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The Linking of Sport and Church

"The two best ways to get people together in a large group are sports and music," says Brad Ogden, Sports Ministry Director at Connection Pointe Christian Church of Brownsburg, Indiana. Modern houses of worship have had the "music" part covered for quite some time, with churches like Willow Creek and Lakewood setting high standards for quality audiovisual equipment to help bring performances to life.

But more and more churches are discovering sports and fitness as an integral part of a well-rounded ministry program. From basketball and volleyball courts, to outdoor soccer fields, and even full-fledged fitness centers with personal trainers available, churches are using sports facilities as a means of outreach to new members and another way for current members to grow closer.

Connection Pointe Christian Church has been successfully recruiting new members through its extensive 20,000-square-foot sports and fitness facility for three years. "Everything we do is part of outreach to the community," Ogden says. "Once people get comfortable driving into the parking lot, they're going to be more comfortable to go a step further and attend a service." Greg Linville, executive director of the Association of Church Sports and Recreation Ministers (CSRM) of Canton, Ohio, says a "missional" rather than "programmatic" approach to sports ministry can be a successful outreach tool. "There are a lot of places that can do sports and fitness programming a lot better than a church," he says. "But if a church is very mission-oriented, really after trying to connect people with their faith through sports, then the church can offer something that literally nobody else in society is doing."

To Attract the Best, Provide the Best
Just as you wouldn't attract MercyMe or Michael W. Smith to your church with a low-budget "speakers-on-a-stick" sound system, you won't attract serious athletes or physical fitness buffs with a sub-par sports facility. If you can provide workout equipment and quality construction that is equal to most health club facilitiesand add a strong spiritual component to the environmentevery church member from baby boomers putting in their 20 minutes of cardio a day on the treadmill to tri-athletes in training will flock to your facility.

What makes a quality fitness facility? "Build it strong, build it hard, and build it maintenance-free," Linville says. "You need durable material in the walls, not wall-board or plasterboard." Gym floors should be wood, not cement, tile, or carpet. While the initial cost outlay is higher, in the long run, wood is the most cost-effective solution, as it will last longer than the alternatives and is, additionally, the material of choice for most sports enthusiasts to play on.

If you have a fitness center, invest in high-quality equipment and offer a variety of popular components, from free weights to elliptical riders, the ever-popular treadmill and, perhaps, circuit training machines, such as those made popular in Curves fitness centers, for ladies and beginners. 

Linville is a proponent of glass construction wherever possible; he advocates balancing modesty issues with the durability and security benefits of glass. "Where light is, darkness flees," Linville likes to say. He notes that wide, open architecture and glass walls minimize security costs, because one central supervisor can monitor the entire space.

He recommends setting up private fitness rooms for women and, of course, showers and changing rooms should be in a private location. But, he adds, "Put the lockers in the hallways so they don't get broken into."

Long, dark hallways create problems and added costs, requiring additional lighting and security guards or costly cameras.  "Make it Relevant"

Once you've decided to spend the money to build a safe, well-constructed facility, the second aspect to attracting church members is to discover what services they want.

That answer, Linville says, is going to be different for every church. "The one thing in common is it's going to be relevant and needed in that community," he says.

For instance, Indianapolis, Indiana, hosts the world-famous Mini-Marathon every May, with 35,000 participants. To cater to this large local group of marathon runners, Connection Pointe Church provides mini-marathon training as part of their sports fitness programming.

With this in mind, the facility was constructed with a fitness center and a walking/running track along the perimeter of the gym. Ninety church members train in the facility for the marathon, while hundreds of members attend many of the eight fitness classes offered each week. The classes range from Pilates to Total Body Conditioning for more advanced individuals.

Keeping the popularity of basketball in mind, as well, the church built two full-sized high school basketball courts in the center. The facility also features four volleyball courts. The choices have proven successful, as 408 families currently have memberships to the gym and fitness center, with nearly 300 adults participating in the basketball leagues, more than 200 in the volleyball leagues, and more than 250 children in the Hoopsters Basketball Leagues for kindergarteners through third graders. 

Are Team Sports Giving Way to Individual Fitness?
Churches that are planning their sports facility should consider what sports and fitness facilities the community already has available, what resources the community might lack, and the demographics of the church congregation and the community. "You might think an ice rink would be great for a Canadian church, but maybe there are already three other ice rinks in the town," Linville says. "In many cases, basketball courts will be the most relevant choice."

With team sports giving way to extreme sports in the hearts and minds of teenagers, and the baby boomer population leaning toward health and fitness over competitive sports, the face of sports fitness facilities in churches is changing. 

"Team sports seem to be waning a little bit and individual personal trainers and fitness equipment are on the upswing. When you look at our society in general, it's moved toward fitness rather than competition," Linville says.

If boomers and seniors make up a large part of your demographic, you'll want to spend money on high quality workout equipment, which is, again, worth the long-term investment. For instance, older or "de-conditioned" adults (those who can't lift more than 10 lbs. or struggle to perform "everyday activities") will appreciate exercise bicycles with wide, comfortable seats and large, easy-to-read displays that are simple to understand. The younger generation will be attracted by individual "extreme-sports" activities such as a rock-climbing wall or small skate park. "Some churches try to reach the younger generation through the three Bs,'" Linville says. "The blades, the boards, and the bikes."

Paying For It All
Of course, your church wants to construct a premier facility with amenities to attract every demographic, featuring high quality construction in a safe, secure environment.

But how can you afford it?

Sports facilities are one area of ministry that can actually be structured to "pay for themselves" with time. A snack bar or small restaurant in a lounge area of the gymnasium will attract parents while children play sports. A coffee or smoothie bar can become a social meeting place after workouts for adults. You can even set up a small shop to sell workout gear with your church logo on it, from Pilates mats to sports bottles or t-shirts. If you have the space and there's demand in your community for it, an indoor or outdoor batting cage will attract people to the facility and you can pay a small fee for cage time. "There are some interesting, creative ways to make money and the building becomes much more affordable," Linville says.

Multi-Use Facility
If you find your church's budget is stretched to the max, you may consider a multi-use facility. The "gymnatorium" or "sanctanasium" concept has grown in popularity in recent years.

This can be accomplished through rolling bleachers, moveable basketball nets, and even moving altars that can be erected and torn down before and after services. Most churches that have a multi-use facility hold worship services on Sunday mornings and use the facility as a sports center the rest of the week.

A multi-use facility creates wear-and-tear on the facility and on church members, who are often charged with the task of building and tearing down the sanctuary and gymnasium, but the cost benefitand outreach potentialis great. "Your facility will be used almost 24/7," Linville adds.

You can't ask for a better return on your investment than to have people inside your church, open to receiving the Word, every day of the week.

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