Maybe you don’t know this about me, but i’m a ‘retired’ dancer. I’ve been missing the dance part of my life lately because my daughter has recently started ballet. All those little leotards are making me remember 1)the time when i could fit into such a thing and 2)the sheer joy of movement. For the past 12 years or so, the yen to dance again has come and gone in seasons. This time, in looking at dance studios for my kid, i found one that had an adult Zumba class, and figured I’d try it. I’ve heard many people go on and on about the awesomeness of it. And furthermore, it wasn’t going to be the trauma of joining a gym, where they give you a complimentary ‘fitness evaluation,’ and proceed to tell you how fat you are in order to sell you your very own personal trainer. (True story: the last gym i joined, ‘complimentary evaluation’ chick told me that technically, for my height, i was considered ‘obese.’ WTF? No, I’m not. and that was two babies and ten pounds ago. I shudder to think what these so-called trainers do to women with already-low self esteem. At least I was able to roll my very fat eyes at her).
ANYway…sorry. I was saying how i went to Zumba hoping for a dance-class-esque experience. And what i got was fine for what it was, but it was not what i was after, you know? I left feeling like I’d had a good workout, but certain I wasn’t going back again. And since I deal in the whole ‘getting people to come back again’ business, I tried to pinpoint WHY i was not going back again. Not surprisingly, my reasons for not going back to Zumba are the very reasons that many, many people visit a church and never go back again:
—Expectations– My expectations were based on my own prior dance experience, and also the rave reviews I’ve heard from friends. While the class was fine, it wasn’t what i had in my head. And that makes all the difference.
People walk into our churches with their own sets of expectations. We can’t really control what they’re ‘used to,’ or the experience their friend has shared. What we can do is make worship a ‘user-friendly’ operation for a first-timer. In other words, make walking in the door as painless as possible, with as few ambiguities as we can manage. This will cut back on the number of places where we can fail to align with the church that lives in people’s heads.
—How costly is it going to be?– I often get turned off of a fitness regime because of the cost and commitment level required. I mean, if i’m just trying it out, how much do i really want to invest here? In this regard, the Zumba class did ok. It was very reasonably-priced, and you could pay ‘per visit’ without signing your life away. Is the church this accessible? And this clear about our accessibility? Many people walk in wondering how soon we are going to start asking for money.
The answer of course is–soon. Very soon. We ask for money every Sunday of the world. However, we must make clear that payment is not a requirement for acceptance–rather, it is a response to it. How well do we communicate this truth to people who are just feeling us out? How clearly do we share that giving is a privilege of membership, and not a prerequisite?
My congregation has many folks who drive 20 minutes and more to get here. I’m grateful for these folks, and I’m sure glad that they find us ‘worth the drive.’ However, for purposes of evangelism and community outreach, a church should really focus its energy and resources on the immediate vicinity. In a major metro area, there is a church on every corner–and a new church start in every school/movie theater/community center. While we might reach the occasional commuter, it always serves best to meet your neighbors first. The folks who can walk to your church–or drive there in 5 minutes or less–are going to be your most productive ‘targets.’
—Level of engagement– This one is simple. How much did i feel connected to other people in the room? Was this a place where i was going to make friends? Look forward to seeing these people enough to get my butt off the couch on a Monday night? No. There was nothing wrong with them–it was just not that kind of crowd, you know?
Suburban churches often suffer the same types of cultural isolation that you find in suburban fitness classes. There’s not much chatting, not much asking of names or expression of interest in other people’s lives. It is a ‘get where you’re going and get out quick” kind of community, and every area of our lives suffers because of it. All the more reason for the faith community to go against that grain. Let church be the place where people are all up in your business, whether you like it or not. Yes, some people will shy away from that. But some are so hungry for it, without even knowing it, that they will come back again simply because somebody remembered their name from last time.
–Precious time– Is this a timeframe that fits into my life? No, it is at 8pm on a Monday night. Granted, Mondays are my day off. But 8pm is sitting on the couch with a glass of wine time, not lacing up for high-intensity aerobics time. I’m just being real with myself. I’d do better with a class that happens at 5:30 on a thursday, and i could hit it on my way home.
I’ve seen far too many churches engage a round-and-round fight about whether worship should be at 10 or 10:30am on a Sunday. But those questions usually revolve around, what is more convenient for US–as in, the us sitting right here in this room. There is rarely a real discussion about, what are our neighbors lives like? When are they most likely to meet us for worship/come to Bible study class/participate in our interfaith forum/work in our food bank? As busy as the world has gotten, the “when” needs to be a deeper conversation than ‘what gets us home for football?’
All in all, it was not a bad hour spent. It was a good work out. I learned (or reinforced) some truths about evangelism and getting guests back in the door. And also, I really enjoyed the moment when the teacher turned on Gangnam Style, and I swear the (only) two Asian women in the room rolled their eyes like, ‘seriously? what IS it with this song?” It was kind of great.
Otherwise, I am out of the studio and back on the trails today. A good hike, after all, is a dance of its own…