If readers of Connecting with Culture are typical of the British population – and surely they are?! – then around a thousand will be members of a gym. (And if they are really typical, most of them will rarely use their membership.)
Gym membership has grown significantly in Britain over recent years, even if 30 minutes on a treadmill remains a nicer idea in theory than in practice. We join gyms, often after Christmas overindulgence, to look better, feel healthier and to be able to do those things that previously left us gasping for breath.
At the same time, the re-emergence of ‘the spiritual’ over recent years – albeit often in bizarre or self-obsessed forms – testifies to our growing disenchantment with disenchantment. We are more than bodies, even if those bodies are gloriously tanned and toned.
This leaves something of a gap in the market, explored by a new book entitled Spiritual Fitness.
Where can we go today to get spiritually fit? Plenty of places offer classes on meditation but where would you go if you wanted to learn patience, forgiveness, faithfulness, self-control or humility?
How about church? The idea will seem ridiculous to many (including many churchgoers) but it is not, as the author Graham Tomlin notes, too far removed from the New Testament’s vision of what a church should be.
Exercise is a favourite metaphor in the epistles and throughout its history the Church has, albeit sporadically, taken seriously the challenge to help people develop the heart, mind and life of Christ, through training and discipline.
This raises some questions, not least how you reconcile the call to spiritual fitness with a gospel of grace, but Tomlin addresses these by revisiting some of the more fraught debates of Christian history.
Is this the answer to declining church attendance? Yes and no. Any attempt to turn churches into spiritual fitness centres simply to up their membership are destined to fail as hollow PR initiatives.
But if, as Tomlin writes, ‘local churches were capable of enabling people to acquire the qualities that reflect the nature of God, if they became known as places where you could learn how to love, to trust, to hope, to forgive, to gain wisdom for life, then they might begin to be attractive, perhaps even necessary, places to belong to.’
That’s a challenge – but it’s no more daunting that the thought of half an hour on a treadmill.
For more details about Spiritual Fitness, visit www.continuumbooks.com.
For details about Graham’s book The Provocative Church, visit spck.org.uk.
Tomlin mentions in the book ‘Renovare’, which offers a programme for the practice of spiritual disciplines in small groups: visit renovare.org.