It happened again. A student showed up late to Bible Study on campus. It was only 41 minutes late (for a 50 minutes group). I guess by some measure he had 9 minutes to spare. I smiled at him mid-sentence. A nod of acknowledgement. He sat down. And I kept leading the study.
As a university Bible teacher and evangelist it’s par for the course that students regularly arrive late. The time-challenged are young, almost always male, and unlike at school there is no longer a bell and teachers to herd the cats to where they should be. They’re on their own. Responsibility, man.
On this occasion no doubt there was good reason – an assignment and a late night is the usual culprit. And almost certainly some online gaming, socialising, or movie watching prior to aforementioned good reason.
It is well grumbled that punctual people bemoan the punctually-challenged. Most (Western) people hate it when others arrive late to formal gatherings. I am sympathetic to late hate. We should be people of our word and show love by putting the needs of others above our own.
But when it comes to students arriving late to Bible Study I have a confession: I love it. It’s one of my favourite things in the world.
And here’s why – because they came.
Arriving late is a sign of maturing
When you arrive late, you still arrive! It says to me, ‘You’re getting there… slowly.’ A student who arrives late has overcome a competing activity; they’ve said ‘No’ to a hundred other worthwhile uses of their time. They’ve prioritised the gathering around God’s word and they’ve recognised the irreplaceable power of presence in order to truly and deeply and personally encourage others in following Jesus.
Now lateness itself is often more grey than early birds realise. Sluggishness is sometimes the cause but it could also be illness, anxiety, or a variety of events outside our control. Sometimes competing responsibilities unavoidably back onto each other.
But for most students today, calendars are crowded: part-time work, longer commutes, never-ending assessments, group meetings, and online lectures. It can feel like our attention is being pulled in every direction. And with all this, they still came to Bible Study. Late again. But they came.
Arriving late is better than not coming at all
What goes through your mind when you’re really running late? The embarrassment? The need for a justifiable excuse? The easiest thing to do when you’re running late is to not arrive at all.
Part of my job as pastor on the campus is to recruit believers to see the university as their mission field. When I meet a Christian on campus who is not involved with our group I pursue them to the edge of awkwardness. I do so unapologetically because I long for them to be obedient to Christ. Getting involved in the Christian Union is not the only way to be Christian at university, but it is the best way.
This means I speak with a lot of Christians who see no connection between what they do on Sunday with how they spend their Monday to Friday. The gospel is there — you’re saved by grace not evangelism — but it hasn’t seeped into their bones.
I exhort them (read: sanctified hassling) to think Christianly about university but it’s common to find complete disinterest. I had the horrible thought recently about what some of these students must have my name as in their phone contacts: “Izaac – annoying – Christian uni group – do not answer.” It’s probably best that I don’t know.
So when a student arrives late I celebrate. Showing up late to study the Scriptures, to know God better, to pray for one another, to proclaim the gospel to each other, to teach, rebuke and encourage – it’s not irresponsibility, rather it is nothing short of the work of God’s Spirit in the life of that believer.
I was that 18-year-old student once. Arriving late. Sometimes in the tracksuit I’d slept in at college, hair askew, and a half-cooked slice of raisin toast in hand. Met by gracious brothers and sisters in the faith picking up the slack until I appeared. But I wanted to be there because my priorities were increasingly in order.
Arriving late is a sign of maturing. Not maturity, to be sure, but maturing.
A still more excellent way
Maturity on the other hand is doing all those things for 50 minutes rather than 9. Maturity in most situations is showing up early for those precious moments of welcoming others, of personal catching up, and a chance to pray before the hordes arrive. If any of my student leaders are reading this – don’t show up late. You’re the mature(r) ones who set the example of costly sacrifice to the group.
You see, one of my other favourite things in the world — other than seeing students arrive late for Bible Study — is seeing those who used to habitually show up late, now showing up early in order to love others more intentionally.
Arriving late to Bible Study should not be the goal. I don’t think we should encourage tardiness. But I’m arguing that as we demonstrate grace, with a little helping of patience and a side of forebearance we should celebrate a ‘late arrival’ with an emphasis on the arrival more than the late.
Arriving late to a Christian gathering is an act of love. Disorganised love, but love nonetheless. So to those racing the clock, I say, please arrive late for Bible Study.