Christian Fitness: Is the Church Slacking Off?
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Sad to say, but you probably won’t find any great Christian programming in churches or fitness facilities any time soon. Why are we so far from doing the most obvious? What will it take to make it happen?
PROGRESS TOWARD NOTHING
I recently spoke with a couple of leaders from a large and potentially influential church near my home. A few days earlier I spoke with two YMCA leaders from a Midwest City (Yes! On both counts I’m intentionally being vague).
Many times I get on my soap-box and start unloading some perspectives on the direction that I believe can and should be charted for the faith and fitness culture. However, in my time with these people, I enjoyed the opportunity to, for the most part, simply ask questions and then --- listen.
To the YMCA leaders I asked, “What specific Christian faith oriented programming do you offer anywhere in your city?” The answer: We offer a devotional before or after some of our pick-up basketball games. There is a box near our member services counter where people can place prayer requests.
To the church leaders I asked, “It seems like for several years your recreation and fitness ministry has just never really taken hold. Why is that?” The answer: There are so many sports and activity options available to people in our community already.”
These responses are nothing new. I’ve heard the same corporate excuses for years now. Quite honestly they help make the rich soil on which Christians and the majority of the mass population have grown a tremendous disdain for the Christian faith.
To some extent the lack of good Christian fitness programming is a finger pointing game. Churches see pseudo-Christian organizations like the YMCA as the ones who should be developing fitness options with a Christian slant. Yet they piously lambaste anyone under the YMCA umbrella as having strayed far away from the original Christian heritage on which the Y was founded. For their part, the leadership of all kinds of fitness facilities point to churches as the only appropriate place where the Christian message should have a significant presence. The end result is that everyone (the general public both Christian and other) that uses either place gets very little quality input for developing a vibrant Christian lifestyle.
It is just not acceptable to say that Christ is being served and the Christian faith being represented to simply have an unused Bible lay open on a counter at a fitness facility. Leadership has to stop kidding themselves that a quick prayer during a ball game cuts it for anyone. A nicely prepared and executed devotional rarely serves the true spiritual needs of those that hear it.
Churches must be indicted when they maintain a country club mentality. Instead of being bogged down with the crisis of people not acting “Christ like” at a game they need to be intent on capitalizing on the true opportunity to shape understanding. They need to come to terms with the reality that everyone entering their building has some specific needs that urgently require attention.
Here is the basic concept spelled-out for all leaders: Every person you’ll meet at your place has a need or issue that can be dramatically impacted for good when they encounter the love and purpose of Jesus Christ. That is a simple concept that requires active intentionality. Christianity is not passive, occasional, or peripheral. How are you creating an environment where people can reveal their life struggles, personal challenges, and spiritual concerns? What are you doing to let them know that you are even interested? How well do they feel you will listen and support them? Do they have even the slightest clue as to what the Christian faith offers that will specifically address them? Do you?
The answers to these questions lead to another recurring problem among church and fitness leadership. The Christian faith is not being applied as strategically as it should be. We grab hold of a few basic Christian words and apply them to our mantra. However there is a tremendous disconnect occurring between these elevated Christian principles and the daily living of members. Moreover, because only select values are celebrated members perceive the Christian faith as being silent and irrelevant to a vast number of life issues and experiences.
What is being done for the person who feels trapped in a lifestyle that is too busy for family and friends let alone God? How is your church or organization providing support for members to better understand sexuality? Do those participating in your programs have a personal plan outlined to identify and examine relationship challenges, solve family problems or measure the outcomes of the milestones in their personal goal setting?
We’re really talking about the need for leadership to define and map a strategy that will aggressively drive programming to address the whole person. If your programming doesn’t do that then it falls short. Your members may be having fun. They may give your programming high marks based on your ability to educate or entertain them. However, if programming does little to impact the spiritual side of a person than it is merely the latest progress toward nothing --- fit for what?
FULL BODY BLAST
Why are we so far from having great Christian programming in churches and fitness facilities? For one – and quite importantly, leadership is scared and passive. They are afraid to do something that will push the edges. It is easier to follow the norms, stay within established guidelines and maintain existing programs. Even though one of their greatest challenges is to attract and keep membership they stay married to approaches that have limited impact.
Secondly, members don’t ask for more. When church members quit obliging the pastor on Sunday with a chuckle to his sermon joke about being too fat, then the church leadership will sober to the realization that members don’t find the passive attitude funny. When fitness club members ask why only yoga is provided as a programming option to meet spiritual needs then perhaps leadership will seriously consider other options. A church service at a fitness facility on Sunday mornings is unlikely to be attended by many of the gym’s regular members. A baseball game on church grounds has limited capacity to spur spiritual growth unless the members purpose to see that happen.
Quit being shy. People want a full body blast. Don’t be surprised to find that people are quite savvy in distinguishing what is offered. That is the nature of God evident in them. If they are to fully participate, keep returning for more, and bring others with them then leadership had better brake free from their status quo and be prepared to deliver.
Provide members with an optional “faith and values” survey. Why is leadership so afraid to do this? Conducting research is not a crime. It is required to effectively do business and fulfill your mission.
Seriously interface with a wide range of stakeholders. Pursue bringing together a team that will help you create a new paradigm for your organization. It should include church and fitness facility leadership, health care providers, counselors, educators, communicators, and especially members. Such a team embraces the vision, better defines it, keeps it on track, and drives it forward.
Be the next James Naismith. One of the most popular sports today, basketball, was developed to address an unmet need. Regularly launch pilot initiatives. At some point (and if you are really serious – it should be some point soon) you have to quit talking the talk and do it. Introducing something aggressive and new will undoubtedly create some initial “muscle soreness”. Anticipate that. As with anything new, there is a learning curve. Know what you want to accomplish, plan well and then make the program happen. Stop being afraid.
Guide members to deeper waters. If conversations never go any further than “the importance of respecting diversity” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” then you can’t possibly hope to satisfy the spiritual craving of your members. They are yelling back at you, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… now give us something that will challenge us.” Do spouses know how to respect each other? Can children develop discipline and commitment? Will seniors accept the responsibility to inspire? Can women and men expand the qualities of their nature?
DISTINGUISHING THE DIFFERENCE
So, how might this new generation of programming look? It should be more participant-guided. That isn’t to say that the “pro” is quiet. To the contrary, the leader is very active in guiding the programming experience. The program becomes more interactive not just physically but mentally, socially, and spiritually.
It should more closely align and incorporate Biblical guidance. Given that the Bible is a very practical tool for daily life it is a tremendous resource to strategically lead people through the programming.
Programming should contribute to a broader individual assessment and goal statement. This requires recasting the perspective by which programming is offered, perceived, and experienced. Instead of members selecting programming as the “end” they see the programming as a “means” toward their life strategy.
It should help participants more readily pursue the presence of God. Members want to have a relationship with God more regularly than a quick prayer or thoughtful Sunday service. This programming empowers them to practice faith as a seamless part of a total life experience.
Take a look at traditional programming and consider how it can be enhanced:
Traditional Programming: Strength Training
Faith and Fitness Programming: Training To Serve
Self-indulgence and vanity are no longer the underlying drivers to participate in strength training programming. The programming focuses on preparation to meet the needs of others. The investment extends beyond personal gain into giving of oneself to another. The fitness program is the beginning half of a service project (like a Habitat For Humanity project, mission trip, emergency relief initiative, convalescent care, or community fitness initiative).
Traditional Programming: Aerobic Exercise
Faith and Fitness Programming: Celebration and Praise
Heart pounding and sweaty movement does more good than building endurance and increasing energy. This programming helps participants to release their worries, grow in thankfulness, and grab hold of the spiritual source to joy. It empowers them to discover that physical expression is a form of prayer and personal interaction with God. It builds social relations with others, liberates individuals beyond their reservations, and cultivates habits for a more consistently positive outlook in life.
Traditional Programming: Competitive 1-On-1
Faith and Fitness Programming: 1-On-1 Camaraderie
Competitive One-on-One vs. One-on-One Camaraderie
Let competitive one-on-one sports activities like racquetball, basketball; swim relays, Frisbee and more transform into true one-on-one relational experiences. Provide a system to pair individuals with others to use sport as a means to communicate, share, and enter into more engaged relationships. Properly directed, these encounters can lead into caring communities that redefine human interactions with a Christ perspective. In an adult/ youth situation this kind of programming positions the participants to agree from the beginning that they’re not doing “Big Brother/ Big Sister”. It is mentoring with the third-person “Christ” present. In peer-to-peer situations it can create new friendships either by pairing two people that share a common interest in faith or two people of differing perspectives that agree to intentionally get to know and understand each other better. --- Try that for true diversity!
TAKING THE NEXT NOT-SO-EASY STEP
Listen to people and get to know them more closely. Leaders need to stop focusing on their mission, vision, goals, and especially their programming until this important first step is thoroughly being practiced. Moreover, the leaders need to do this, not some committee or consultant. Be realistic yet immediate. Don’t expect to deeply know your members and guests until you have truly invested the time and commitment. However, don’t let the required long-term time be your excuse for not initiating practical actions from the beginning. Get support. When leaders venture into new territory they need to have innovators work alongside of them. Finally reinforce all you do with prayer. Leaders need to have a keen sense that they are truly connecting with God regularly.
New models of Christian programming can be developed and launched in fitness facilities and churches if leaders and members will commit to making that happen.
Leaders that want to move forward can choose from a variety of ways to gain support. We can provide various individuals to give you one-to-one guidance, encouragement and assistance by phone, e-mail, or in person. What conferences do you plan to attend during the next twelve months? We can help organize a special private session during that conference to address specific topics. For more information send your name and contact information to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright © Faith & Fitness Magazine and Lifestyle Media Group. Faith & Fitness Magazine is on-line at faithandfitness.net. It is published six times per year as a resource for building physical and spiritual strength. They provide live support and program development for individuals, churches, and communities.
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