finish. After the race was over, Frank came up to me. He said that he was ready to quit at that final turn, but he heard me cheering him on so he finished the race. He ended up setting his personal best time for the mile.
Although the apostle Paul, being a Pharisee, probably never competed in the Greek games because he would have refused to run nude, he was a fan of racing. He would have understood the relationship between my encouragement and Frank’s good finish. In fact, he even wrote about it.
Wherefore, seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
Racing in front of a cheering crowd is fun. They talk about the “loneliness of the long-distance runner.” The sprinter, or even the miler, gets to run in front of people. How much more encouraging it is to run before a crowd of runners! When the people in the stands know what you are going through, their cheers are so much more meaningful. That is why older Christians need to mentor young people. That is why people who have struggled with addictions are best suited for counseling those who are exhibiting addictive behaviors. We need each other. We can only run for ourselves, but we need the encouragement of the “cloud of witnesses” in the crowd of supporters.
Encouragement from others, as in Frank’s case, may make all the difference between giving up and doing your best. If we don’t have someone to tell us to keep going we begin to feel like Elijah in the wilderness. “And I, even I only, am left.” (1 Kings 19:10) Elijah was told that he was actually one of seven thousand, not one of one. We are the same. No Christian should ever be alone. That is the purpose of the church.
Some people think the church is only for assembling together to worship God. While we do worship God together, that is not the main reason to assemble together. Indeed we find that there is a more important purpose of our assemblies. That purpose is to be the crowd to cheer somebody to the finish line.
And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works. Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Heb 10:24-25)
Frank told me he was ready to quit until he heard me encouraging him onward. How many of those who worship at home without assembling with others end up failing to cross the finish line? We have no way of knowing. We do know that many have finished only because of the encouragement of the assembled saints. Yes, you can worship alone. But then you may not be encouraged. Worse yet, how many Franks will not finish because they didn’t hear from you?