by Bob D’Ambrosio
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 just walked into a “judgment-free zone.” No, this is not a church—it’s Planet Fitness.
Planet Fitness is an affordable health club whose popularity is sweeping the country. The franchise, which started in 2003, now has more than 1,300 clubs and boasts 8.9 million members, making it the fastest-growing gym in the U.S. That’s a larger membership than most church denominations! Planet Fitness has registered the phrase “judgment-free zone,” and their mission statement is to “create a safe environment where everyone feels accepted and respected.”
I’d never joined a gym before; guess I have “gymtimidation,” to use the word from the Planet. But I joined Planet Fitness because the culture they’ve created makes all athletic levels feel welcome; I feel like I “belong.”
Does your church culture communicate this same level of belonging?
Foundations Church in Loveland, Colorado, which began five years ago, and now attracts more than 3,000 worshippers each weekend, does this by making sure people hear three messages every time they attend. “Three times during every service, from three different people, we make sure everyone hears three things,” says Carl Sutter, lead pastor.
What three things do they hear each week?
Thank you for being here. When I was a kid, it was expected that you’d go to church—no exceptions. Today’s culture operates with a different understanding. While I realize the call is to “obey the Sabbath,” those without faith traditions have redefined “regular” church attendance. The team at Foundations shows appreciation for those who attend, regardless of when they last showed up. No guilt. No shame. Just thankfulness for the people who have gathered to worship Jesus.
We’ve all messed up. Jesus told the righteous crowds when they confronted the women caught in adultery, “Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” It was his way of letting them know that they, too, had sinned. People outside the church often think they’re not as good as the people inside the church. Pastor Carl is quick to remind the flock that everyone has missed the mark, screwed up, and fallen short. And Carl, like Paul, admits that he just might be the biggest offender. It’s a comforting thought to know that sin is the great equalizer.
God’s grace is for everyone. When you realize that you’ve messed up, you need to hear the message of grace. God sent Jesus for everyone. The Pharisees had a difficult time understanding this message, and so do some church people today. Creating a culture that says “you belong” means that God’s grace is for everyone. How does your church inform people that God offers them unconditional love? Perhaps this might be our biggest challenge. It’s included in the top three messages at Foundations to make sure people understand and embrace God’s grace for them.
Wouldn’t it be great if people felt as comfortable walking into church as they do walking into Planet Fitness? What would happen if the church was known as the one place people felt respected and accepted? A safe place where people are welcome just as they are?
You don’t need exercise equipment in the lobby of your church to make people feel welcome. Instead, examine the messaging your people hear (and read) each week. A culture of belonging begins when we create a place that communicates we’re all in this together.
What can your church do to make it happen?