30 September 2010

Exercise Evangelism

I have been having an evangelism experience at the gym lately.

I've struggled with back pain off and on for the past two years, and I'm finally mostly pain-free after well over a year of physical therapy, chiropractic care and essentially taking better care of my body.  About two months ago, I was sharing my struggle with Michelle, our kick-ass spin instructor who has fought cancer and won over the past year (you have no idea what a simpering little weenus you are until you watch a bald woman lead your spin class with a chemo port in her arm).  As we were talking about juggling parenthood, vocations, exercise and all the other important stuff in our lives, she said, "Hey, we've got this new class starting called Centergy - you should give it a shot!  It sounds like it could be just what you need."

My friend Rachel doing yoga at her family's former vacation home in Florida.
Rachel has been pushing me to do yoga for months and will hopefully be happy I'm finally taking her advice (somewhat).
So, last Friday I gave it a whirl.  Centergy is a combination of yoga, pilates and other stuff set to music.  You come in, lay out your mat, and proceed to spend the next hour stretching, working, and sweating.  At least, that's what I did.  It was the weirdest thing:  I never moved more than four feet in any one direction, but by the end of the hour my shirt was drenched and I was in heaven.  Was Michelle ever right - the class worked all the muscles my PT and chiropractor identified as trouble spots for me, and since it was a class where everyone was trying to do the poses, I didn't get that dreaded feeling of "oh, shit, I look like a total fool flopping around on this mat in the weight room."

Tuesday night, Beloved and I both had time free to exercise together, so I suggested we go to another Centergy class.  I had an even better experience than the first, and Beloved liked it as well.  I've pretty much decided that the Tuesday night and Friday afternoon sessions at our gym are going to be added to my regular exercise rotation.

Now, here's where the evangelism part comes in.  Some of my blogger friends have been visiting the topic lately, and I think they've presented some valuable insight.  I think they've covered why we (the ELCA) aren't particularly good at evangelism, but here I'd like to offer some thoughts on how we could be better.

  1. Evangelism addresses the need of the evangelized, not the need of the church.  My friend Michelle wasn't teaching that particular Centergy class, nor was she going to receive a commission if I attended.  She had no thought of her own reward for getting me to sign up:  what she saw was my need for something new and a way our gym could provide it.  Our most effective (and, dare I say, most holy) evangelism comes when our concern is for our neighbor, not our church.  Evangelism driven by the need of the congregation cheapens the gift of the gospel by offering the holy community for the sake of its own benefit, which seems far too much like prostitution for my comfort.  
  2. Effective evangelists listen and hear before speaking.  Michelle didn't break into our conversation with some sort of ham-handed script extolling the benefits of Centergy.  We were talking, as friends, and she heard and understood what I was saying before mentioning the class.  It felt natural and good because it was natural and good.  If the church is to be trustworthy in a post-Christendom environment, it starts by listening to others for the sake of their own story, not that of the church.  Yes, the church has a good story to share, a wonderful story, but the evangelizing moment is not the moment to unload it all on the evangelized.  A simple acknowledgment that "hey, I've heard what you're saying" creates a bond of trust from the very start of the evangelized's relationship with the church - and that trust is essential to the life of the church itself.  
  3. Effective evangelists believe they are offering a real, concrete benefit to the lives of the evangelized.  Again, Michelle didn't suggest the class because it's what she was "supposed" to do:  she offered the class because she thought it could help.  Our gym has a lot of other classes and programs, including a very spendy personal trainer program:  if Michelle's concern was helping the gym's bottom line, she could have done so a hundred times over in the year we've been going to spin class.  But Michelle saw that this class could directly address the very problem I was facing.  Is it so much to ask the same of the church?  Effective evangelists, having heard, offer a benefit that can contribute to the life of the evangelized.  In other words, they don't evangelize because the church needs people:  they evangelize because they believe something in the church can help people in their real, actual, present circumstances.  This is why "Bullhorn Guy" pisses me off:  he doesn't give a fart in a stiff wind about what your problems are now, since if you're hellbound anyway your abusive boyfriend or unemployment or addiction or concern for your kids doesn't matter (and chances are if those things don't matter before you join his church, they won't matter afterwards, either).
There are a few corollaries to these points as well.  First, we who are the church need to understand our role as givers, not receivers.  As Bonhoeffer wrote and others have affirmed, "the church is only the church when it exists for others."[1]  When we use the term "effective" as an after-the-fact descriptor, we emphasize very clearly these are not techniques to develop so much as they are gifts embodied in the act itself.

Second, it is incumbent upon the church to actually offer real, concrete benefit in the here and now.  Life is no longer "nasty, brutish and short;" in fact, for most Americans, life is at the least pleasant, civilized and long.  Any remaining social pressure to join the church in order to be a member of "polite society" is dying a swift death.  These two forces have driven much of what passes for evangelism in the church for the past few centuries.  Now we live in a different world, where God, it seems, is humbling the church in order that it may serve the world in which it is planted.  All of us who read the Sermon on the Mount with a sense of delicious irony may now be realizing, to our horror, that Jesus wasn't being ironic at all.

There is a new reality afoot for the church, especially the mainline American Protestant tradition.  Our comfortable position as the de facto guardians of middle class morality and decency has been pulled from underneath us by a God who "takes by its corners this whole world and shakes us forward and shakes us free." (Rich Mullins)  This new reality may be uncomfortable for a while.  It may even feel like we're dying.  Some of our churches may indeed really die.  But death hasn't been a barrier to stop God in the past - why should the present, and God's future, be any different?

Grace & peace,

[1]Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Letters and Papers from Prison


  1. Amen! well said, Scott. since these posts to which you refer, I've been thinking a lot about evangelism myself, but haven't gotten together yet thoughts as cogent as these.


  2. Great post, Scott. If we start thinking about church as a place where we can give our life away in service to God & others, the motivation for a different kind of evangelism will increase. The church I'm at is in the process of dying (in some ways)...but hopefully that means new life will spring forth. Reminds me of something I wrote back in March - http://erikullestad.blogspot.com/2010/03/life-cycle.html

  3. Erik - I tried to find that post but didn't go back far enough. Thanks for posting the link.

  4. I love it, Scott. (And thanks for the shout-out.)

    Your connection of evangelism and exercise is such a great tangible example. I think a huge reason that many of us become evangelical about *anything* (ahem, yoga) is that we know so intimately the remarkably transformative effects it's had on our own lives, and we want to "gift" that to the people we love who might be suffering. In the process of alleviating one another's suffering, though, it can be easy to get lost in our "one true way" and forget to include a measure of compassion and respect.

    What I love most about your post is the fact that most of the Christian themes you highlight are equally parallelled in yogic philosophy. When I get cynical about the future of theology, I'm lifted by the realization of so many, many common themes, in different words, that transcend the traditions. If only we could just be good to one another, and do our duty, and focus on the offering it all up without expectation of return, just for the sake of the offering...

    ...but I'm babbling. Sorry for the delayed response - am so behind in the blogosphere. Keep up the sweating, and the stretching!!!