5 Things that I learned about Christian Discipleship by going to the Gym.
It's a poorly kept secret that over the last couple of years I've become a bit of a gym rat. With a few short stretches of absence due to busy schedules or vacations, over the past couple of years I have been faithfully going to the gym an average of 2 hours a day, 3 days a week. And I think the results speak for themselves.
But this post is not about my gains or losses as a result of my newly embraced discipline - rather what I want to look at today is what the discipline of going to the gym has taught me about the discipline of participation in church life. It really has been a fascinating journey of discovery! So without any more preamble - here are the 5 things that I learned about Christian discipleship by going to the gym.
1. The more you go, the easier it is to keep going
When you first start a new and unfamiliar discipline it's hard to keep at it. Especially when it's not something that generates immediate rewards or gratification. Doubly-so when it is something that is hard. Going to the gym fits both of those descriptions. You have to put in the (hard) work faithfully over a long time before you really start to see the benefits - but when you start noticing that you're losing weight, or feeling stronger, or running farther (or your wife tells you that you aren't keeping her up with your snoring anymore!) you become inspired to keep going, and to even do more. Spiritual disciplines operate in much the same way. It can be really difficult at first to start reading your Bible, or spending time in prayer, or even just faithfully coming to church. There will likely be a number of false starts, and disappointing failures along the way, but if you keep at it, and lean into it, eventually you will find that the benefits of the discipline become inspiring and motivating factors to continue. The challenge is whether we believe that the rewards of following Jesus are worth the work of a closer walk with him. Do we actually want the results that come from hearing God's voice? From living holy lives? From being united with his Church? If so, we will put in the work. If not, well there is a reason that gyms are full of well-intentioned but ultimately uncommitted individuals - just like churches.
2. Being part of a community that wants you to grow, makes you want to grow too
But wait - I lack an earnest desire to grow in my walk with Christ! I want to "want to" grow, but I find even getting to that point hard. What hope is there for me? This is where the Gym taught me another important lesson about discipleship. You see, going to the gym as someone who is obviously not in shape can be very intimidating. You've got the jacked-up body-builders who are casually throwing around weights that you could never dream of lifting. And then you've got the super fit tiny-women who can run for seemingly hours without getting out of breath, while you can barely jog a quarter-mile without falling over and dying. And then the moment comes when you see someone old enough to be a grandparent doing the exact same set you are, only with greater ease, using heavier weights - it can be really hard to resist the urge to crawl under a rock and give up altogether. But then you learn that these people actually believe in what they are doing, and want you to believe in it too - and that they WANT you to catch them, or even surpass them in your fitness, strength, and conditioning - then you realize that these strange, strong, healthy people are not competition, but comrades.
I have been so encouraged during my time at my gym by fellow sojourners (who are almost always way farther along the journey than I am) who take time out of their routines to acknowledge MY progress. People who challenge me to go further, try harder, and who celebrate my victories. And it's not just the trainers and staff - the people who are professionally obligated to care about my progress - but the rank and file gym members who I've gotten to know by working out alongside them for a couple years now. When you're part of a community that wants to see you grow - it's not long before you want to grow because of them! In the church it's no different. You might look at people on a Sunday morning who seem so mature and holy - who are walking so close with Jesus that you are embarrassed to stand next to them and be compared with them. But when you drop your guard and get to know those people, when you allow the community to get to know you, you will find that they desperately want you to attain (or even surpass) their level of discipleship with Christ. These people are not your competitors in some zero-sum game of who can be the most Christ-like, but they are cheerleaders who have experienced the benefits of a relationship with God and want the same for you. And if you allow them into your life, you will find (amazingly) that their hope and optimism for you is contagious. And before long you will be doing whatever you can to be like them!
3. A community that is growing is exciting to be a part of
This is related to the last point, but distinct at the same time. If you went to a gym full of overweight people who were progressively getting fatter, and who showed no real desire for self-improvement, you probably wouldn't be inspired to keep going or do anything yourself. But when you are immersed in a community where you can see real gains being made, you realize that there is something to this discipline that works, and you want in on it. A church functions the same way. If you attend a church where no one seems to be growing, and nothing seems to be happening it can be easy to write the whole enterprise off as a sham that doesn't work, and you have no motivation to grow yourself. But when you are part of a church that is alive and growing - not just quantitatively, but qualitatively as well, the excitement and momentum is contagious. That's why at The Bridge Church we desire to be a community that shares our victory stories widely, so that you can see the real gains that are being made and be inspired to get on board. This Sunday is our annual Celebration Sunday service, and you can bet that you will hear some inspiring (TRUE!!!) stories of what God has been doing in the lives of some people in our congregation. You definitely want to be here for this!
4. Pretending gets you nowhere
Listen, I get it. I know that some days you don't really want to put in the work. Some days you are tired. Some days you aren't motivated. Some days you just don't really care enough to invest the energy. I have the opportunity at the gym to cut corners on the number of reps I do, or to cheat on the amount of weight on the dumbbells, or the speed on the treadmill. When I do, I rarely get called on it - sometimes I'm sure that my trainer knows, sometimes I'm convinced they don't, and sometimes I end up confessing out of guilt! But no matter whether I'm caught or confess, what doesn't change is that simply showing up and pretending to be something I'm not, or to do something I'm not actually doing doesn't get me anywhere. If I only show up at the gym to make it look like I care about my physical fitness, what is the point in going? The same phenomenon happens at church. A lot of people show up on a Sunday morning and have perfected the art of looking like a mature and devoted Christian. They have honed their Sunday Morning Smile, and have memorized the right responses to questions about their spiritual health. They know the words to the songs, and when to shout out a hearty "amen" but there isn't any authenticity to any of it. If this in any way describes you, you may think that you've fooled us. And sometimes you have - but often you haven't. And even if you succeed in fooling us all - to what end? At The Bridge Church, we have named "Transparent Discipleship" as one of our core values. That means that we believe no real growth happens when we pretend to be something we aren't, but real change happens when we are honest and accountable with one another. So stop pretending to have it all together and ask for help to do what you can't. Because pretending gets you nowhere.
5. What you do in-between workouts matters most
One of the first things you learn at the gym is the 80-20 rule. That rule stipulates that 80% of what influences your health and fitness is what you put in your mouth - and only 20% is what you do at the gym. Which is a sobering reality for those of us who can really kill it at the gym, but lack any sort of discipline at the refrigerator. Unless you are willing to put in the effort between your workouts by meal-planning, cutting back on snacking, and making wholesale changes to your diet, no amount of effort at the gym is going to make a difference.
The Christian life is no different. If your entire strategy of discipleship is to live off of the Sunday morning experience from week to week without changing anything in the 6 and a half days between services, you are not going to see any change or growth. Sunday mornings, while crucial (and the same can be said of mid-week small groups, bible studies, and other ministry gatherings), are not enough to produce fruit in the life of a disciple. Sunday mornings are when you gather to learn and find support for the life you are trying to live out the rest of the week. Your spiritual diet has a disproportionate impact on your spiritual health when compared to your times at the church. You need both to be healthy.
So there you have it, what I've learned about discipleship through my time at the gym. What have you learned? Feel free to chime in through the comments.
Until next time,