Ten Mission-Focused Encouragements from the Decree of Ecumenism

The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumentism (Unitatis Redintegratio) is in a plain sense, about ecumenism. But, it’s also filled with encouraging gems to inspire and enliven our participation in evangelization. It represents an outlook that is outwardly postured, mission-focused, not maintenance-focused. In no particular order, my ten favorites…

#1 Keeping It In Perspective

When the fastest growing local church in your area isn’t a Catholic one, it’s easy to start complaining about their “performance-like worship,” “shallow preaching,” and people who love their great coffee bar.

But this is a temptation to earthly competition, not mission. The Church writes that other Christians are to be “embrace[d] as brothers, with respect and affection. For men who believe in Christ and have been truly baptized are in communion with the Catholic Church even though this communion is imperfect” (para. 3). Running one’s mouth in complaint against a growing non-Catholic church doesn’t make us more mission-focused, (and it can become an unhealthy distraction).

#2 It’s Christ’s, Not “Ours”

The Church reflects:

“some and even very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church: the written word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, and visible elements too. All of these, which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.” (para. 3)

We can’t own God.  When we see God’s gifts working outside the visible elements of the Catholic Church, we’re moved to a trust that in God’s time these gifts indeed do “lead back to Christ,” a unity of His, not our making.

#3 It’s all Connected

Separated Churches and Communities, “have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church” (para. 3).

Thanks be to God, even in our human sins of division, the “fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church” overflows and extends beyond the “visible” Catholic Church. This is why it’s true that there is “no salvation outside of the Church”–because the means of salvation which exist beyond the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church are still connected to the one Church.

#4 Our First Duty

Speaking of Catholics, the Church says that our, “primary duty is to make a careful and honest appraisal of whatever needs to be done or renewed in the Catholic household itself, in order that its life may bear witness more clearly and faithfully to the teachings and institutions which have come to it from Christ through the Apostles.” When we fail to make this “honest appraisal” of ourselves, “the radiance of the Church’s image is less clear in the eyes of our separated brethren and of the world at large, at the growth of God’s kingdom is delayed” (para. 4).

This is no easy task. There are many customs, habits, and elements of Catholic life that are quite popular, yet do not make our witness to others clear. I recently had a lively conversation with a group of Catholic educators about saying, “I pray to St. so-and-so…” and how, objectively, to any outsider hearing this, it literally sounds as if we are treating a human saint as God. Might we be clearer in our language that we’re asking a particular Saint for intercessory prayers versus “praying to them.” It doesn’t change what we’re doing–it simply bears witness more clearly to what we believe.

#5 Let Us Live in Freedom and Charity

Advice on preferences made in legitimate Christian freedom, within the realm of orthodoxy:

“All in the Church must preserve unity in essentials. But let all, according to the gifts they have received enjoy a proper freedom, in their various forms of spiritual life and discipline, in their different liturgical rites, and even in their theological elaborations of revealed truth. In all things let charity prevail. If they are true to this course of action, they will be giving ever better expression to the authentic catholicity and apostolicity of the Church.” (para. 5)

I think of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, where he advises them that on many of the matters they are divided, there are multiple “right” choices a faithful believer could make (1 Cor 10:31). The same for us today–where the Church gives multiple options, who are we to criticize others for choosing the option that’s not our top preference?

#6 Be Prepared to be Enriched

An outlook that “we” probably have it better than “them,” and thus can’t/won’t/shouldn’t learn anything from our separated brothers and sisters is simply not Catholic. The Church teaches:

“Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church.” (para. 5)

#7 Words Matter

How we say what we believe impacts the way it is received. Changing the way we speak and communicate in order to better share the deposit of faith isn’t “watering things down,” it’s being mission-focused. As the Church explains:

Christ summons the Church to continual reformation as she sojourns here on earth. The Church is always in need of this, in so far as she is an institution of men here on earth. Thus if, in various times and circumstances, there have been deficiencies in moral conduct or in church discipline, or even in the way that church teaching has been formulated – to be carefully distinguished from the deposit of faith itself – these can and should be set right at the opportune moment.” (para. 6)

When we choose words that are not stumbling-blocks for our separated brothers and sisters, or even non-believers, we are communicating great and profound truths of the faith in a way that prepares for their acceptance, not rejection.

#8 Our Bond is Supernatural

As we think of the many who are baptized by not living a life of discipleship, we become more mission-focused when we recall that we are already joined, that Christ has already brought us together in a real way, “a sacramental bond of unity which links all who have been reborn by it” (para. 22).

This means we can’t simply be a “maintenance-focused” ministry, inwardly concerned, and planning to “keep ourselves growing” to the neglect of those around us. We have a missionary call to the world, including those who have been baptized, who are filled with God’s life and Spirit, and yet are in need of accompaniment to start or continue their journey as disciples of Jesus.

#9 An Attitude of Gracious Thanksgiving

The Church teaches:

“Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.” (para. 5)

This means we don’t need to be shocked or apologetic when we prudently adopt practical techniques for missionary renewal and evangelism from our separated brothers and sisters.

#10 Maintenance Isn’t an Okay Option

Sometimes in parishes or ministries we can think that only “extraordinary” groups are called to truly be mission-focused…the rest of us, well, um, we’re just treading water to maintain what we’ve got. But the Church makes the bold claim that “divisions among Christians prevent the Church from attaining the fullness of catholicity proper to her” meaning that “the Church herself finds it more difficult to express in actual life her full catholicity in all her bearings” due to such divisions (para. 5). In practice, this tells us that being maintenance-focused when it comes to renewing our parishes as places of evangelical outreach, even to the baptized, isn’t an “okay” option. It’s a sad option in that it actually prevents the Church from attaining her full beauty. This is what inspires a missionary-parish, the profound realization that when we whom Jesus died for are together, the full “catholicity” of the Church is all the more beautiful for the world to behold.

Image via Flickr user “waferboard” (CC BY 2.0)

It’s About Relationships. Not Programs.

Margaret Spicer, Generational Ministries Pastor, Crossway Church

For anyone interested in Children’s and Family Ministry, check out this inspiring Podcast Interview by Carey Nieuwhof with Margaret Spicer.

The heart of the discussion focuses on two big ideas:

  1. the importance of a team approach between everyone who ministers to and with youth–from nursery, right on up to teen/student ministries
  2. an essential focus on truly serving the needs of families, a partnership, in contrast with the idea of simply “filling up” kids with all they need to grow as disciples at church at the expense of parents/caregivers as partners

How do these ideas resonate with your ministry experience? 

Free Resources Grades K-12

Two options for free printable guides suitable for elementary school and middle/high school:

For elementary school, from the “Education in Virtue” Series of the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, a Lenten Journal featuring space to draw responses to Scripture and age-appropriate definitions of virtues to spur discussion in a classroom, catechetical setting, etc. –> https://educationinvirtue.com/free-resources-for-lent/

vision_saints20guide_november202017_finalFor middle and high school students, a monthly selection of short reflections on those who have lived tremendous lives of witness to the Christian faith. When we think of capital-T “Tradition,” it’s not something contained in mere words of a Catechism or Vatican documents, but a living transmission of the faith.

One source of this life is the witness of others, especially those later designated as canonized saints. These monthly Teaching with the Saints workbooks (free!) from the McGrath Institute of Church Life include reflective questions to help offer students a way to move beyond information to a connection with their own life as a disciple of Jesus –>  here.


Growing Disciples: From the Home to Adulthood

The amount of research on what “keeps kids religious” can be dizzying. Yet, this research matters, not because we need to “keep” kids a certain way, but because God has a personal plan for each one of them, and desires a relationship with every person that grows throughout one’s entire life.

How to Keep Kids Growing as Disciples into Adulthood. That’s the Question.

When we consider this most generally, the conclusions aren’t shocking:

In research using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, sociologists Christopher Bader and Scott Desmond found that children of parents who believe that religion is very important and display their commitment by attending services are most likely to transmit religiosity to their children.…One of the strongest factors associated with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was having parents who talked about religion and spirituality at home, Smith said.

Other key factors included having parents for whom personal faith is important and who demonstrate that faith through attending services. Teens whose parents attended worship with them were especially likely to be religiously active as young adults.

Among related findings, parents from religious traditions that in general promote greater commitment and encourage discussing faith outside the sanctuary also were more likely to have children who remained active in their faith as young adults. (NSYR, HuffPo, 2014)

Pulling out practical, concrete examples–that can be harder. Fortunately, additional studies and reflections provide clues.

Attending Religious Services

A LifeWay study of 2,000 Protestant households found that while attendance does have an impact on fostering discipleship into adulthood,

It wasn’t just that parents took their kids to church (where “professional clergy” could feed them spiritually), but that the children were included and integrated into the church through the avenue of service. The habit of serving others in the church and community likely formed these young adults in a way that kept them from identifying merely as a churchgoing “consumer,” but instead as a contributor to the building up of God’s people.

Talking About Religion and Spirituality At Home

Brad Klingele, a teacher (and former Youth Minister), writes:

As educated Catholics, we all to try to help our children to have an adequate ability to think clearly, to analyze, and to gain an accurate understanding of the world and of our faith. My family spends countless moments discussing events, ideas, and our faith. Each day presents opportunities for intellectual formation. We value abstract reasoning. Most educated Catholics conceptualize passing on the faith as participating in the sacraments and passing on the truths of the faith.

The truths of the faith. To hold something to be true, we tend to think that we have an understanding that we can articulate in words. Almost everything about our culture encourages us to think of truth as an idea, a concept. Our educational culture since the Enlightenment encourages verbal and written articulation. Outside of encouraging weekly Mass and some service work, we think of passing on the truths of the Catholic faith as passing on a correct conceptual understanding. A dear family friend, Fr. Joe, calls it Catholicism as Philosophy.

What Klingele senses is a challenge for many–including/especially parents who are very passionate or well-formed in the Christian faith). An overly conceptual understanding of truth (=”ideas”) is not necessarily talking about being a disciple of Jesus Christ in a way that children at different ages and stages desire.

As Marc Cardaronella writes, “Articulating faith means internalizing it, owning it, and making it a part of you. That requires dialogue.” In the study, “Understanding Former Young Catholics,” Nicolette Manglos-Weber and Christian Smith find that “narrow and rigid viewpoints” are often viewed with suspicion by emerging young adults. Talking about beliefs in a way that is affirmative and open to dialogue not only helps form young people in the faith, but also models how to be passionately in love with Jesus and respect the different beliefs of others. [If you’re familiar with Alpha, think of it as an adaptation of Alpha culture in the home.]

Fortunately 🙂 when it comes to talking about religion and spirituality in the home, it’s not all up to us as parents! God communicates with our children, just as He does with us (Praise the Lord for that). In the LifeWay Protestant household research:

The biggest factor was Bible reading. Children who regularly read the Bible while they were growing up were more likely to have a vibrant spiritual life once they became adults.

This statistic doesn’t surprise me. God’s Word is powerful. The Bible lays out the great story of our world and helps us interpret our lives and make decisions within the framework of a biblical worldview. Bible reading is a constant reminder that we live as followers of God. Our King has spoken. He reigns over us. We want to walk in his ways. (Trevin Wax, “Parents, Take Note…”)

The inspired Sacred Scriptures are a powerful gift to us as human beings who so crave communication. God hands on His very-self to us in the “wellspring” of Sacred Scripture (Dei Verbum, para. 2, 9). When our kids read it (or have it read to them), God works.

Prayer also offers the opportunity for God to speak into the family, including kids. Manglos-Weber and Smith found that among young adults who were continuing to grow as disciples in the Church, 56% prayed alone frequently, compared to only 33% of those who left the Church praying alone regularly. Prayer can take on a wide range of forms, whatever works for your children’s ages is a great place to start. Singing together is also prayer–the LifeWay study found that listening to Christian music ranked highly among Protestant youth who continued to practice their faith as young adults.

Cultivating habits of prayer and Bible reading allow the Holy Spirit to speak and move in powerful ways, to direct our “talking” to what is most important for each of us, in our families, right now–and encourage our children to delight in listening and conversing with God our Perfect Father, through His Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit directly.

Faith Outside the Sanctuary

None of us can be perfect parents. It’s a fact. But regardless of our challenges, stumbles, and hard-times as parents, unconditionally loving our children is essential. It’s our humble imitation of God’s love for each of us. It builds the basis of trust necessary for everything else, “Otherwise, your efforts fall on deaf ears” (Cardaronella).
As Manglos-Weber and Smith explain:
Emotional closeness between Catholic parents and their teenage children—especially with fathers—influences whether teens remain Catholic into their 20s. Greater relational distance between parents and teens increases the chance that the latter will leave the Church in emerging adulthood.

Well before the teenage years, imitation plays a significant role–do we as parents model a faith our children would logically want to imitate? i.e. does following Jesus bring us joy? make us pleasant to be around? lead us to love in illogical and moving ways?

Klingele reflects on a conversation with another father:

Phil and I agreed that we cannot hope to help our children to stay Catholic when they are cut off from the people with whom Jesus is closest…If Jesus is closest to those in need, and our only connection with people occurs across the ocean of a soup kitchen pot, we are not close to Jesus. We cannot find our Lord when we are absent from him, and he is with the poor…When our kids realize we are equally poor, and that we must continue the Eucharist through the sharing of our very lives with our brethren, our kids will meet and stay with Jesus.

He recognizes that if he does not live a commitment to what the Gospel is outside of Mass, then not only is his life as a disciple muted, his children’s growth as disciples of Jesus Christ will be stunted.

Concluding Examen

Much to ponder–I say that with great humility as a parent of young children who remind me all of the time about what imitation means.

Due to the writings of Sherry Weddell, “intentional” has become the ubiquitous adjective on “disciples.” And that’s not a bad thing. It’s true. And, extra-true 😉 when it comes to forming disciples starting in childhood and continuing through adulthood. The intentionality in homes and parish communities matters.

In conclusion, a set of personal questions from Trevin Wax for any household or parish to pray with, ponder, and discuss from time to time:

  • What kind of culture do we want in our homes and churches?
  • What space are we creating for our children to flourish?
  • How are we rooting our families in God’s Word?
  • How are we modeling prayer and repentance?
  • What does faithfulness look like in our home?
  • What are the songs that are in our hearts and on our lips?
  • How are we fulfilling the Great Commission?


New Year, New Sprout
Image: “New Year, New Sprout,” via Flickr tomscy2000

Update 2/16/2018: Here’s an excellent summary of another recent research project on the topic, “Going, Going, Gone: The Dynamics of Disaffiliation in Young Catholics.” Thanks Jerry Windley-Daoust for posting!

Christian Unity as a Millennial

We’re nearing the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (aka the Octave of Christian Unity, signifying the eight days of prayer stretching from January 18 (Feast of the Confession of St Peter in older calendars) to January 25 (the enduring date for the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul). A desire for greater and greater unity among Christians has been on my heart since my teenage years, and the very first time I submitted anything theological for publication, it drew from ecumenical experiences (“A Catholic’s Gratitude to Evangelicals”).

Indeed the fruits of ecumenism too influenced my conversion of assent to the Catholic faith, a true praying of, “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Prior to that full conversion, my parish had undertaken a shared reading and discussion of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999) with a nearby ELCA Lutheran Church, something that allowed a Baptist-shaped Catholic like myself to experience a true home in Catholicism.

This all happened in the 2000s, and as Kimberly Belcher recently wrote:

Among ecumenical theologians, the years of the 1990’s and 2000’s (even to the present moment) have sometimes been called an “ecumenical winter.” It is funny to consider that all my experiences of ecumenism have occurred during this winter, but of course, when the seeds are germinating, you don’t see the growth above ground. There is no doubt that the Spirit continues to work with the churches.

Among millennials and younger Christians, I see both a stronger commitment to practices and beliefs that are particular to each tradition (Eucharistic Adoration, for example, which raised concerns for ecumenism in the 1980’s and before) and a stronger commitment to honor brothers and sisters in other traditions as Christians. In other words, ecumenists of my generation and those younger than us love our diversity and long for our unity. (Read more in “What Can Catholicism Still Draw From the Wells of Ecumenism?”)

As a Millennial, the 2000s have not been an “ecumenical winter,” but a time when the fruits of ecumenism have permeated my life and led to growth, knowing and understanding more and more the awesome mystery and power of our intimate, personal relationships with Jesus, experienced within the Body of Christ.

I do feel a sadness that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity seems lost amidst the busyness of our Christian lives in January. I cannot help but chuckle each January, when I’m reminded that the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the USCCB’s Poverty Awareness Month, the 9 Days for Live all overlap. Not to mention some years, when National Catholic Schools Week (which starts the final Sunday in January) also overlaps. 🙂 My finite ability to enter into each one fully in prayer and spirit is simply not enough. I’m sure I’m not the only person without the focus to pray and act for all of these things well at the same time.

Yet as Cecilia Cicone reminds us via Twitter, division–the opposite of Christian Unity–impacts our ability to eliminate poverty, to understand what a truly Catholic education is, to demonstrate the intrinsic value of life in all forms, and more.

Christian Unity Still Matters

Just last week, a devout Christian shared with me how he perceives the Catholic Church as viewing him as unworthy as not a Christian. This can be shocking and heart-breaking to hear as a Millennial Catholic! As I’ve grown up in a Christian world where the clarity of baptism and the Body of Christ seem obvious (and this is a good thing, a blessing I’ve inherited).

As I shared with him the reality that I cannot dispute his perceptions, experiences, and opinions, I asked if he’d be willing to hear what the Catholic Church does say about him. He agreed, and I read him this:

Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church…

…Catholics must gladly acknowledge and esteem the truly Christian endowments from our common heritage which are to be found among our separated brethren. It is right and salutary to recognize the riches of Christ and virtuous works in the lives of others who are bearing witness to Christ, sometimes even to the shedding of their blood. For God is always wonderful in His works and worthy of all praise.

Nor should we forget that anything wrought by the grace of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of our separated brethren can be a help to our own edification. Whatever is truly Christian is never contrary to what genuinely belongs to the faith; indeed, it can always bring a deeper realization of the mystery of Christ and the Church. (Decree on Ecumenism)

How blessed and thankful I am to be living in a time that, while some aspects may be as a “winter” season, it is nonetheless a winter filled with overflowing fruit as we await with joyful hope the true, eternal, and everlasting unity of Christ’s Body.

Children’s Ministry Inklings: Goldfish Swim School

why-goldfish-imgEver heard of Goldfish Swim School? I hadn’t until about two years ago, when I started noticing billboards, bus ads, and more for the two locations open in our area. Goldfish Swim School is a disruptive innovation in the area of children’s swim lessons. Now, organizations like YMCAs, Jewish Community Centers (JCC), and county recreational departments have been offering swim lessons for decades. [Fun fact: your humble blogger was a JCC swim instructor during my undergraduate years]. The basic concept is that the organization offers children’s swim lessons at a set interval, during a specific time of the year, in a facility designed for adults. Parents register in advance, pick from the times/days offered, and then show up.

Okay, so what could possibly be new or innovative in this market space? Goldfish Swim Schools differentiate themselves as operating from a parent’s perspective, “created by parents, for parents.” Concretely this means a facility that’s highly appealing for children and parents, “90 degree, shiver-free pools.” It also means the idea of perpetual lessons.

What are “Perpetual Lessons”?

Goldfish Swim School’s unique Perpetual Lessons model is the perfect solution for parents looking to balance a desire to keep their kids’ swim skills sharp with a busy schedule. Unlike typical swim lessons that lock you into a set day and time for a predetermined session, Goldfish Swim School lets you choose a lesson time that fits your family’s schedule. Then, if (okay, when) your schedule changes, just let us know and we’ll switch you to a different day or time. It’s that easy and convenient. There’s no wasted time or money and, most important, your child’s development stays on track with no interruptions.

Goldfish Swim Schools also offer “Family Swim” nights, where children taking lessons are encouraged to come with parents, to swim together in a fun, relaxed way. Because Goldfish Swim Schools focus specifically on children’s lessons (and families) they do not need to be co-located with a full adult lap pool or fitness center. The branches near me are both located in strip malls. There’s a cost savings for this company by maintaining comparatively lower facility costs.

Goldfish Swim Schools have been relatively successful (growth from 2,000 to 70,000 students in first decade), growing by a) enticing new families to take swim lessons, those who never fit into the traditional model, and/or b) pulling away families that previously took traditionally-scheduled lessons at larger pool facilities.

Children’s Ministry Connections

For me one of the most intriguing innovations from Goldfish Swim School is the demonstration that there are parents who prefer or need the schedule options Goldfish offers. The vast majority of parish catechesis for children is scheduled in a way that matches Goldfish’s competitors, “lock[ing] you into a set day and time for a predetermined session,” typically the academic school year. When we think of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunity, and Threats) for catechetical programs, I wonder if the “perpetual lesson” coupled with “family nights” concept from Goldfish is an opportunity to bring more families in touch with catechesis and family prayer in our parishes.

Another “opportunity” may be Goldfish’s example of “family swim nights.” How many of our parish catechetical programs teach children, but do not offer space, family-friendly spaces for parents to pray, listen, and learn from the Holy Spirit together. Offering a comfortable and encouraging place to do this could be just the right springboard a family might need to become comfortable talking about their walk with the Lord and praying together at home.

Should Goldfish Swim Schools be copied? No. There’s no one-size-fits-all or silver bullet when it comes to scheduling. But, their innovation can help spur us to think outside the box and in more family-friendly directions when it comes to making participation in children’s ministry or catechesis more appealing to more families. A local (to my home Diocese of Lansing) example is St. Gerard Catholic Church’s “Base Camp” schedule that offers families a summer or Sunday “Camp” for catechesis. What other innovative or creative strategies have you seen in scheduling and facilities to make catechesis more “family friendly”? 

What Fitness Centers Can Teach Us About Parish Life

Fitness Classes
Flickr: Nottingham Trent Univ., CC by-ND-NC 2.0

From YMCAs to PlanetFitness to the latest CrossFit outpost in your local strip mall, gyms and fitness centers are an ubiquitous part of most American communities. The rise and fall of certain models can give us insight into factors we ought to consider when designing parish life experiences that foster moments pre-evangelization and evangelization.

Let’s first think about a large, full-service fitness center–like a YMCA.

Why do people go? Because it’s available nearly all the time and has nearly everything they’d want. A one-stop shop for their family. With group classes for both adults and children offered at the same time, as well as drop-in individual opportunities for fun, it’s designed for families to use together. While you may simply come for the pool, the hope is that someday you’ll see that sign for a yoga class and give it a try–because it’s there, because it’s accessible.

What can we in parish life learn?

  • Appealing to and serving entire families is a win. Whether of strong faith in Jesus Christ or no faith at all, almost all American families today desire to spend more time together. Places where adults and children can flourish, together, are sought after.
  • A mix of both structured/scheduled events and generous time to simply be and be around one another is a powerful combination.
  • A church large enough to be open nearly all the time, as a place to seek the spiritual–both as individuals and in groups–can reach a large number of people. Think of the beckoning of the bells on a campus with a religious community, people don’t need to dive into the deepest spiritual practices right away, but by simply being around, they’ll hear those “bells” and someday try it out.

What about an upstart, like Orangetheory Fitness?

Orangetheory Fitness takes a different approach from a large, full-service fitness center, instead offering a specific type of workout–interval training. The entire gym is setup to support this one method of fitness training. Yet, it’s a method suitable for everyone, at any level. The emphasis is on progress and immediate feedback, “relative to each user’s fitness level, making it accessible to a broad audience” (Tanya Hall, Inc.).

What can we learn?

  • Positive feedback isn’t just fluff–it plays a vital role in motivating and encouraging people, regardless of their “level” of expertise/experience. This means that both new and mature members of a church community need to be valued and encouraged to keep moving forward and deeper in the spiritual life. Putting out the “prayer equipment” is no more of a genuine encouragement than putting out the “fitness equipment”– a personal connection for positive reinforcement matters.
  • Having a clear plan to cultivate the spiritual life matters. When people see the pathway and become aware that they can participate right alongside those who’ve been living it for decades, they become part of the community–not merely onlookers to those “real” or “serious” Christians.

And, that entrepreneurial fitness guru down the street…

Yes, even the independent personal trainer model of a “fitness center” provides insights for parish life. An independent trainer, well he or she likely has a collection of clients and meets with each one at whatever regular intervals (i.e. twice a week, twice a month, etc.) works best for that person. The personal trainer will sometimes go to a big gym with a client, and other times work with them one-on-one with just a few pieces of equipment, at their own studio, miles away from the “pressure” of a gym. The trainer can take on the role of a coach, a consultant, or sometimes an accountability-partner. (h/t Catherine Caimano, “What if the church was more like a gym?”).

What can we learn?

  • Discipling relationships are powerful in the life of a Christian. No matter how great the YMCA or Orangetheory Fitness center, on-going personal connection plays a unique role in spiritual growth and transformation.
  • A personal (or small group) fitness trainer takes a lot of commitment, so it’s not right for every stage and season of life–but to reach certain goals, learn a new skill, or build a habit that requires accountability, it’s often the only way (and indeed a very Biblical model).
  • Many will inherently assume they’re “not ready” or “not right” for a discipling relationship, but the reality is that we can all benefit from these authentic and loving relationships.

Which model is best?

None. It’s about your parish community and setting for mission. It’s about the resources, natural strengths, and stories present in your parish life. The point is to have a vision. Know what you’ve got inklings of, take it, and run with it. Grow it. Think about the different touch points within your community, what would attract an unchurched person to join in–and even flourish in your parish? While the missionary task before us is ultimately more important than what goes on in any fitness center 🙂 we can strive to learn lessons about what keeps people coming (and coming back) to this common fixture in American life.