Recently, I joined a gym. Those who know me will know this is out of character for me. But I’ve done it, I’m going to regular classes, and I’m not dead yet, so things are looking good.
However, one unexpected benefit of this is that I now have recent, hands-on experience of what it feels like to be really new to a place, and completely unfamiliar with its customs and culture. This is something many children and parents experience when they come to church – and church leaders, who are used to their church’s ways of doing things, can often forget how intimidating it is to be new, and how unfamiliar most children, and parents, are with what happens at church.
So here are a few things I noticed about my gym experience, and how we might learn from it at church.
Coming to the gym wasn’t my first step. My first step was a friend inviting me to her boxing class. She knew I was looking to get in shape, and she told me this class was small, informal, friendly, and that she and I would go for a coffee afterwards. I went twice and LOVED it. However, the scheduling of the class didn’t work out for me long term, so I found myself with the desire to do fitness classes, looking for a place that would work for me to explore this more.
Applicable to churches: A culture of invitation among existing members. My friend knew I was looking for something, and invited me to her group. Knowing somebody who would be there meant it was less intimidating for me to show up, and she helped show me what to do with the equipment and so on. Encourage your existing congregation to invite friends to your Harvest Festival, your Crib Service, and to help show them how the service sheet works and all that.
Then I found myself looking for a home. I posted a plea to Facebook – “anyone have experiences with a newbie-friendly gym?” and I researched websites. I found one that looked friendly and accessible and had an online schedule of classes, so I knew there were boxing and dance classes at times that would work for me.
Applicable to churches: Most parents of young children are under 45. They will search your website and any social media you have before they even think of showing up at your door. I wrote a few tips on making your website more family-friendly here.
Then I joined, and booked myself in for a class. The gym I joined has no contract, so I didn’t feel I was making a MASSIVE commitment just by taking that first tentative step. By booking myself in for a class, I felt I had, however, made a commitment to show up on that day, even if I didn’t feel like it.
Applicable to churches: Don’t ask people to sign up in support of the Nicene Creed, the 39 Articles, a particular position on the atonement, and to join the coffee rota and the PCC the second you see them approach you. They’re still not sure if this is for them, and demanding they turn their whole life over is scary. The second half of this – the commitment to a class – is applicable more to things like Christenings and weddings. Asking people to commit to coming to church a few times in preparation for a Christening or wedding service can help them feel like they’ve made a promise they need to stick to.
Then I actually showed up. So much groundwork had been done before I even walked in the front door! So now, here I am. The gym is part of a nationwide chain that sells itself as very friendly to newcomers and not scarily intense. There is an app, and you have a PIN number that gets you through the front door. It took me a while to figure out how this worked, and I watched a few other people arrive and copied what they did.
There was an area with tables and chairs, so I sat there and posted on Facebook: “I’m feeling self-conscious and I don’t quite know how it all works, but I’m here, and the class I booked starts in 10 minutes, so let’s do this.” Friends on mine who are gym regulars posted comments like “you’ll do great!” or “I’m a member of [that chain] too – here’s how it works.”
Looking around, I was relieved to see people of all ages and sizes – I’m not 25 and I’m not a size 8, and it was encouraging to know that didn’t make me stick out like a sore thumb.
I went into the room where the class was being held. There was no instructor until about 30 seconds before the class started, so I had to figure out what to do on my own. Once I’d (pretty much) sorted it, I updated Facebook: “I walked in and there’s no instructor yet. I tried to find an empty step and there wasn’t one. Then someone else walked in and got one from a cupboard, so I did too. Now I’m wondering if I’ve left enough room behind mine or if it’s going to be awkward. Mostly I’m trying to avoid eye contact!!!”
Applicable to churches: Here’s where your greeting team and your service sheets/screens are REALLY important. A quick “is this your first time here?” to people your team doesn’t recognise, and one or two sentences covering the basics – “you can put the pushchair over there, we have Junior Church or you can stay with your family, there’s a children’s area on the right, and this service sheet has the readings, this one has all the prayers” can help people feel less at sea than I did.
Also, don’t judge someone who’s sitting there frantically scrolling through social media right before the service starts, instead of chatting quietly or praying. They may be new and feeling awkward, and our phones have become our collective security blankets for surviving awkward social situations.
The bit about how reassuring it was to see people who looked like me is difficult – diversity of all kinds is a huge issue in our churches, and needs more space than I have here. But it does reinforce what I often say – that the HARDEST work in children’s ministry is getting from 0 to 5 or 6 regulars. Once you have critical mass, even if it’s a small number, new parents and children will feel more relaxed when they arrive and see at least a few other people who look like them. However, signs in your building that you’re welcome to the idea of children can help – a good children’s corner (see the Pray and Play tagged posts on this blog), examples of children’s artwork from Messy Church or holiday club or toddler group, etc.
Then … I did it! I worked out! Again, I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one who had to pause sometimes while other members of the class kept going. I wasn’t the only one who had to trade out their weights for lighter ones.
And as I walked out, I felt … more at home. More like I belonged there. More in control and more confident. I updated the Facebook thread – “I did great! Not compared to the incredibly muscular and toned gym bunny in front of me, but great compared to me, which is what matters!” Friends who are gym regulars chimed in with tips about post-workout nutrition, and how to make sure I wasn’t too sore the next day. I immediately signed up (on the app, nice and easy) for two more classes, to make sure I continued the momentum.
And then, over the next few days, the strangest thing happened. I started to feel like I was “in the club.” I tried on this new identity as “someone who goes to the gym” to see how it fit. I saw memes about “leg day” and so on, on Twitter, and laughed in recognition. I started obnoxiously telling everyone about how I went to the gym and the different classes I was thinking of taking. I considered going there on my own sometime, not for a class, just to use the machines (the gym equivalent of popping into church for silent prayer, not just a service).
Applicable to churches: Make it okay for people to not know how to worship. Make it clear that it’s okay to walk around with your child if needed – switching out the weights for the lighter ones, so to speak. And that if you stand or kneel at the wrong place, or have trouble finding the right page in the hymnal or service sheet, that’s okay. Encourage your regulars to help people who are juggling small children and service sheets. Make the logistics for Communion clear.
And once people start to feel “hey, I kind of have a handle on this,” they will start to feel more like one of you. They will start to get the jokes (like this one):
Make it easy for them to “join the club.” My gym-going friends on Facebook have been very open about sharing tips and jokes and making me feel like I belong, even though I’ve now only gone twice (but I have another class booked for tonight). There has been no snarkiness, no “oh, you’ll understand when you’re as developed and enlightened as we are,” just a genuine enthusiasm for this place that’s part of their lives, that requires effort and hard work to make them healthier and stronger and better able to cope with frustration and anger, and an encouragement that I too can be part of it. That’s not a bad model for evangelism.