yes, this is church
yes, this is church

On his blog yesterday, Seth Godin offered several examples of organizations or movements that have achieved organic and viral growth. Here is his brief analysis of what these groups do well:

Invent a connection venue or format, but give up some control.

Show it can be done, but don’t insist that it be done precisely the same way you did it.

Establish a cultural norm.

Get out of the way…

As is often the case, Seth’s insights are remarkably relevant for the church, which is most definitely a connection venue and format.

The essence of what makes a faith community is pretty clear and straightforward. But there is more than one way to create an environment for this kind of community to flourish. Mainline Protestantism’s problem is a stubborn insistence that traditional forms of congregational life are the best or only way to do it.

A connectional denomination like mine, the PC(USA), is institutionally resistant to giving permission to experiment with new forms of church. Our councils (formerly known as governing bodies) tend to be regulatory gatekeepers rather than support networks. Back when I served on the first Mid Councils Commission we talked about the need for a bigger dance floor or art canvas—Presbyterians believe that we need some boundaries and controls, but why not make the space for innovation as wide as possible within a system of checks and balances that are more permissive than restrictive?

This is exactly what Seth means by giving up some control and getting out of the way. The question is, can congregations and denominational councils in the PC(USA) and other mainline denominations actually do this?

The first example on Seth’s list is CrossFit. My friend and CrossFit enthusiast Ryan Kemp-Pappan has talked about basing a new worshiping community in a CrossFit gym. In May I discovered that this already exists in Fort Edward, NY. Michael Plank is a pastor at a traditional Presbyterian church but also runs Underwood Park CrossFit. Check out this excerpt from their  “what we do” page:

But beyond, and arguably more important than the fitness gains we produce, we build a strong community.  The members of our classes grind through workouts together, encourage one another through difficulty, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.  No one works out alone, and we have no prerequisites for joining.  Any person of any ability is eagerly welcomed into our classes and celebrated for the unique gifts they bring.

Based on my experience with CrossFit, this is one of the biggest reasons it is a successful gym model and precisely why Ryan thinks it could host a faith community. Underwood Park CrossFit embodies this beautifully:

The driving force behind the foundation of Underwood Park CrossFit is our inclusion of a worshiping community in our gym.  The fact that many people don’t go to church anymore doesn’t mean that no one is looking for spiritual outlets.  The worshiping community combines spiritual practices and workouts in a unique format that allows us to use our pursuit of fitness to open ourselves to something deeper.  Those weekly sessions are available at no charge to anyone who has completed a free intro.  Those sessions are completely optional and in no way a condition of membership.  From our commitment to our members, to our involvement in the community, to donating 10% of our proceeds to charity each month, to providing regular opportunities for members to engage in meaningful community service, the worshiping community informs all that we do at our gym.

Our vision is to offer a single place where the human needs for connection, spirituality, and physical health can be met in community with others, striving to live into the fullest expressions of humanity in the bodies we’ve been given.

Sounds like church to me.

How many mainline churches and denominational councils are willing to support something like this? How many mainline Protestant leaders are willing to give up some control and get out of the way?

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit johnvest.com.

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