Our amazingly multi-talented Youth Minister at St. George’s began offering Zumba classes at the church a few weeks ago. I have recently discovered that I love Zumba—the music, the dancing, the way that for one hour I think of nothing other than trying to master the steps and then walk out at the end feeling the exhilaration of an elevated heart-rate and some exercise endorphins circulating through my body. So I invited a friend and went for the inaugural Thursday night class.
Even with such good feelings, I couldn’t help a slightly snarky comment on my way in. “I wish I could get this same turn-out for Bible study,” I murmured out of the side of my mouth, watching women of all ages excitedly file past the sign-up table, especially that demographic that is so often missing in our studies—the twenties, thirties and forties who are juggling full-time jobs and raising children, who have no time for most of our church activities, and struggle even to regularly attend worship. I meant no disrespect to Tanya, who is the kind of bubbly and talented and genuine personality that people gravitate toward, and also turned out to know how to throw a slamming Zumba dance party. And I have utter sympathy for why people my age find it hard to make church participation and its various learning and prayer disciplines fit into their busy lives. I get it. My comment, instead, was born out of a question for me as a Christian leader: if people can make time for fun physical fitness that will help them to feel healthier and more energized, how can we better be communicating to our people that a religious discipline will likewise have the same kind of life-giving effects? If we can carve out time for Zumba, surely carving out time for church is also possible?
Commitment. It has been the word I have been mulling over continually this fall. We have been studying the book of Revelation in our Adult Ed program. We have wrestled with such weighty and terrifying words of condemnation as these:
“Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. (Revelation 14:9-11)
Context is important. The author of this text, John, is a persecuted Christian living in exile, who writes the book at least in part as an argument for staying staunchly Christian in the face of the pressure to renounce one’s faith, participate nominally in Roman culture, and avoid being thrown to the lions. While Revelation is the most graphic and violent of such arguments in the New Testament for staying close to the Lordship of Jesus, the entire canon of books assumes that Christianity is risky business and that commitment is required. “Take up your cross and follow me,” is a clear and costly call. Jesus doesn’t even recommend that a would-be follower put off The Way to bury his own father, let alone for any of the myriad of better options we have casually and consistently placed ahead of seeking and serving God.
That call to commitment had an obvious necessity to would-be followers in those newborn years of the church. The only version of Christianity that could exist and thrive through the several centuries of on-and-off persecution was a version that stood firmly in opposition to the mainstream culture. Of course, the greater part of our church’s history has been a startlingly opposite experience: Christianity as mainstream. People were committed Christians simply by virtue of being citizens of Christian countries. They prayed, went to church, learned the Scriptures, etc., by virtue of participating in society’s norms. In the North American Anglican church, anyway, we are still figuring out this new day into which we have awoken, a day in which there is no particular fear attached to the practice of Christianity. In our country anyway, following Jesus is not a life and death choice. At the same time, there is nothing about how our life is now structured and the social expectations upon us that naturally support our Christian practices.
We haven’t figured out what commitment looks like without either persecution or Christendom.
I danced my way through that first Zumba class. I, along with every other woman in that room, came out feeling revitalized. Life and health, I thought. We need to connect our Christian practice to life and health. People will find time, they will prioritize church if we link our religious practices to life and health. It was a fun class, and it inspired what I thought to be a valuable lesson. John’s revelatory images of the fire, sulphur and the endless torment provides fearful imagery entirely consistent with the fearful times in which John was living and writing. But what I need to do today is to get closer to that Galilean who promised that his advent into our lives was for the purpose that “you might have life, and have it abundantly.”
This theory has since been challenged.
I haven’t been back to Zumba. I had a wonderful time. It was one of the high points of my week. But I haven’t been able to claim that one hour into my schedule since.
I looked in on the class this past week, on my way to another meeting at the church. The numbers were a fraction of what they were for the first class. The same dynamic that I see in worship, adult ed, youth group, choir, youth choir and Sunday School was also wreaking havoc on that perfectly fun and easy way of getting a work-out.
Maybe it’s not the case that we need to convince people that church is worth making a priority. Maybe our struggle isn’t around commitment at all. Maybe St. Paul summed it up best, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:15). Left to our own devices, we struggle deeply and continually with setting our lives on course with the practices that afford us the greatest health and joy. Whereas most of us can show up for a job, honour a contract, and keep a lunch date, mostly every ‘extra’ or ‘option’ in our lives challenges our ability to achieve regular follow-through…. even when we really want to. That’s why new members in our churches thrive in their new-found discipline when they are put on schedules and asked to show up for things where it is clear that something is being asked of them. That’s also why efforts to make it to worship or exercise classes “when I can get there… I’m aiming for once a month,” are almost guaranteed to fail. We might find something fun and invigorating. We might know it is good for us. But the only other real option in grounding our lives in healthy practices, other than knowing something is expected of us, is to make it so routine, so much a part of our everyday life, that it is no longer a choice. Exercise and worship and Bible study become things that I do when they become things that I always do. No choice. No commitment. No problem.
The ironic thing, the thing that I guess we know deep down and yet doesn’t necessarily make us any better at choosing the right priorities in our lives, is that if we can get those routines set, those routines that make us feel well and connected and cared for and energized, then it’s amazing how much easier it is to make other fun and life-giving commitments fit too.
I have a new theory. If Tanya were even half as good a Zumba instructor as she is, but she required that people sign up and pay in advance for a set of classes, if there were some sort of check-in or accountability built into the regime, I believe that attendance would improve significantly. In those first several hundred years of Christianity, those years of persecution out of which came our Scriptures and the surprising spread of Christianity, “showing up” for the practices and proclamations of the faith was of obvious power and importance, telling a radical and penetrating story to those who saw that following Jesus was worth paying any price. Similarly, in the hundreds of years in which Christendom reigned, “showing up” was not nearly so dramatically meaningful, but its weight was also felt through the mere fact of structuring society around the daily routines of faith. In the absence of Christendom, in the blessing of our religious freedom, and short of threatening people with John’s “fire and sulphur,” evidently it is incumbent upon us as Christians to figure out one of the two following, if not both:
- That showing up is a matter of critical importance, not just for you and your health, not just for your family, but for all of us. There are people, there is maybe even the Creator of the Universe, counting on you. Better than the “All are Welcome” words ubiquitously on our church signs, might be “We Are Expecting You.”
- How to take Christian practices out of the realm of the special and into the everyday. We don’t need to make church more exciting, we need to make it more boring. More habitual. More routine.
At least one part of my first theory was right: I/we need to draw closer to that Galilean who promised springs of living waters and bread that would satisfy our deepest hunger. If we could get a handle on the above two things, I suspect that our churches would be fuller and we would be able to live more abundantly.