Have you noticed there are almost as many exercise joints as there are churches? While church attendance declines, attendance at exercise gyms is booming! Not only are these gyms/clubs opening on corners across the South once reserved for churches, these places are keeping their doors open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. They now compete with churches for time that was once held sacred for Sunday morning and evening worship as well as Wednesday evening prayer meeting. On any given Sunday or Wednesday you are likely to find as many people, if not more, sweating their buns off in the gym as you find sweating their sins off under a barrage of “hell fire and brimstone” from the pulpit. The perfect sculpted body has become as important, if not more so, as the perfect spiritual body. Why are people flocking to the gyms? What is so enticing about the fitness craze?
Fitness centers are cutting into church attendance for two basic reasons: static movement and a perplexing state of social angst know as FoMO. First, Americans are always on the move, mentally and physically, and sitting for long durations in church is contradictory to their norm and activates their ADHD (Ass Dead Hellfire Disassociation). It is difficult for people to idle down the juices after constantly being on the run between home, their job, the shopping center, eating out, and getting kids to dance and ball games all week. When they do sit for long periods such as at work or occasionally at home, they are stimulated by a computer, smart phone, digital tablet, or television in front of them. Even when sitting in front of the television, they are texting and checking Facebook for the latest cutesy photos and “knock your socks off controversy.” Americans are always on the move and in search of new stimuli, but yet, churches expect them to sit quietly in thinly padded church pews with nothing to do other than sing a couple of hymns and listen to the preacher. As dynamic as some preachers may be, most of them cannot entertain and stimulate people at the level they are accustomed. Therefore, more and more people stay home to play with their “Flappy Bird” app, or they skip church to go to the gym where they can insert their ear buds and escape kids, spouses, work, church, and anything else that might remind them how miserably chaotic their life is.
The second reason attendance in church is declining is called FoMO or the fear of missing out. This very real fear is a pervasive apprehension of missing out on something, especially if that something is the latest and greatest craze. People today, especially young people, are consumed by this social dilemma; they want and need to be a part of the latest and the greatest whatever it may be! The adage “build it and they will come” has never been truer in America. If there is a new workout gym in town offering a great deal on membership, they have got to be a part of it, or they feel they are missing out. At heart, Americans are joiners and a membership is a drawing card few of them can resist, especially if there is a fee required. For many people, a membership fee adds a sense of value to their experience and makes it more exciting and desirable. A fee also heightens their resolve to be present at every opportunity, which means they are more likely to be found sweating at the club than at church on Sunday evening.
Some might argue church is not for sale, and that it should not cost a person anything to join. That is a beautiful faith worthy thought, but such thinking is archaic and out of touch. For many Americans, “free” does not carry the same quality, value, and prestige as the same or similar item with a monetary cost; they are literally “turned off” to free as an inferior product or experience. Therefore, if preachers and their congregations are really serious about increasing attendance in church, they might consider charging a fee based on level of faith. Such a fee speaks to a level of prestige in the community that many churches have unfortunately lost.
Fitness center proprietors know how to bring people in the door, and churches need to take notice and learn from them. For example, the movement issue in churches could be easily addressed by intermixing treadmills with the pews and setting up workout stations with free weights at the rear of the church sanctuary. This would attract the fitness enthusiasts who can’t tear away from the gym long enough to attend church, the time strapped individuals who can’t seem to find time to work out, and the individuals who can’t sit still with nothing to do. Some might say clacking weights and the hum of treadmills would create a distraction for the more traditional church members, but if a church congregation can get accustomed to rock and roll bands blasting Amazing Grace to the tune of the House of the Rising Sun and strobe lights bouncing off the ceiling, there would probably be very few people to object to banging weights and the drone of treadmills.
Nevertheless, the biggest lesson churches can learn from exercise centers is the importance of membership drives anchored to tangible membership benefits and incentives. In today’s society, people expect to receive a T-shirt, a coffee mug, a drawing for a free vacation, etc. for any commitment they make, so to get people in the door, giveaways are a must! People will sell their souls for a free baseball cap or T-shirt. Unlike churches, exercise clubs understand this; they understand to pull people into your building you must sell them on the value of the experience by charging a fee. It doesn’t have to be much, but to make membership attractive and give it clout, there has to be a fee! As long as tithing is optional in church, attendance will not carry the same clout as attendance at the local exercise club that charges ten to twenty bucks a month for membership. People, especially in the South, are wary of anything that is free, so to boost attendance, churches must require people to tithe and not simply give when they grow ashamed they haven’t put anything in the collection plate in the past six months!
Requiring people to tithe, especially if there is a tiered payment program for tithing, could reap huge benefits for people hungry churches. Like membership programs in exercise gyms where the more you pay the greater the benefits, church membership benefits could be layered to reflect the more you tithe the closer you are to God, the more you tithe the greater your heavenly benefits, and the more you tithe the holier you can proclaim yourself in the community. Offer people a bumper sticker reflecting their level of commitment to the church, and they will beat the doors down to sign up! The American mindset is you get what you pay for, and free gets very little, so charging for church membership makes sense. Increasing attendance in church is not rocket science; give people what they want and promote it as a value! If moving to a tiered membership format and removing a few pews to make room for treadmills will fill the church and level the recruiting playing field, why not go for it?
The one negative is that a change might need to take place in church attire, and that might cause a stir with older folks. However, over the past several years, fewer and fewer people are dressed in their Sunday best for church, so sweats and sports bras would likely barely be noticed in most churches. A positive with workout attire is that such clothing could actually be utilized to help promote attendance. “Prayers Answered Here” splashed across the fronts of hot pink sports bras, “Heaven Made” stitched across ample female bottoms, or “Pumping for Blessings” stretched across the swollen pecks of pumped up choir boys could be attendance inducing “eye candy” for both men and women of all ages.
Of course, exercise in church is really nothing new. As far back as 1957 when Charlie Shedd authored Pray Your Weight Away the church has been slowly edging its way into the fitness arena. Other books, Rita Hancock’s The Eden Diet and Gary Thomas’s Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, have also sought to tap in on the fitness craze. Programs such as The Daniel Plan, Firm Believer, Bod4God, WholyFit, Body Temple Wellness, and Body Gospel are just a few of the fitness programs aimed at the faith-based community.
Between 65 and 71 percent of Americans or over 225,000,000 people are on Facebook daily and about 187,000,000 of those claim to be Christians. However, based on USA census numbers only about 40% of those Christians actually attend church on Sunday, so, that means 112,000,000 Facebook Christians are not in church on any given Sunday. It is easy to see something needs to be done to entice Christians back to the church house, and the nation’s infatuation with exercise is probably the best ticket. Since 1957, the Christian community has understood this and has created books, magazines, and faith based fitness programs to address this niche. Their only mistake is they have conducted their fitness ministry as a fringe program. Fitness in America is no longer on the fringe; fitness is a mainstream force that churches would do well to pay attention to. Therefore, it stands to reason that if churches tap into the world of fitness and make it a mainstream part of what they do Sunday and Wednesday, the odds are good they will boost both interest and attendance.
To survive, churches have always embraced those things in society that bring people in the door. Churches have embraced scare tactics, revolution, generational music, youth indoctrination, and social media to draw numbers through their doors, so why wouldn’t the next logical step be to embrace fitness as a part of worship. Visualize churchgoers seated between rolls of treadmills and exercise bikes while gospel rock explodes from a band of teenage and greying rockers wearing ragged jeans and flip-flops on the stage behind the pulpit. Imagine the pastor dancing in the isles and calling for sinners to repent. Rolling across the giant video screens to the left and right of the stage, imagine scrolling script urging people to join the church fitness club and become a member of Anti-fat Believers, Fluffy Angels, Disciples of Bulge, and Sweating to the Gospel. Is that much different than what is already happening in many churches? In today’s world, to boost church attendance, churches need to be willing to do whatever it takes to get people in the door, including sweating to the gospel. Such a commitment will certainly increase church attendance as long as there are plenty of deodorant dispensers throughout the sanctuary.
©Jack Linton, May 14, 2016