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.

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Living Virtues for Pre-Evangelization: Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity

Have you ever witnessed a sporting event where a tremendously skilled team or player makes an amazing play–but blundered on the “easy” part?

Think of a baseball player who hits a home run, and then misses tagging second base. Or, a basketball team that executes the perfect in-bounds play to sink an easy layup with one second left on the clock–only to discover that the player in-bounding the ball had her foot on the line. Or, a football team that returns a kickoff for a touchdown in overtime, and then has the big touchdown called off, because twelve players were on the field.

Touching second base. Keeping one’s foot behind the out-of-bounds line. Having the correct number of players on the field. These are the “easy” things, yet when taken up in the excitement and challenge of something much greater, we can fumble on the simple things.

Evangelization can be the same way. In recent decades we’ve seen renewal only the Holy Spirit could work, as phrases like “intentional discipleship” and “relationship with Jesus” have become the typical talk of many ministry leaders. More and more Catholics in North America are experiencing Cursillos, Alphas, ChristLife, and other experiences that facilitate encounter with Jesus and encourage disciples to become missionary–sent to transform the world.

Yet, the simple things–like talking to others with a genuine interest in their lives, not merely in order to share our own interests–can become inadvertently overlooked. And it’s a reasonable mistake. My head can become so filled with all of the “big” things I need to do to evangelize, that I forget to live out those simpler attitudes or actions.

Fr. James Martin’s 2017 book, Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity, offers an example of unpacking some of those seemingly “easy” habits of attitude. Fr. Martin’s focus comes specifically from the Church’s exhortation to accept those with “homosexual tendencies” “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2358). His reflections offer concrete examples applying these virtues to relationships between the “institutional” church (i.e. clergy and those in official positions) and LGBT communities.

Fr. Martin’s method of unpacking a short, catechetical exhortation to accept others “with respect, compassion, and sensitivity” also has wider applications in our mission as evangelizers that can powerfully impact both our relationships with those we seek to evangelize and our fellow laborers in the vineyard.  For example:

Respect

Fr. Martin’s method is to go word-by-word, starting with respect. He asks what this word we so often toss around means, concretely–in practice. He reflects that respect includes recognizing, naming, and becoming aware of the gifts of others. More broadly, this is a reminder that in evangelization, it’s not about sitting around developing amazing pastoral plans or apologetic rhetoric while waiting for “them” to become suddenly interested in “us.” No. Just as God takes the initiative to know each of us, personally–we as evangelizers, Christ’s “ambassadors,” must take the initiative in showing respect to the “others” in our lives and communities (2 Cor 5:20). We are also called to prayerfully and respectfully listen to our bishops, especially when they challenge us to a blind spot, or elements of the Catholic faith we find to be less intuitively important or interesting. In the Disciple of Christ- Education in Virtue series developed by the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist, our actions of respect flow from the Holy Spirit’s gift of piety as we cooperate to cultivate the human virtue of justice in our own lives.

Compassion

Compassion is another term it’s easy to toss around as we move on to more “advanced” evangelistic plans, but worthy of reflection to avoid hitting that home run but forgetting to step on second base. Compassion, as Fr. Martin highlights, is about experiencing with, even suffering with or standing with another in difficult times. Genuine listening, engagement with others, and asking questions are the concrete, ordinary ways others come to experience true compassion through relationships with us. Anna Keating’s elderly neighbor at the start of her recent essay, “The Perfect Family is an Idol,” models compassion (and sensitivity, more on that later). Compassion also means seeing church leaders “in the context of their complicated duties” as we work together to grow missionary disciples in our parishes and dioceses (p. 58). As the Education in Virtue series points out, compassion goes hand-in-hand with kindness.

Sensitivity

Sensitivity sometimes comes across as an abstract, intellectual outlook–to be “sensitive” to someone else’s thoughts. This misses the deeper, harder meaning–that sensitivity is about another person and their feelings, their very self. As Fr. Martin observes, “it is nearly impossible to know another person’s feelings at a distance” (p. 40). As evangelizers, this means living a virtuous life with basic affability, so that reasonable people would want to have us in their lives as friends, acquaintances, and co-workers, and experience comfort in sharing feelings with us. Sensitivity as evangelizers also means taking responsibility to consider who is speaking and how they are speaking in our relationships with those who labor in the same vineyard.

Friendship
Image: Kleinefotografie, CC BY 2.0

In conclusion, remember that respect, compassion, and sensitivity are certainly not the only simple things that are easy to forget when we’re (for good reasons!) enthusiastically caught up in the desire to be one with Jesus Christ, reaching out with his Gospel to the whole world. As individuals with unique gifts, we also have unique weaknesses, and some fruits and virtues might be harder for me to model than for you.

Though written with children in mind, the Education in Virtue series of reflections unpacking the human virtues is a rich resource for going further, asking how am I called to embody human virtues in a way most fruitful as an evangelizing missionary disciple.  Where am I called to grow? so that my stumbling in the little things does not hobble the good desires God has placed within me to be part of His larger vision of evangelization. How am I to live virtuously, so that when the Holy Spirit “hits a home run” that I cooperate with, I don’t forget to “tag second base” along the way 🙂

Designed For (Not Merely Accommodating) Families

According to 2016 U.S. Census data, roughly 42% of American households include children age 18 or younger. Depending on where exactly you live, the number may be higher or lower, but even with variation, this is a significant proportion of the population that many local churches would love to serve and retain as growing members of a church community.

Design
Credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

Yet, in many churches, things aren’t designed with parents (single or married) in mind. We aim to accommodate families of all shapes and sizes–but even best accommodation can feel just like that, an exception or compromise that still doesn’t leave families with children feeling like this was really designed for them, that they belong here.

 

What might designing for parents look like?

Some visioning…

In a Parent-Friendly Church…

Preparation for Baptism of Infants

is an opportunity to connect parents, especially new parents, to a community for belonging. It’s not a one-time “instruction” of information for parents to passively listen to, with few intentional opportunities on-going connection to others.

Mass

is a privileged place of formation and encounter with the Lord for parents–something parents can be richly nourished from so that they can be the primary catechists and witnesses within their own families. Parents can choose to have children worship with them at Mass or be engaged in an age-appropriate way elsewhere. No parent should experience Mass with children as a burden that requires them to focus so much on keeping young toddlers quiet in the pew that they cannot first and foremost be taken up fully into the liturgy themselves. Mass is also not something that parents need to drag older children to or placate them about Mass being “boring” because homilies are designed for adults, not older children. Mass is a joy and refreshment for the entire family.

Places for Families During Worship

are inviting, child-friendly spaces–not “cry rooms” where visibility for young [=short] children is limited, seating is designed for adults, and the means for a child to be engaged are oftenfewer than in the pews.  

Scheduling

is designed to give families maximum time together, so that parents can be witnesses to a joyful Christian life and have the time to pray and engage in catechesis within their families. This means offering opportunities at a lower frequency, in ways that involve parents/family, on multiple days per week, and with intentional overlap of offerings for different ages to minimize disruption.

The Entire Parish (Not Just Parents) Serves Children

In this, parents feel the love of the Christian community surrounding them with support, rather feeling that they must be the VBS, catechesis, and childcare volunteers all the time (simply because they have children). 

Parents Have Real Ownership in Children’s Initiation

A parent’s discernment of a child’s readiness to receive a sacrament of initiation or participate in the sacrament of reconciliation has an ordinary place in parent life. This cultivates a perception of partnership and emphasizes the empowerment given uniquely to parents through the sacrament of marriage and the Holy Spirit.

Major Parish Events

are designed from the start with the outlook a large proportion of the target audience has children, and that these families want to attend. Design includes content, location, and scheduling.

Service Opportunities

are offered not only for adults, but for families–both internal and external to the parish.

Ongoing Discipleship Paths

are as obvious and convenient for adults with children as they are for others. Adult discipleship paths are designed to synchronize with the schedules and needs of parents with children.

Catechesis for Children

doesn’t feel like something parents have to force reluctant children to attend because it feels like another school classroom to them.

Locations Matter

Driving takes time. Families in many parts of the U.S. don’t all live near the parish. In a parent-friendly parish, off-campus locations near where families live are utilized to reduce transportation time/burden on families.

Okay, this is just the start of painting a vivid picture of designing for families, in contrast to merely “accommodating” families as an afterthought to our events, schedules, and parish systems. What would you add to the list? 

Pre-Evangelization Inklings: Tough Mudder

Why would anyone pay to go through messy, physically demanding obstacle courses and “comically extreme” challenges (Fast Company, Jun 2017)?

Indeed. Why?

From Tough Mudder CEO, Will Dean, it’s got something to do with ritual and community.  As he explains, Tough Mudder events,

“are the pilgrimage, the big, annual festivals, like Christmas and Easter, if you use Christianity as an example. But then we also have the gym, which becomes the local church, the community gathering hub. You have the media, which is a little like praying. Then there’s the apparel, which is a little like wearing your cross or your head scarf or any other form of religious apparel.”

Together, this creates a social experience with a profound “shared sense of purpose,” that many in our North American culture lack in our day-to-day lives. Coming together to achieve a common goal is essential. Many Tough Mudder obstacles simply cannot be completed without receiving help and/or helping others through.

This experience of common effort and shared victory is indeed counter-cultural. Will Dean recounts a triathlon where, “he needed help pulling down the back zipper of his wet suit as he transitioned from swimming to cycling” and “asked fellow racers for help and was stunned when no one offered any: They didn’t want to add precious seconds to their time.” This is what life, and even church life can seem like for many today. An inherent world of competition or self-interest, rather than a world that is gift, a world with others give selflessly, expecting nothing in return.

The success of the Tough Mudder company reveals that it’s quite possible to gather and attract people by offering shared experience of gift and giving, ritual rhythms of life, and community doing the difficult–together. These are longings our culture produces. The question for us is, how can our ministries and parishes connect these desires to the reality of Christian discipleship? Share your thoughts and experiences!

Tough Mudder
Image by zapmole756 via Flickr, CC-BY-NC-2.0

 

Love Seeing This on a Parish Website

I was doing some scouting for an upcoming vacation and saw this on a parish webpage:

Whether you were raised CatholicProtestantatheistagnostic, or have never even considered church, religion, and spirituality, there is a place for you here.

Love it. Thanks Church of Saint Patrick!

An Irrelevant Parish Isn’t Thriving

Would the community be impacted if your parish ceased to exist?
Would there be a decline in concrete acts of love?
Would fewer people experience transformed lives in the power of the Risen Lord?

There’s no such thing as a functional, yet irrelevant parish. It’s not okay to be a parish or church that’s extraordinary at providing “spiritual food” for insiders, yet is irrelevant to the world at large, to the mostly secular community around it.

How do any of our parishes or ministries become a place that’s an island without bridges to the world around us? In Good Faith, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons offer some insights relevant to all churches:

First, “irrelevance happens when your interests and someone else’s don’t overlap…the other person may admire your passion but cannot related to it” (p. 26). This is what being a disciple of Jesus Christ is like for most of our secular friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Christians (at best) come across as passionate in a way that can be admired, but it’s simply a compartmentalized passion others see–there’s no sense of overlap. This overlapping area is what in Catholic language we’d call pre-evangelizationintentionally following bridges of trust to connect a person’s lived experience and values with who God truly is. 

How important is pre-evangelization? Kinnaman and Lyons data analysis suggests that 30% of Americans are “practicing Christians,” meaning they attend church once a month, and this attendance overflows into their lives–it’s not just a cultural identifier. On the other hand, 75% of Americans are “legacy Christians,” meaning “Christianity is background noise” a “muscle memory” of practices that are now “just part of a landscape, not guiding priorities” (p. 27). For these “Legacy Christians,” genuine Christianity is experienced as irrelevant. 

I think for most of us in 21st century America, we should assume (unless overwhelming evidence to the contrary presents itself) that most of the people in our “mission fields,” our local communities find Christianity benignly irrelevant. This is a paradigm shift away from an “if we build it, they will come” mentality that expects people to become interested in Jesus and show up at our door, ready to speak our language and do what we suggest.

Where are you in this paradigm shift? A thriving parish that’s irrelevant, isn’t truly thriving. God offers us so much more. Jesus makes us His Body, his co-workers, and shares His mission of reconciliation, of healing, of teaching, and more–with the entire world. In what ways are you and your parish called to be more?  

 

What’s Your Acts 17? Inspiration from Bishop Barron

I love the account of Paul speaking at Mars Hill in Athens in Acts 17. While pre-evangelization includes witness without words, we’re often called to converse or speak in the midst of pre-evangelization, and Paul’s speech is verbal pre-evangelization at its finest:

  • identifying shared values
  • using evidence/examples from the audience’s [in this case secular] perspective (that’s right, so Paul, a trained Pharisee doesn’t even quote the Old Testament!)
  • avoiding stumbling blocks too early on in the relationship, i.e. while Paul talks about Jesus, he does not use terms that would cause pagan-defensiveness (like the name of Jesus)
  • inspiring curiosity, rather than giving answers

What does Acts 17 look like today, in our culture?

Check out this fantastic example from Bishop Robert Barron, as he heads over to the Rubin Report for an unscripted interview:

rubinreport-740x465

The reactions captured by Brandon Vogt highlight how much this is indeed an Acts 17 example in our modern world. Remember the aftermath of Paul’s speech:

When they heard about resurrection of the dead, some began to scoff, but others said, “We should like to hear you on this some other time.” And so Paul left them. But some did join him, and became believers. Among them were Dionysius, a member of the Court of the Areopagus, a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (Acts 17:32-34)