Nearly half a million people run marathons annually. That’s equivalent to everybody in Toledo, Ohio, running 26.2 miles every year. What’s interesting is more than 50 percent of the runners are running marathons for the first time. Why would people willingly do that to themselves? What motivates someone to endure the grueling training schedule? The sore back. And the aching knees. There must be something deep within motivating these people.
A large percentage of those first-timers have something in common: age. However, it wasn’t that they shared the same age, but rather they shared the end of an age. When it came to running a marathon research found that nearly 50 percent of the first-timers were people whose age ended in 9. What that means is that half of the first-time marathon participants were 29, 39, 49, and 59 years old. According to psychologists Adam Alter and Hal Hershfield, when we’re getting ready to end a decade, we are particularly prone to reflect on the meaning of our lives. If we don’t like what we see, we take drastic action: either fleeing life’s emptiness or setting ourselves new goals.
The pair of psychologists began by looking at data from the World Values Survey. Based on answers from 42,063 adults across 100 nations, they found people with an age ending in 9 were more likely than people of other ages to evaluate the meaning and purpose of their lives. Psychologists refer to these seasons of life as ”crisis of meaning.” It’s those times when we reflect on the meaning of life and make the necessary adjustments. There’s nothing in the human body that gives us a special ability to run a marathon at 29 years old versus 28 years old, or 39 years old versus 40 years old. The difference lies in what we’re thinking about and what we’re feeling. There exists in these short seasons of life a deep need. A need that so greatly wants to be met that someone will endure shin splints, pulled hamstrings, and blisters on their feet to find satisfaction. Running satisfies something deeper. Our ability as preachers to touch on that something deeper is what God uses, in part, to produce life change.
Donald Miller, in his book Building a Story Brand, explains there are two basic types of problems people have: external and internal. External problems are the perceived and even obvious problems people face. On Sunday morning, it might be the 30-year-old who sits in church struggling with how to pay off debt. It’s a real problem: He owes thousands of dollars, but it’s an external problem. He takes every extra penny he makes to pay down his loans, but the internal battle he’s facing is not debt. He’s trying to become a father by adopting a child after years of infertility. The college loans, credit card debt, and car payments represent the financial obstacle standing in the way of his and his wife’s dream to be parents.
Miller explains the power of choosing to address the internal problem rather than only the external problem. He says: ”In almost every story the hero struggles with the same question: Do I have what it takes? This question can make them feel frustrated, incompetent, and confused. The self-doubt (internal problem) is what makes a movie about baseball relatable to a soccer mom and a romantic comedy relatable to a truck driving husband. What stories teach us is that people’s internal desire to resolve a frustration is a greater motivator than their desire to solve an external problem.”
We must address the internal problem in our preaching. But how? Haddon Robinson used to say that every sermon needed to stand up to two questions: ”So what?” and ”Who cares?” My sermon can be exegetically solid, hermeneutically sound, and theologically accurate. But, if I can’t answer these questions before walking on stage, you can be sure my audience won’t be able to answer these questions walking out of church. Actually, it will happen sooner than that. If I don’t show them the Bible has an answer to an internal problem they are struggling with, they will zone out about five minutes into my message. These two simple questions help make my sermons more than a historical lecture. These questions can add breath and life to my sermons.
The internal problem is what motivates people to run a marathon at the end of a decade of life. They struggle with internal issues of doubt, incompetence, and confusion. We must address the internal problems in people’s lives. We must learn to identify the crisis of meaning in the lives of those around us.
The single guy is dating a different girl every month not because he gets bored easily but because he’s looking for the love of his life. He’s tired of wasting time with women with whom he has no future. The 37 year old isn’t looking to make more money; she’s looking to make a difference and wants to change careers to invest the rest of her life in something that matters more than just a paycheck. The 61-year-old doesn’t want to spend his retirement days teetering around on the golf course. He wants to be able to be financially independent enough to make up for the time lost when the kids were young. These are internal issues, but we will lose the attention of the audience if all we address is the dating scene, the job, or the IRA. People are motivated by far more than those things. If our goal is to influence people with Scripture, we need to address the issues people care about; we must identify and address their internal needs.