10 Reasons Why Gym Memberships Are Increasing While Church Membership is Decreasing

 In Jason Bunger

When you drive through most local communities, from up-and-coming urban areas to consumer-friendly suburbs and even rural communities, it seems there are fewer churches, but there is a gym or fitness center on every corner.

As someone who attends church at least once a week and visits the gym multiple times a week, I began questioning why church attendance is in decline and memberships and commitment to fitness centers is increasing.

While working out in a packed fitness center at 5:30 AM I wondered, “What could churches learn from fitness centers? What entices and drives people to routinely and religiously get out of bed at 4:30 AM to attend a sweaty workout session? What is that fitness center offering?”

It is my observation that people are seeking in their gym, what previous generations sought in their church.  Here are a few examples: 

  1. Belonging.  People want to feel they belong. Gym members usually describe their relationship to a gym as “belonging,” while most churchgoers describe their relationship to their church as “going.”  Churchgoers often say, “I go to ABC church. But, gym members say, “I “belong” to a gym.” Oddly, there are signs posted in multiple places in the gym where I work out that read, “You belong.”
  2. A Challenging Environment. The gym environment is not designed to make people happy by attending, but it is designed to make people healthy by participating.  Gyms are designed for health, not comfort. From the moment you walk in, the goal is to get you active. The environment in a gym is designed to make you sweat, not make you comfortable.  The equipment, the music, the staff, and the overall facilities are designed for exerting effort, not consuming and complaining. Comfort breeds complacency. No one at the gym demands to be made more comfortable.
  3. Voluntary Accountability. People voluntarily make themselves accountable to each other.  As I was leaving the gym recently, I heard one person yell to two others, “Love You!  See you again tomorrow at 5:30!” I even had a total stranger apologize to me that he has not been more consistent at working out regularly.
  4. A Non-Judgmental Approach.  Gyms exist because people want to be healthier tomorrow than they are today.  We know that we are less-than-perfect — we don’t need to be reminded. My particular gym, has a sign that reads boldly “NO JUDGMENT ZONE.”  I interpret this to mean that they are not going to judge me for the way I am or how I got the way I am. However, although they don’t judge me, they also won’t encourage me to stay as I am.  They are there to help me, not judge me.
  5. Diversity. Look around just about any gym and you will see college athletes and couch potatoes.  Both have the same goal — to be better. But both recognize what they need to do to be better.  I want to be part of a church that is relevant for people who are just starting to explore Christianity and for those who are completely surrendered to Christ.
  6. Humor  In order to improve yourself, you have to be able to laugh at yourself.  My gym unashamedly (and humorously) post signs that discuss what behavior (and attire) is acceptable and not acceptable.  My gym has no problem posting a sign that says, “No cut off shirts” and “No grunting when lifting.” I would love to post a sign in church that says, “No gossiping” or “No being weird.”
  7. Time Sensitivity.  The 30-minute workout is designed for people that have only 30 minutes.  And it is offered multiple times per week. Hopefully a church respects a person’s time and conveys that respect with relevant, hopeful, insightful, and, maybe at times, admonishing content for the purpose of building one another up!
  8. Mutual Encouragement. My spinning group enables me to go farther, faster, and with more enjoyment than when I went on my own.  I still exercise on my own, but it is even more productive when we come together.
  9. Reflective.  Most gyms have mirrors all around.  Mirrors tell the truth. They don’t reflect perfection, but reality.  Mirrors don’t judge, they simply reveal truth. The mirror reveals how I am doing, how I appear, and if I am making progress.  I may not like what I see, but it does not lie to me. In the same way, a church should be a place where we take an honest look at ourselves.  Are we growing in our faith? Are we becoming more kind and patient with others? Are we being led by faith and not by fear? Are we addressing the sin that we see reflected in our lives?
  10. Purposeful Pain.  It is an understanding that some pain and sweat will make you better off in the end.  A good gym, and a good church, should allow you to be uncomfortable and experience pain for a future and better result.

I like my gym, but I love my church.  Overall, I want a challenging and no-nonsense environment in both places. I want my church to be a place where people feel they belong, where they grow, where they want to learn how to live healthier lives and where they are not shamed, but rather gently encouraged. Perhaps if churches were once again committed to these things, we would enjoy the opportunities to exercise our faith.


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