A gym encounter and evangelism

I started going to the gym about 20 months ago. This was after a slow realisation that Ph.D. had left me in a relatively poor state. I was obese according to my BMI although nobody commented on me being overweight.  I was also relatively unfit. I came to acknowledge that my lifestyle was largely sedentary and I needed more exercise. One of the things that had scuppered previous exercise routines was that they got disrupted by circumstances. Walking depended quite a bit on the weather and people to go with swimming was cancelled whenever there was a competition in the pool and  yoga was simply too much effort most mornings. Actually, I was intermittently doing yoga but that was really it apart from general walking with life. The ability of Ph.D. to eat time that was available and still be hungry did nothing for my routine. What I needed was something that I could fit around my life and was less likely to be cancelled. That for me meant reluctantly going to the gym. As it turns out gym suits me when it is part of a wider regime.

Now fast forward 16 months and they gym is being refurbished so changing rooms are less comfortable than usual and there is no hiding away in a cubicle. Another girl came in while I was changing for a gym session. I could see my sixteen-month-earlier-self in her and could sense she was nervous. I also suddenly realised I was one of the reasons she was nervous.  You see having been going to the gym regularly for little over a year I looked like a person who went to the gym.  I think I had only just got down to a normal BMI but I was confident in the settings and I as long as I stuck to my routine I knew what I was doing.

Having heard others talk in the gym, I would say that the same is true of most of them. There was a time when they were that new, totally unfit, klutz, trying it out for the first time. Indeed, I suspect many like me still by default think of ourselves that way. It means that the gym goers when they notice a new person (many gym goers are very much working on doing their thing) think not “look at that slob how dare they come here” but “good on you, hope you stick at it”. However, that is not how they are perceived by the new gym goer.

Now this is not an article encouraging people to take up the gym. I could write that but there are plenty out there. Rather it is an article about people who come to church. It is so easy in a church to look at other people and think they have their lives together, that they know what they are doing. This is particularly true of when looking at those who have been at the church for a long time. That is not how many of us see ourselves in the church. We see ourselves as messed up individuals who are struggling to make it up as we go along. We are often focused on our needs and getting those dealt with, just as gym goers are. We are not the super religious that others look up to. This is our perspective.

When people less familiar with the setting come in they do not know this. What they see is, like a new gym attendee, that everyone else is more proficient and able to cope than they are and that includes us. I wonder how much the accusations of “hypocrite”, so often thrown at people who attend church, is not the equivalent of “gym rat” used of those who go regularly to a gym. It comes from a person’s feeling of inadequate and is addressed to those who they as making them feel that and judging them. Whether of not they are in fact being judged is irrelevant, the perception is all.

I cannot say that I got it right, but that time I broke the changing room taboo and spoke with the girl telling her my story. I hope it encouraged her. The questions is how do we let people in the idea that we were all once the newbie with our congregations and we are not always as sure of how things work as they appear.

A Welcome is not enough

I said in the discussion that welcome is not enough. I think I can now spell out the two other stages that need to happen, one is prior to the welcome, invitation/introduction and the second comes afterwards integration.

Firstly most people are not going to cold call a church for worship! A few, a very few and normally in my experience people who are fairly marginal to society do. The rest when looking for a church, would rather go to one where they know somebody or even know a friend of a friends. So at this stage it means people letting it be known they go to a particular church and speaking of the good things about it. You will notice that personal evangelism can be part of this process but it does not have to be. So a congregation needs to actually spend some time thinking about what it is good at and encouraging people to talk about those things.

I also think that it is quite possible if we want people to cold call our congregations putting up the old fashioned “Public Worship” is more effective than “All welcome”. The thing is that “public” says to people “you have the right to be here”. In a world where more and more public spaces are being privatised that may be an important message to get across. Actually “All Welcome” is very problematic. It is used in many situations where all are not welcome, so people tend to disbelieve it. It sounds desperate, we will take anyone who comes. Nobody particularly wants to belong to an organisation that is desperate for new members.

As for integration that is the real test of inclusiveness. It is very easy for someone to be welcomed the first three or four weeks they attend and then ignored once their face is familiar. This makes becoming part of a congregation very difficult indeed. At this stage people still need someone more familiar with the congregation to befriend them. For instance if it is stated “Please see Jane Bloggs for tickets for the Christmas lunch” they often won’t know who “Jane Bloggs” is even though they have been around for a while. They need to have someone they can ask in a none threatening way. Otherwise they are effectively excluded from these events. That goes further, any idea how hard it is to set up a direct debit, when you don’t know who the giving secretary is, etc. Then their gifts aren’t know to the congregation so often overlooked. There also is a need for pastoral care before they are fully a member and one gift they do have is the ability to see the congregation more as an outsider would than those who have been there for twenty years.

What exactly do we mean by “welcoming and friendly”?

Let me be clear as far as I can ascertain all United Reformed Churches are “Welcoming and Friendly”. By this I don’t mean all congregations claim that. All congregations of all denominations claim that. What I mean is that from my own experience, I can only think of one congregation I have ever heard of as being unfriendly and that was a decade before the report. Also I have been reading Mystery Worshipper reports on Ship of Fools it seems to be a constant theme when talking about a United Reformed congregation.

I have sort of felt that when the growth experts, go on about how a church should be welcoming and friendly at least as far as the URC is concerned, they are preaching to the converted. We have sorted what being welcoming is at least as far as the reports go. People are not being turned away from the United Reformed Congregations in vast droves because the congregations are unwelcoming. It is not just a matter that congregation have to more welcoming and people will flood in. If I could suggest anything to the church people interested in Evangelism it would be that they let go of being a welcoming and friendly congregation and concentrated there efforts elsewhere. Being a “Welcoming and friendly” congregation only matters once you have people coming in. If those people never come in, then it does not matter how you perfect your skills at being “friendly and welcoming” you will not recruit anybody.

However my view is changing. Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that all United Reformed Churches are doing their best to be welcoming and friendly and for the most part suceeding. What I no longer believe is that all United Reformed Churches understanding “Welcoming and friendly” to mean the same thing.

So does a church being welcoming and friendly mean:

  1. that others in the congregation recognise you, are mildly interested in what is going on in your life and are ready to chat when you meet
  2. that the congregation provides happenings on a daily basis so that you never need to be lonely but can always go down to the church and chat with somebody
  3. that they keep a note of when you are not in church and check how you are when you are absent for a couple of weeks
  4. that you find it easy to form friendships with people there
  5. that they are ready to help you out even if this is your first visit to the congregation.
  6. that someone greets you at the door and some one talks to you at your first visit.

I guess that the list could go on. The point is not that one of these is correct and the others are wrong but that people will construct being a “welcoming and friendly” congregation to be those of the above that they are good at. Some congregations will even decide that certain of those behaviours are anything but welcoming and friendly.