I once heard a pastor compare joining a church to joining a gym.
I grew up in the church. I was a good little Baptist boy, baptized at a relatively young age, who sang in the children's choirs, youth choir, youth praise band, and yes, when I was empowered, the big church praise band. My family went, primarily, to the contemporary service as my parents were actively involved in the planning and execution of it. Church was fun. I enjoyed going and I can't remember a time in my life when I gave me parents a hard time about going. I was into church.
Moreover, I spoke the language. Christians who are deeply integrated into the life of the church likely know exactly what I'm saying. In the church, we talk about things that the outside world isn't too concerned with talking about. We talk about grace, holiness, and judgment. We sing songs directed toward and about Someone not of this world. In the church, we speak a different language. As a kid who grew up in the church, I spoke the language. I knew what to do and when to do it.
Growing up I wasn't particularly concerned with athleticism (shocker, I know). I was an inside kind of kid who enjoyed watching sports but was pretty awful at participating in them. I was awkward and uncoordinated, generally lazy, and with that I never had the determination to get much better at any athletic activity. After all, to this day I struggle with keeping my heels on the ground during a squat because I've lived my life walking around on my toes. I even have students who recognize me across campus because of the way that I walk. Needless to say, I was never an athlete.
Recently, I've joined a CrossFit gym. It's the first gym I've ever joined and I decided to pay the outrageously high monthly fee just so that I'd force myself to go. Now, I live on a college campus with a more than adequate gym--that I technically pay for--and I can count on one hand the amount of times I've actually gone to it to workout. I pay for CrossFit. Today it was snowing and it was a 10 minute drive to CrossFit. I went to CrossFit.
Gyms scare the hell out of me. There, I said it. When one goes to a gym, they encounter a different kind of person. They encounter a person who is big, strong, and intense. They encounter a place of judgment. (If you can't dead lift 300 lbs, you obviously don't belong here.) Or, maybe we should say that that's the place that one encounters in one's mind. For me, at least, that intimidation factor and my own self consciousness of my awkwardness is what created a 6'2" 230 lb individual. It created a person with a resting heart rate way higher than it should be. It created a person who is generally depressed and ashamed of their body. It created a person who stopped taking care of themselves. I gave up. The intimidation of the world of fitness was far too overwhelming for a weak soul like me living inside a weak body. In my mind, it was just too much to take.
I even bought P90X online because I figured I could work out in private where the intimidation simply wasn't there. I never made it through even half of the P90X program.
Last month, I joined CrossFit. CrossFit is one of the hardest workout programs out there; it doesn't matter how strong you are, it will kick your butt. You know what I discovered? That gym that intimidated me for so long? It's not reality. This morning I worked out with women that must have been well over 60 years old. They couldn't lift much and they sure couldn't do lateral jumps over a bar, but they were there and they worked hard. And yeah, the guy in front of me looked like he could bench press an elephant, but who cares? The intimidation factor went right out the door when I first went to CrossFit because I realized that there are people of all shapes and sizes there, all on different levels of fitness, all working toward the same goal: to do better than they did last time.
Yeah, awkward me can barely bench press the bar. And yeah, I get some weird looks when I get to the bottom of the back squat and literally can't stand up. Yeah, my push presses barely get my elbows straight. But the only time the coach has yelled at me? When I apologized for not being able to do something. I met a group of people who want me to succeed no matter how bad I am at it. I met a group of people who are so diverse, not only in their age and background, but in their fitness level. Once I realized this, the intimidation factor of working out began to fade.
I can't help but think that that's how the church is to outsiders. In their minds, it's got to be as intimidating as a gym is to me. People, so far along in their progress (toward holiness), speaking a language that only they think, who are intense about everything they do in that realm. I can only hope that there are some new Christians who walked into the Body of Christ because their friends said they should and hoped for the best. And, when they came, they met a group of real people, all at different points on their journey, all working together in their path toward Christian perfection and hoping to do better than they did last time.
In the midst of a time when the church seems to be dying, gym membership isn't. People are learning the gym language. Less people are learning the Christian language.
As Christians, we have to opportunity to learn from such a trend. Gyms work to make themselves less intimidating so that more people will get excited about taking care of their physical bodies. Churches might do well to ponder this model.
How can we, the Church, work at conveying who we are (a disciplined set of believers who, while admittedly speaking a different language, are wholly excited to welcome others in so that they too might get started on their path) in a positive light? How might the world see our community? How might the world see our accountability? How might the world see Christ's love through us?
CrossFit doesn't apologize for who it is. It's hard. It's a lot of work. It takes discipline and practice. And yes, there is a new language to learn.
If the Church is going to get serious about evangelism, I think it is time we work toward that end by beginning to understand how the world sees us and figure out a way that the world might understand the gospel message through our presence rather than being completely overwhelmed by the intimidation of such a presence. That, to me, is how the Church's evangelistic mission might better be lived out in the world.
The Church can welcome others in without apologizing for who it is. But, in today's society, it's going to take a bit more work. Don't worry though, my guess is that it will be worth the investment.