I have taken the plunge and joined a gym (and yes, that is a mixed metaphor as they don’t have a pool). I have done so in order to continue the rehabilitation process following my surgery earlier in the year.
It’s the first time I have joined a gym and the induction was an interesting experience for a novice like me. The first thing I was asked was what I wanted to achieve. I said that I want to improve my general fitness and stamina and also rebuild some of the muscle bulk that I had lost during the past six months (the gym is aware of my cardiac surgery). So the instructor showed me a number of machines and devices that I could use in order to achieve these goals. I am not sure that some of them would not have been out of place in a medieval torture chamber, but they are all designed to work on a different set of muscles, or to improve general stamina and fitness. A couple of days afterwards I am now feeling the burn in some of the muscle groups that weren’t previously exercised too much. But I am also confident that I can achieve what I want to achieve if I am regular in my attendance and work hard when I am there.
When I was on some of the machines that work on the basis of resistance against the muscles they are designed to enhance I was shown how to adjust them by engaging different quantities of weights. As I am not a weightlifter and am looking to start slowly most of the time the instructor advised reducing the weights to a level that I think others might categorise as ‘puny’. Apparently it’s important not to start too high but to build up gradually so that the muscles get warmed up and are not stressed. I can cope with that, I think.
I also had a go on a treadmill – getting up to a decent walking pace and adjusting the angle so that I was walking uphill. I felt quite pleased with myself until I noticed that further along were some people who were running rather fast on similar machines. In comparison to them I was going at a snail’s pace. But walking fast is what I need to do to raise my heart rate without over-stressing, so I am happy with that.
I imagine that a lot of the lycra-clad gym-dwellers would not think my efforts are very impressive. I reckon that there are plenty of people who are older than me who are able to lift more weights and go faster. But that’s not the point. I have to start from where I am and aim for the goals I have set myself. Others will be fitter, faster and stronger and will other goals that are not mine. I wish them well in that but I am not in competition with them, I am on my own journey of fitness.
Reflecting on my first experience of the gym I wonder whether there are a few lessons that we need to learn in churches.
I think it’s really important to recognise that people are at different places in their journey of faith, and to consider how we might help them to grow from the point they are at now, rather than offering a one-size fits all solution. When I was getting ready to be baptised at the age of 13 I had a series of sessions with a more experienced Christian who helped me to understand more of my faith and how to follow Jesus more closely. Sadly after I was baptised that stopped and I was not mature or confident enough to ask that we continue. But can we offer that to those who want it?
And on a similar theme do all of the small groups in a church operate at the same ‘level’? My personal preference would be that all of them are exploring the same theme at the same time so that the church as a whole has this in common. But almost all of the study material I have seen always seems to be pitched at just one level. I am not talking about academic levels or even levels of spiritual comprehension, but what if people were offered the opportunity to explore the same theme in different ways that suited their preferred learning style and also that understood that people want to explore at different depths, and which enabled people to engage with the theme in ways that most suited their spiritual preferences? The material might be more complicated to create (although I would love to have a go) but I think it would be far more healthy and helpful in the church and perhaps more people might engage with the groups. And what if then there were collective opportunities for people to share together what they have experienced in their groups and encourage one another? Would that be a healthier model of church?
I’m not expecting that we introduce spiritual torture devices to achieve this – the Spanish Inquisition should remain a hideous historical event (cue “nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”). But I think we should recognise that people are at different stages in their journey of faith and that they find it easier to encounter God in different ways. So some people find meditation and contemplation really helpful while others find that they are closer to God in serving others and still others prefer energetic worship, but all can enable an encounter with God. (For more on this read Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas.)
I have found my spiritual home in the Baptist church family. One of the distinctives is an emphasis that all of us can encounter God, can serve him and other people, and that he speaks through whomever he chooses to speak (so we should listen to one another). We summarise it as ‘the priesthood of all believers’. As I see it those who are in ‘leadership’ positions are there to serve the church and enable everyone to grow in the depth of their relationship with Jesus and to live out their faith in their daily lives. They are not ‘in charge’, nor are they more important than anyone else. There’s not meant to be a hierarchy, but somehow it feels as if there is, with people putting others on high spiritual pedestals (or at least on small raised areas) above them. Other church traditions have a more overt and acknowledged hierarchical approach. But we do ourselves a disservice and perhaps even undermine what God’s Spirit is doing in each of us if we start comparing ourselves with one another and playing a version of church Top Trumps. It’s a fine line between seeking to emulate those we admire and feeling like we are unworthy because we are not like them. But God doesn’t want you to be like anyone else, he wants to help you to become the best you that you can be.
I am sure that I am being idealistic here. But what’s wrong with pursuing an ideal? And if I am going a long way down this line, maybe we should stop calling ourselves churches and start to call ourselves spiritual fitness centres in order to embed these ideas?
Or maybe not.
Be blessed, be a blessing