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Coffee Shops, Guitars, and a Running Trail

Divinity School graduates plant new churches in North Carolina, sparking renewal in unexpected places

Runners Become Worshippers
In 2008, the North Carolina diocese of the Episcopal Church had more aspiring priests than it had need for ordained clergy. The Rev. George Linney D’08 had planned to pursue ordination but realized he would need another job after graduation. An avid runner, he took a job at Bull City Running, a high-end sneaker store at the south end of the American Tobacco Trail, about seven miles from downtown Durham.

“As I would commute via bike and the American Tobacco Trail, God spoke clearly:  ‘Gather out here and pray,’ ” Linney says. “So a few months later, despite my sense that this could not possibly be what God wanted for me to do in south Durham, we started. I was filled with visions, heard affirmations, was laughed at—all the sort of biblical stuff I had read about for those who are a part of something different.”

Durham, like many creative-class cities, has a large running community, and running had been a big part of Linney’s spiritual life for years. As a Duke student, he ran six laps (nearly a marathon) around Raleigh’s Central Prison in prayerful protest of an execution happening there. This summer, he led runs around the North Carolina State Legislative Building to protest budget cuts to programs helping the poor and minorities. Linney says it’s the church’s job to help its people see how God is already at work in their own particular gifts, careers, and passions. For his Tobacco Trail Community (TTC) church plant, it’s running, but it could be almost anything.

“They know that this other thing that they do (outside church) has something to do with God,” he says. “This is not just about physical fitness. Gardening could be your prayer life. Computer programming matters in the life of God. A life well-lived is when you start to recognize, hey, God is in all of this.”

Runners commune with God because they commune with creation—the air, the trees, the dirt, the animals, and especially their own bodies. But not every runner articulates it that way, and Linney feels called to help them do that. Some seem to think it’s all about beating the other guys or topping your best race time.

“You’re dangerously in an idolatrous, narcissistic world,” says Linney. “Most of the people you run with think that running is their god. If they lose and they don’t run well, there’s nothing left.”

Running doesn’t have much to do with TTC’s liturgy; it’s just that the congregants happen to be runners. Linney has met many of them as the store manager at Bull City Running. The Rev. George Linney D'08

“There’s ordained clergy in their running store. That validates their running,” says Linney, whose childhood church, Myers Park Baptist in Charlotte, ordained him to ministry. “Most days I really enjoy my job. I help people find great running shoes every day. Helping people to run leads to conversations about Jesus that are more interesting. You quickly—as you’re tying someone’s shoes—get to the nuts and bolts of their life. I do a lot of counseling.”

What appeals to runners is that the church meets outdoors, in revolving open spaces adjacent to the trail. If you want to attend worship with them, TTC’s website tells you to go “between 5 and 5.25 mile marker” or “just north of Woodcroft Parkway.” Linney sounds almost like St. Francis of Assisi when he talks about children chasing rabbits or birds chirping praise as part of his church’s worship. “There’s music being played and Scripture being spoken without anyone opening a Bible or strumming a guitar.”

Linney says incarnational ministry goes beyond just preaching to runners in the great outdoors. The idea is to name God in all the good things already going on in people’s lives.

“These people need to listen to Thelonious Monk in worship. Why? Because their context for worship is in central North Carolina,” he says. “We go to Nana Tacos afterward. We have some margaritas. You get to hold the baby you didn’t get to hold during worship.”

Linney, who recently self-published his own book of poetry, says TTC caters to an educated, creative demographic in Durham and Chapel Hill, people who might have left the church after adolescence because they found traditional worship boring.

“We are for the poets and the artists,” Linney says. “We can teach you how to take your liberal arts degree and really think not just about how to make more money with it but how to serve the poor with it.”

“I’m not sure that people will come. I’m not sure that we’ll get rich. I want to be the suffering church,” says Linney. “It’s not really what some people might call successful. I’ve been at this project for three years and it brings in $17,000 a year. But the Word says that God is in our suffering. That’s not always a popular message. It often leads to small churches.”

Linney says it’s hard for some people to take a runner’s church seriously. “I can always tell they’re kind of making fun of us, but I like that because people were always kind of making fun of Jesus, to his death,” says Linney, whose gathering often totals as few as 10 people.

“Being understood immediately is highly overrated,” he says. “Folks outside your particular context do not need to understand all of what you are in one quick tagline. I think TTC can be a catalyst for wider church renewal by its simplicity. We are low cost and low tech. There is no reason we can’t be doing a version of what we are doing today a decade from now. TTC is in a fourth year of steady, slow growth. We do count on stability and patience, but I don’t plan to go anywhere, and there are other folks who seem to feel the same way about practicing their faith in Durham.”