How church can be more like the gym – and engage members in new ways.
Our son belongs to a great gym – it’s called ‘24 hour fitness‘, and you might not be surprised that it’s open all the time. It has a really reasonable price with several options to join. There’s group fitness classes that meet online and in-person. He can hire a personal trainer. Their slogan is ‘exercise your happy’ and their goal is to bring people together to improve their physical and emotional health. They provide resources and support.
Our son is an enthusiastic member and loves being part of this gym. But he doesn’t spend a lot of time there in person!
He doesn’t have to go there a whole lot to feel like he benefits from it. He keeps up his fitness and his sense of community through paying for a subscription, knowing the gym is there when he needs it, and using the services and resources when he needs them.
It makes me wonder why today’s church can’t be more like this.
1. Spiritual health is the goal
Most congregations have inspiring missions: ‘helping people find their way back to God‘ is a great one, I think. Or ‘a community of passionate servants who live out God’s ever-present love‘.
But how do we do this? Mission is not just de-scription, it is pre-scription. If we declare the why of our community, we can declare the how. Along with our vision of walking alongside others on their faith journey, we can also help them find the path.
The gym has physical health has a broad goal – both individual and communal – and they live that out in all sorts of ways: Crossfit and ballet gyms and boxing gyms and the like. Churches can do the same – what is the path to discipleship that this community follows and supports?
2. Content creates consistency
Part of the how of our mission is the how-to. One wonderful benefit of digital ministry is the ability of almost anyone to create content around a subject matter.
Many churches and dioceses, and creative ministries have wonderful content on a wide variety of spiritual topics. In the same way, you can find any number of workouts and routines for your physical fitness online.
What makes a gym different is they have their own path spelled out for their own members, with content to support that. Some of it is content they create themselves, some they use (or purchase) from other sources, but they create and support the journeys their members take, and help them grow in their own fitness.
Churches can do this, too! We can create our own content, borrow or subscribe to content produced by other ministries, and/or collaborate with other ministries for creating the content we want our members to follow. The content can be accessed individually online, or together in-person. Or both!
3. Subscription makes community
Here’s a secret about gyms – they know that lots of people sign up, pay the subscription, and then rarely use their services. Gyms are ok with this! For one, it works out better financially for them. But that’s not the only reason.
It turns out that paying for something regularly makes us feel like you’re benefitting from it, even if we don’t go! It makes us feel connected, and it makes us believe we’re going to get there, and live into a better version of ourselves, sometime in the very near future. It also makes us feel good that the gym is there for us when we need it.
Churches can use the subscription model too! If we have a discipleship path, and we have content for helping to build people’s spiritual health, then we can charge a subscription for this type of membership and offer the same types of benefits – and belonging – that a gym offers for physical health. We can engage with those who are interested in deepening their relationship with God, but maybe not ready yet to commit fully. We can create a sense of belonging for those who just want to know the church is there.
4. Faith practitioners ‘free range‘
One of the biggest issues facing the church right now is this: most congregations can’t afford full-time clergy ministry, and most clergy are working part-time. How do we continue to make ministry sustainable for both?
We could try the gym model. Most physical trainers and coaches don’t make their whole living from one income stream. Instead, they may work part-time at a gym, have their own offerings through their website, and work with personal training clients both through the gym and in the wider community.
What if church worked this way? Some clergy get paid full-time to basically run the facility and its programs (like a full-time congregation right now). Several ministers, lay and ordained, with differing specialities, could also be paid part-time to create content, administer programs, and work one-on-one in groups with members. Ministers could also create their own content and programs and offer them directly to individuals and other communities.
In this way, clergy could serve in multiple types of situations that make up full-time service, and churches could offer a full range of spiritual growth opportunities for their members. And people could find ways to connect to the life of the church fully online if that’s what they want.
5. In-person gathering anchors, even if the numbers are small
People don’t come to worship like they used to. ‘Regular attendance’ used to mean 3 Sundays a month in church statistics – now it’s once a month. This may seem disheartening, but it doesn’t have to be all bad news. With the demands of life and the availability of online worship, lots of people want to be at worship but somehow don’t manage to get there. It’s still important to them – it still grounds them to their relationship with God. Knowing that worship is happening is still contributing to their spiritual wellbeing and their sense of belonging to the faith community.
Working out in-person is the central activity for a gym. But the fact is, there are many other things going on – members paying and not showing up, members showing up only occasionally, members engaging with online content and services – that help contribute to the community, emotionally and financially, to supporting the main purpose.
Church can be like this, too. Worship is central to our life together as religious community. But if that is essentially the only thing that is going on for members, it will continue to be unsustainable. If we broaden our reach – through subscription, content online and in-person, and creativity around how and where ministers serve – we can create a base that sustains even smaller numbers in worship.
And most importantly, we can broaden the landscape for connecting others to their own spiritual health – and their own relationship with God.