Why would anyone pay to go through messy, physically demanding obstacle courses and “comically extreme” challenges (Fast Company, Jun 2017)?
From Tough Mudder CEO, Will Dean, it’s got something to do with ritual and community. As he explains, Tough Mudder events,
“are the pilgrimage, the big, annual festivals, like Christmas and Easter, if you use Christianity as an example. But then we also have the gym, which becomes the local church, the community gathering hub. You have the media, which is a little like praying. Then there’s the apparel, which is a little like wearing your cross or your head scarf or any other form of religious apparel.”
Together, this creates a social experience with a profound “shared sense of purpose,” that many in our North American culture lack in our day-to-day lives. Coming together to achieve a common goal is essential. Community is forged through difficulty, sacrificial helping, encouragement, vulnerability, and authenticity. Many Tough Mudder obstacles simply cannot be completed without receiving help and/or helping others through.
This experience of common effort and shared victory is indeed counter-cultural. Will Dean recounts a triathlon where, “he needed help pulling down the back zipper of his wet suit as he transitioned from swimming to cycling” and “asked fellow racers for help and was stunned when no one offered any: They didn’t want to add precious seconds to their time.” This is what life, and even church life can seem like for many today. Think of parish cultures that foster consumerism, where parishioners expect “the parish” to provide–rather than empower all to live out our vocation to missionary discipleship. Participants in Tough Mudder events show up to give, not merely receive a service or experience provided to them. A world of competition or self-interest, rather than a world that is gift, a world with others give selflessly, expecting nothing in return, is a reality that permeates many parish cultures. This hurts our ability to pre-evangelize, to connect with those who are searching for something more. For real community, for others willing to take a risk to truly know one another.
The success of the Tough Mudder company reveals that it’s quite possible to gather and attract people by offering shared experience of gift and giving, ritual rhythms of life, and community doing the difficult–together. These are longings our culture produces. The question for us is, how can our ministries and parishes connect these desires to the reality of Christian discipleship?