The Liturgy of My Local Gym

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Last summer I bought a membership at my local gym and began running on its treadmills for a half hour 3 or 4 times a week.  When the school year began I terminated it but this summer I renewed it and have spent another 12 weeks making regular trips to the treadmills.

As I have spent my time in purgatory, watching the calorie tracker tick up and the clock tick endlessly down, I have thought a lot about the works of James K.A. Smith, my friend Brent Peterson and others which have helped me see the hidden liturgies around me, that is those sacraments and rituals that form and shape us in invisible ways.  The culture of my local gym has provided a fitting case study.  As I have sought to distract myself from the anguish of running in place, I have studied the surroundings and wondered about how my local gym has a liturgy that subconsciously forms and shapes us for better or worse.

To be sure there is a definite liturgy to any gym.  There is a sacrament of initiation with a catechism.  That happens the moment you sit down with a trainer and begin filling out all their forms while they quiz you about your “fitness needs” and explain to you the basics of exercise.

My gym also has sacred texts, those blackboards scattered around that tell people what workouts to perform and rules to follow to live into the good life.

As for the good life, my gym shows us icons of it.  Those are the pictures hanging everywhere of the saints who have come before.  In those pictures the saints who have submitted to the liturgy of the gym are flexing their many muscles, showcasing their toned physiques while wearing very little clothes and holding trophies.  Those pictures seem to say, “if you follow our rituals and submit to our sacred texts, you too can wear little clothes, have great muscles and earn many trophies!”

There also is sacred music playing over the loud speakers, those high energy rock songs which feed our desires to run faster, lift harder and become better toned.  Without those songs we may not achieve “the good life.”

The sacraments are not hard to note.  Those are the weights, the machines and the bars and the actions we perform with them.  They are a sign of the reality and they also participate in that reality.

Initially, the purpose of noting all of these things as I ran on that interminable treadmill was somewhat critical.  Surely this liturgies and the sacraments of the local gym were forming and shaping us away from Christ.  By working out there we were becoming less like Christ and not more.

As evidence of this I noted that despite the rock songs and the sound of the machines, there was an eerie silence in the gym.  In my gym, those exercising don’t talk to anyone.  This very morning, the sacred rock songs turned off and I discovered there was no noise at all.  I looked around and realized nobody was socializing.  Instead everybody had headphones in their ears and a screen in front of their faces.  That’s when I realized that in the church of the gym we are expected to pursue the good life individualistically, in a way that says, “You pursue your fit body in your way.  I’ll pursue mine in my way and never will we compare notes.”  I am proud to say that is not the case in my local church congregation.  Surely we are better then the gym in that one instance.

But then I took a second glance and I noticed that my gym is incredibly diverse in every way there is to be diverse.

All colors of skin are represented and that almost equally.  This is probably not true of all gyms but at the very least my gym is an actual representation of the demographics of my community.

So also, those at my local gym have diverse body shapes.  Despite those icons of the muscular life, people of all shapes and sizes gather there and feel welcomed.  Today I did pull ups next to a man who was borderline obese.  He almost dropped his weights on a girl skinnier than a stick!  And all felt welcomed.

There isn’t a dress code either.  While most people wear some form of “workout” clothes, those clothes differ drastically and every time I go, I find someone working out in jeans.  It probably isn’t wise but they aren’t judged, at least not that I’ve seen.

My gym also breaks down class barriers.  The subscriptions are quite cheap so anybody can afford it.  The aforementioned lack of dress code makes it hard to tell if someone is living in a mansion or a single wide trailer and I don’t think anybody cares.

There isn’t an age limit either.  Every time I go there are many people much older than me.  They are not pursuing “the buff life” but trying to stay fit with what years they have left.  At the end of the age spectrum, my gym has an excellent children’s ministry which is most of the reason I go.  Children are welcomed and nurtured so their parent’s can attend to their exercises and many parents can be seen instructing their children on the how to workout and the virtues of it.

So, I began this project with the goal of explaining how my gym is worse than church but now I am wondering if my gym is a better reflection of the kingdom of God than most Christian congregations…

And that means we pastors may have some work to do.

 

Christian Worship Gatherings Both Large and Small

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Two weeks ago yesterday I sat in a large auditorium which not only dwarfs the building where my church gathers, but the neighborhood I live in.  An orchestra with double the members of my local congregation played behind a choir whose membership triples said congregation.  They stood atop a platform whose square footage might roughly equal the lower floor of my building and they led 20,000+ members of my denomination in popular hymns and choruses of our faith.  That congregation included citizens of over 100 countries and world areas.

One such song was the popular and powerful chorus called the Revelation Song which borrows much of its lyrics from Revelation 4, 5 and 7.  We sang through the chorus in 13 different languages from all over the globe.  There were 40,000+ eyes in the room and not one of them was dry at the end of that song.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “this is what heaven will be like.”

Then yesterday, two weeks to the day later, a few members of our local congregation gathered in a country club ballroom to celebrate the Quinceanara of one of our own.  The ballroom was small, roughly the same size as my church sanctuary.  There were about fifty of us who gathered, not all of us Nazarene or even Christian.  Before we ate dinner and devoured cake, we had a worship service.  I was unable to secure an instrumentalist so we sang, or rather mumbled, three songs A Capella.  I shared a few short words about childlike faith and 2 Chronicles 7:14.  We confessed our sins, gave thanks and ate and drank the body and blood of the Lord together.  We then commissioned our 15 year old celebrant to march into adolescence with humility rather than arrogance.  We presented a Bible to her and encouraged her to read it.  I think the words I used were “immerse yourself in it.”  Then we sung the doxology and spent the rest of the evening eating, drinking, laughing and dancing.

It was an incredible experience which words cannot describe.  Many of us remarked afterwards that “This is what heaven will be like.”

Two such opposing experiences happening within a short time frame, provides a wonderful example of the juxtapositions and paradoxes of our faith.  There I was standing with 20,000 brothers and sisters belting out The Revelation Song in Mandarin despite not knowing the Mandarin language.  Then there I was with 50 close brothers and sisters belting out “Come, Now is the Time to Worship” without an instrument to keep any of us anywhere near a right key.  There I was crying tears of joy in celebration of God’s international mission with international siblings.  Then there I was crying tears of laughter as we celebrated the coming of adolescence with one of our own.  There I was singing next to someone I had only met that day, a suburban mom from Oklahoma whom I may never see again.  Then two weeks later, there I was singing next to some of my closest friends, people I gather regularly with to worship, study and pray.

Both experiences had the same emotional and spiritual impact.  I can’t help but believe that both were acceptable sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God which did not conform to the patterns of this world but helped us be transformed by the renewal of our mind.

It reminded me of a paragraph in N.T. Wright’s “Simply Christian” where he captures beautifully the call to gather in worship with groups both large and small.  He says, “Ideally every Christian should belong to a group that is small enough for individuals to get to know and care for each other.  .  .and also to a fellowship large enough to contain a wide variety in its membership, styles of worship, and kingdom-activity.  The smaller the local community, the more important it is to be powerfully linked to a larger unit. The larger the regular gathering.  .  .the more important it is for each member to belong also to a smaller group.” (Simply Christian p. 193.  It is also in a blog post you can read here.)

It also reminded me of a particular battle in our ongoing worship wars whereby we fight over the size of our congregations.  My twitter and WordPress feeds have often been filled with short, pithy, mean sayings fired over the internet at large church or small church pastors.  A large church pastor argues that “Small churches aren’t evangelizing enough.”  A small church pastor fires back that “large churches don’t care about people.”  A large church pastor laments that small church pastors waste their time on ridiculously menial tasks that don’t advance the mission of God and tells those pastors to get their act together.  A small church pastor laments that large church pastors don’t know the names of any of their congregants and claims, “Those mega church guys (and girls) could never do what I do!”  A small church congregation is frustrated that they don’t have a full choir, seemingly missing that they are the full choir.  A large church is frustrated that nobody seems to know the names of those who worship around them, seemingly missing that the participants in their Tuesday night small groups know each other’s names.  All the while researchers are trying to figure out what really is the “best” size for a congregation by choosing metrics that I think God couldn’t care less about.

So I love how N.T. Wright in that beautiful paragraph above cuts right through the battle lines and gets at the heart of the matter.  Both are worship.  Both are powerful.  Both are good.  And every size in between is as well.

20,000 people in Indianapolis and 50 people in Utah would certainly attest to that.  I know this pastor certainly does.