How are we known?

By the Rev. Maryanne Ditter*

I recently received by e-mail a promotional article that began like this: “When you walk through the front door, you see huge words that say ‘You Belong.’ As you enter the facility, more signage communicates that you’ve walked into a “judgement-free zone” (sic).

No, this is not a church. It is Planet Fitness, a popular, national chain of athletic gyms.

Okay, so this grabbed my attention. And then what did I do? I went to Planet Fitness’ website to see what their Mission Statement was, to see if I could confirm the truth of this e-mail.

This is what it says: “We at Planet Fitness are here to provide a unique environment in which anyone–and we mean anyone–can be comfortable. A diverse, Judgement Free Zone® where a lasting, active lifestyle can be built.  As we evolve and educate ourselves, we will seek to perfect this safe energetic environment, where everyone feels accepted and respected…” (emphasis mine)

Did you know that Planet Fitness is the fastest growing gym in the U.S.? I must admit, I personally have felt intimidated by the notion of attending a gym for the very reason that I felt I would be judged for my unfit condition.  But after reading this, I felt willing to check out if this is the way they really treat their customers and if I would feel accepted, respected and not judged.

So let’s apply this marketing principle, this brand promise to our churches. Do we give the impression “You belong” to those first-timers who walk through our doors? Do we treat all who walk into our doors with respect, acceptance and no judgment?  Do we consider our church to be a Judgment-Free Zone?

These are interesting questions to think about. Are there people out there who are hesitant to walk in our doors because of how they might have been treated by “church people” in the past?  What can we do to make them feel welcome, accepted and respected?

Maybe Planet Fitness has something going on, to make it the fastest growing gym. Meanwhile, we watch many of our church memberships declining. So it makes me think that maybe they have something we should pay attention to.

I almost want us to steal their ideas by posting “You Belong” and “Judgment-Free Zone” signs around our churches. I also assume that there are people at Planet Fitness to assist you in making their gym experience the best it can be for you.

They probably do this by answering questions, directing you to the right places within the building, and teaching you how to use the equipment. We too can be like that to those who come into our doors. We can answer their questions, direct them to various places in the building that they might want to check out, assist them so that their worship and teaching experiences are the best they can be for them.

We should get to know visitors, so we can know how to best help them while they are there. They may need a listening ear to get to know them and possibly discern what they need.

One important thing that can be done is to treat them with love.  We learn about God’s love by attending worship and as we study God’s word through small groups and in our Sunday School classes.

If you have felt a sense of belonging and have felt loved, accepted and respected, don’t you want others to feel that way, too?  If you haven’t heard about or experienced God’s love, you need to talk to someone so that we can improve our churches’ ministries to not only those already inside the doors but those who are coming for the first time.

As we grow in our understanding of who God is and how much He loves us, we should want to share this knowledge with others. And we should do that right in our own churches and outside our walls.  But, we need to do it with acceptance and respect in a judgment free zone.

So begin now.  It is usually after the summer that people return to the routine of attending church. Be ready to be like a Planet Fitness.  Make people feel like they belong and have entered a judgment free zone, where everyone feels accepted and respected.

*The Rev. Maryanne Ditter is an ordained Deacon and Minister of Spiritual Formation at Tabor UMC, Woxall, PA.