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.