Deflated, embarrassed and frustrated, I walked out of a Spin Class today – and I bet you have friends who have done the same at your church. My family and I just joined a new gym and while I wouldn’t say we are “gym rats” or workout junkies, we are no couch potatoes either. We are familiar with the machines and know our way around the exercises we want to complete. I was excited to see the schedule of classes at the new gym included a group cycling class, aka Spin Class. I immediately put it in my calendar twice a week, moving a few other things around to make it a regular part of my week.
Now before I go any further, there is a detail that might be helpful in driving home my later points…I don’t want this to sound braggadocios, so please hang in there – this little detail about my life is valuable for context in describing what I learned about reaching my 8to15 by walking out of that Spin Class.
Since childhood I have been an active competitive cyclist. I started racing BMX in my early teens and within a few years won a state championship. I moved on to Mountain bike racing where I had some notable success – even signing a few lucrative sponsorship deals before I was 18. When I tried my hand at road racing I progressed quickly and had the privilege to bang elbows racing against the likes of American greats, Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong.
So it’s safe to say that while my fitness has waned, walking into my first Spin Class at the new gym was nothing too earth shattering. I know my way around a bike and the “workout” is not intimidating to me. And still, I walked out before I even got started. Walking home I could not help but parallel my experience with what MUST be the experience of so many people who are trying to get reconnected at church and meet with God for the first time, or first time in a long time.
FIRST: Welcome is appreciated, but newcomers long for DIRECTION.
When I walked into the class, sure, I hoped people would be nice. But as I walked back out I realized what I really needed was someone to say, “There’s an open bike right back there…” “Can I help you get set up?” “You’ll know it’s time to start when the lights dim and the instructor gets on her bike up front…”
The lesson here was clear: welcome your new guests at church, but of equal importance, look for the people wandering the halls and be sure to offer more than “friendliness,” give them clear direction of what’s next.
SECONDLY: Insiders love a full room, outsiders prefer it half full.
I am not sure why this is so difficult for churches and their leaders to understand –myself first and foremost! No one hopes when they go to a movie that the theater will be jam-packed. Never has someone been encouraged by a shoulder-to-shoulder experience at the restaurant or shopping mall. Walking into that Spin Class every bike appeared occupied – it doesn’t matter that they weren’t, they looked like they were. I didn’t know where to go and I was not about to start asking strangers, “is that your water bottle?” or, “is this bike taken?”
The 80% rule is dead in my city. I say if you’re 65-70% full, it’s time to add a service if you hope to add outsiders.
If there is not an EASY way for people to see if a seat or row is open it’s time to add one at the back – mid service if you must. Most people are not simply looking for an open seat, but they are thinking, “could my friends and family fit here too?”
THIRDLY, Describe the culture just as much as you describe the experience.
My church’s website is very similar to my gym’s website in terms of explaining things. “Here’s what to expect…” But walking into that Spin Class, even having read ahead of time and knowing it was a 60-minute workout, designed for all levels of fitness – As it turns out, that was not enough to lower my anxiety.
What I really wish I’d known is, expect to see people in lycra cycling shorts and cycling shoes. Expect a loud and energetic instructor. Arrive early if you want to get a bike in the back row.
As it relates to my 8to15 trying to re-engage with God & church, I think we do a solid job of explaining the length of service, the style of the talk (we even have videos to pre-watch). But what we do NOT explain is the overall culture…A newcomer walking into my church might wish they knew the room will be a bit on the cold side; there will be about “this many” people in the room; It will take you about 10 minutes to check your kids in, get coffee and get seated.
So there I was, a guy who knows all about cycling and is not intimidated by the cycling part of the Spin Class. Yet after wandering around the room with no direction, difficulty finding an open spot and shaken by the unexpected vibe, I simply walked out. And with every step towards the door my embarrassment grew.
I hope I’ll go back to that Spin Class at some point and give it another shot, but I’m not sure the average person in my 8to15 will be so forgiving if they have a similar experience at my church.
Stu is the founder of Church Courage – a boutique consulting group designed to help church leaders gather the courage and resources they need to lead their local church well. Stu also serves as the lead/founding pastor of Disciples Church in Folsom. He and his wife, Jenny have been married for 16 years and have four kids.