Can Church Be a “Judgment Free Zone.”

I joined a gym.  I joined last year so it’s not a New Year’s Resolution join.  I was with my older brother.  Both my older brothers do better jobs taking care of themselves than I do.  For one, it’s an obsession.  For the other, it’s a part of his life that he’ll admit struggling with.  I was talking to the second brother.  He was talking about his gym–Planet Fitness--allows him to use any Planet Fitness anywhere.  That caught my attention.  I’ve taken a new job that requires me to travel a lot more.  We talked some more about the difficulties of working out consistently.

So, I joined.  I joined and I’ve gone.  Not every day.  I think I’ve missed entire weeks.  But I’ve gone.  And I’ve gone in other places–mainly Amarillo.

Planet Fitness’s big push is that it is a “Judgment Free Zone.”  The theme is everywhere.  I think I see something about “No Critics” or “No judgment” on every wall, every piece of equipment, even the locker room.  The club’s dress code is even designed to reduce patron-to-patron intimidation.  In the Amarillo, I saw a “Lunkhead” alarm with an explanation of a Lunkhead.  Apprarently this stereotyping of bodybuilders has offended a significant number of people you’d think you’d want to show deference.  Despite their concerns–which I would take to be legitimate–the marketing has worked on me.

I have been a member of a number of gyms over the years.  Not that you could tell by my physique–my body resembles more eggplant than pear.  The only thing that justifies a gym membership for me is weightlifting equipment.  If all I’m going to do is walk on a treadmill or some other form of cardio, I might as well put leashes on the dogs and walk the neighborhood.  My aches and pains are managed better through strength training.  Increasing muscle mass is the best way for exercise to reduce fat.  I don’t need a $20 a month gym membership to give me a place to walk.  I do need it for the equipment.

Yet, in my previous gym experiences I often only did cardio machines.  Why?  Because the chiseled bodies who know what they’re doing are over there in the weight section.  Planet Fitness with its constant reminders that I’m in a “judgment free zone” has motivated me to use the gym for the reason I need a gym.  More than once, when my self-consciousness would have caused me to look for a lonely eliptical machine off in a corner somehwere, I have stayed with the ab machine or bench press or whatever.  I’ve looked over at the message and said, “This is a judgment free zone.  Stay the course.”  So, I’ve been using the weight machines more.  I’ve not quite built up my courage to use free weights yet–don’t judge.  This is about a judgment-free zone gym.

I may be exaggerating how effective the marketing has been . . . a little.  After all, I hadn’t been exposed to the marketing campaign before I joined.  I joined on my brother’s recommendation.  Exaggerations aside, I’m quite serious when I say the marketing has helped me stay motivated.  It has helped me manage my self-consciousness enough to do what I need to do.

Of course, I’m not a fitness expert and this isn’t about a gym.  It’s about church.  Can the church learn from Planet Fitness?

1.  The message is everywhere.

Do our churches have redundant messaging for our core convictions and expecations.  We may say that asking tough questions, being open minded, and having a thinking faith are our core values, but do we portray that in the pictures that hang on our walls, the resource materials in our classrooms, the liturgy that we use, and in the welcome and announcements.

2.  The message is about how more than who.

Most of us would say that our churches welcome “everyone.”  Of course, that’s not true.  Planet Fitness doesn’t say it welcomes everyone.  In fact, it has gone out of its way to offend a core constituency within the gym-using community.  Really the message is about doing more than about being.  It is a message that tells insiders how to respond to outsiders and tells outsiders how they will be received. I wonder if we could find ways to put our fingers on similar kinds of directions.

3.  It still relies on interpersonal relationships.

Like I said, I didn’t joing Planet Fitness because of the marketing.  I joined Planet Fitness because of my older brother.  This is where the real lesson lies.  Had my brother said to me, “Andy, you’re overweight and out of shape and need exercise to reduce stress and improve your heart,” everything he would have said would have been 100% true.  And I wouldn’t have been motivated to change.  In fact, I would have been de-motivated.  He also didn’t stay silent.  I’m not sure he was trying to get me to join a gym.  I think he was just telling me a story.  He was telling me about himself, the struggle he had, and some resource that he found that helped.  At it’s best, that’s what evangelism does.

We can tell people that they are sinners.  We can tell them that they are adrift without purpose and peace because they lack a relationship with Jesus Christ.  Our message can be 100% true and not be heard.  OR we can tell our own story.  We can tell people about our struggle and about how we found a savior .  .  . how the Savior found us.  In the language of the church, that’s not marketing; it’s witness.  And Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes and you’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).