My eldest began working out a lot a couple of years ago, and as a birthday gift last year, we told him we’d get him a gym membership. He talked to a few friends about their experiences with nearby gyms. One guy told him stories about Planet Fitness that had us rolling on the floor laughing in disbelief.
They serve pizza? Candy? Flashing lights and alarms go off to shame people for working out “too hard.” Does this ‘gym’ even want its members to get healthy?!
I had forgotten all about it until recently, when a well-meaning Christian friend posted something about how we should “create churches that the un-churched love to attend”. For some reason, Planet Fitness immediately came to mind.
Judgement Free Church
Planet Fitness markets itself as a “Judgement Free Zone”…a gym for people who hate gyms. As someone who does indeed hate gyms, that sounds really nice. It is intimidating to go in to a gym full of fit people who all seem to know what they’re doing, when I am so far from an athlete.
But I wondered, how many of their customers actually end up achieving the good health they seek.
Apparently I’m not the only one, as I came across this fabulous article looking at that very issue. As I read it, I kept making connections to the church.
The article begins with a list of things to know about Planet Fitness:
- Planet Fitness: The gym for people who don’t really want to get in shape.
- A survey of over 20 different Planet Fitness locations in 12 different states revealed that they provide no nutritional guidance. They do however supply candy and pizza.
- Planet Fitness seems to promise that health and fitness will ultimately be comfortable and not involve any real effort.
- Planet Fitness is a big, purple-colored adult daycare marketed to people afraid to go to an actual gym.
- Many Planet Fitness members do want to make progress of course, but the gym’s own rules and operating guidelines seem to dissuade this.
Is that what a ‘church for the un-churched’ would look like?
- The Judgement Free Church for people who don’t really want to be in church.
- We provide no Biblical absolutes (because that might offend or hurt your feelings). We do, however, supply ‘life lessons’ and uplifting music.
- This church promises that Christianity will ultimately be comfortable and not involve any real change on your part.
- This church is a big, pew-filled adult daycare marketed to people afraid to be told they’re doing anything wrong.
- Many of our members do want to make progress, of course, but the church’s own rules and operating guidelines seem to dissuade this.
As an unbeliever, that might sound nice. But it kind of defeats the purpose of the church, doesn’t it?
Ahhh…therein lies the heart of this issue. What is the purpose of the church? (I researched and taught a class on that a couple of years ago. We’ll dig into that another day…promise.)
Comfort and Ease
For now, let’s dive into this comparison a bit more. The author, wanting to check things out for himself, decided to go visit a Planet Fitness. He said,
Despite the playground-esque vibe, there were lots of people attempting to get in shape, or at least trying to get less out of shape. This, at least, gave me a positive impression. It seemed that these were people who, had they not found this “unthreatening place,” might otherwise not be exercising at all.
Isn’t that always the argument for creating ‘seeker-friendly’ churches? We need to create a place they feel comfortable, or they won’t come. Somehow, I don’t see that being on Paul’s radar, folks.
All was not as it seemed, however. The author continued,
A deeper look revealed a rather devious reality hidden just underneath the surface…
It looks like the real thing and it kinda-sorta feels like the real thing, but it’s not the real thing at all. Instead, it’s a fascinating place where getting people into shape simply isn’t the primary goal…
A typical gym generally represents a form of linear progression. That is, you go there to improve physically, but no doubt there are people there who started before you, have more experience, eat a healthier diet, and/or have great genetics.
So there are likely going to be folks who are in better shape and some who are in worse shape than you, whether you’re comfortable with that or not. It’s generally understood though that people are at the gym to improve physically….Oddly though, it seems to be Planet Fitness’ policy to purposely blunt and highly discourage this natural progression of less fit to more fit…..
So…the purpose of your gym is to improve health and fitness, but you don’t allow people there who are healthy and fit? In church terms: We really want you to grow in your faith, but everything we do is catered to people who have no faith. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Motivated to Succeed
The author goes on to describe his own experience with gyms. He describes how he started attending a gym when he was a “pudgy, weak, 17 year old”. His intimidation and embarrassment at being less fit than those around him was superceded by his desire to improve. Were there jerks and discouragement along the way, of course! But, he says,
most of the bigger, stronger guys taught and motivated me enough to get bigger, stronger, and in better shape than I could ever have imagined. This would never have happened at Planet Fitness.
Yes, church! This is what we are called to. Mature Christians who come along side to motivate, to inspire the unbeliever to be reconciled to our Great God, and live with more peace and victory than some dare to imagine. And just like with physical gain…it is not comfortable and it does not happen without significant changes!
The sad thing is, in an effort to draw people to Christ, the judgement free church could be harming the faith of those they want to help.
The most insidious thing here is the long-term effect of Planet Fitness on the psyche and morale of its members, especially those who achieve some short-term success just by moving their bodies and perhaps restricting their calories.
Without permanent methods that get to the roots of the problem, these gains will generally and for the most part disappear. A sort of “learned helplessness” will occur for these poor members who have shown up and “worked out,” yet end up right back in the same physical predicament.
New church members may notice positive changes in their lives in the short term. They may find some temporary peace. But if the church isn’t calling them to more… to a changed, Biblically-rooted life …they will invariably fall back into old habits and patterns. Only then they will feel that the church failed them. That God failed them.
Another article I found makes the point that if the only reason people come to a church is to do “social work” they will become disgruntled and leave when/if the church ever dares to offer a rebuke of sin. Friends, if someone is looking to ‘do good in the world’ or ‘help others’– there are organizations that do just that, and only that. But the church should not be one of them. The above article goes on to say that “Church isn’t about ego boosting or a place to have your personal life philosophy respected. It’s a place where Godliness is counseled and holiness is preached.”
If Scripture is our guide, we can clearly see that neither Jesus nor Paul called followers to a judgement free church or an easy, comfortable path. They challenged hearers to live a counter-cultural life, to be different, to stand out…to be persecuted. But to live victoriously!!
Let’s raise the bar, church! Let’s put out a call that we are not the Planet Fitness of faith. It will not be a pizza and Tootsie Roll kind of path. But we’ll walk it together and it will be worth it!!
Let me ask you this: If you were preparing for a fitness competition to win a million dollars, where would you rather train?
A gym where you maybe didn’t feel entirely comfortable at first because the people there were doing something unfamiliar, many of whom were far more advanced than you. But they taught you how to grow, pushed you to achieve your goal, didn’t let you off the hook when you wanted to give up, and encouraged you along the way….
…. or Planet Fitness?