What if I had Gym Church when I was Twenty-One?
As I sit down to write this I want you to know I have zero regrets in my life as this is the journey that God has me on and I am learning to love and embrace my story. There is also no sense of blame for anything that has happened in my life as I have learned that not all things are good, but all things work out for good because our God is good.
That being said, I wonder how the trajectory of my life would have been different if someone would have started a gym church at the gym I used to go to in Bismarck, North Dakota. Would I have made different choices in my life? Would I have become a passionate follower of Jesus in my life at 21 instead of at 41? Would it have saved me twenty years in the wilderness?
Bodybuilding, Sports, Women and Alcohol
I will never know the answer to those questions and I am totally at peace with that. What I can do is take my story and share with other young men that may be living the life that I was at twenty-one full of self-indulgences that consumed my life. My life was consumed by bodybuilding, sports, women and alcohol. It was a shallow and meaningless existence. I lived for myself and myself alone.
I went to church on a weekly basis as I was required to do. Often times I was hung-over. It was a check the box experience. Sometimes I heard the words of the pastor, but often times I was day dreaming about playing sports or thinking about what I did the previous evening.
This I know now, my heart wasn’t receptive to the words I was hearing, and in fact I think it made me even more rebellious. I didn’t get it. I don’t think I wanted to get it. I had no interest in changing my lifestyle. To me church was about image. It was about presenting myself in a way that I thought I should look; dressed nice and putting on a fake smile with lots of mints to cover up my alcohol breath.
Learning about the Transforming Power of Jesus
As soon as I left high school, I left the church. Sure I dabbled for years, but never settled into a church home until I was in my 40’s when a tragic divorce brought me to my knees. It was there that I learned the transforming power of Jesus. It was there that I learned that it was all about having a personal relationship with God.
I also remember some mornings as an adult on a Sunday I would be going to church and feel completely broken and lost sitting in the back row with streams of tears running down my face wanting to share my story with someone, but not being able to. I tried to put on a happy face when someone asked me how things were going. I would say I am good when deep down inside my soul was screaming for help.
I will be forever grateful for what that particular church and pastor did in my life. It changed me. It changed who I am. It set me on a path of being a passionate Jesus follower. The pastor spoke the breath of life back into me that I will be eternally grateful for.
What if there would have been a Gym Church when I was 21?
But that leads me to the question, what if there would have been a gym church at the local gym that I spent hours and hours at being my own god trying to look a certain way for the admiration for others? What if someone would have invited me to a non-threatening community where we simply shared our stories, our brokenness and our search for meaning in our lives? What if at age 21 I would have learned that it was about following Jesus that gives us the transforming power to live the life that we are called to live. A life of freedom, purpose and joy.
That never happened. But I have the opportunity to change that for other young men who are in the same position now that I was when in I was 21 years old.
I got a phone call from someone the other day asking me to help this young man that she knows. She shared with me that this man is in his mid-twenties and is completely lost. He is living a self-indulgent life of partying and women. She is aware of the work that I am doing of the integration of faith and fitness and thought I could have some influence with this young man. He hasn’t reached out to me yet, but prayerfully he will.
I will invite him to gym church if he does reach out to me. Our gym church is a community of men that meets at a small, local community gym in Fort Collins, Colorado. In our gym church we share our story. We are vulnerable. Often times there are tears and a lot of times there is laughter through the tears. We talk about Jesus and what he has done in our lives. We talk about our battles with our addictions, struggles of loneliness and despair.
We form new friendships. We form new accountability partners. But mainly we show up as our authentic selves knowing that we are loved for who we are. No false pretenses. No concern for perfection or image, just men showing up to be seen and heard in a loving and safe environment. To me, this is church.
This is Church
We just had “church” yesterday. We call it Spiritual Warriors Unite. We met in a circle and not in a row. This is church. We had a dynamic conversation on how Jesus is telling his story through our story and how we should never be ashamed of the scars we have accumulated in our lives.
In fact our story is shared through our scars and we are expected to share our story. There are 7.2 billion people on this planet and we all have a unique and wonderful story to tell. Life is all about relationships and in order to build relationships we have to be vulnerable and courageous in sharing our story. This breaks down walls and barriers to open up the possibility of having an authentic conversation about Jesus, not religion.
What if there would have been a gym church like what we have formed in Fort Collins when I was 21? I will never know the answer to that question, but I get to see other people’s lives transformed no matter the age by being part of our gym church.
A New Possibility for Church
I would like to invite a new possibility of a way of seeing church. Church isn’t just a place to go to check the box for our Christian duty. It’s a place where we come alive and our dreams, purpose and passion are born and realized. It’s a place where we can be authentic, vulnerable and share our story. It’s where we are seen and heard. It’s where deep community is formed. It’s where we go to become who God created us to be so we can go out and change the world. This is gym church. This is church.
I hope and pray I can connect with this young man I mentioned earlier that is struggling in his life. I see him in me at that age. I pray that through my story his story can be written on a different trajectory than mine with many years of hopelessness and lack of joy because I wasn’t a passionate follower of Jesus. I want to show him a better way. Not an easier way, but a better way.
My vision is to create a church that resonates and transforms people’s lives through authentic community, story, creativity, passion and most importantly show people that Jesus is the ultimate warrior and when we allow him to be the focal point of our life we will never turn back to our old ways. We will become a new person living a life that makes us feel fully alive.
Troy Ismir, MS