An advertisement for a trip to Yellowstone National Park

I confess that I enjoy working out. I’ve always been a relatively large guy, mostly around the middle, but there is something biologically and spiritually cathartic about a good, sweaty workout every morning at about 5:30.
I am blessed to have a gym near my house with reasonable rates and excellent amenities. I’ve been able to form a community of fellow sufferers from the few people who are working out at that hour of the morning.

Unfortunately, though, I think I’m a “lunk.”

That’s right – I’m a sweater, a grunter, a heavy-breather. At Planet Fitness (not my gym) such people are ostracized and expelled from the gym for such behavior.

The premise of Planet Fitness’ business plan is to create “judgment free zones” for novice exercisers who want to complete their 30 minutes on an elliptical machine without “Lars” grunting his way through a set of 500-pound squats.

The company has gone so far as to install a “Lunk Alarm” for guests who break an arbitrary noise level by grunting, breathing hard or dropping their weights.

Planet Fitness has released several commercials demonstrating the type of client they do not want, many of which are hilarious.

I’m certainly not as big, cut or strong as the men in these commercials, nor am I so dumb.

One particular commercial shows three “hot” women being about as vain and unintelligent as possible while a “normal” woman looks on with curiosity.

I don’t think these caricatures of people who like to be in shape and strong are fair, but I get the point of the ad campaign: Planet Fitness wants to welcome a demographic made up of people who do not work out regularly, and therefore have a certain level of fear when surrounded by people who make body building or fitness a priority.

With low monthly dues and a friendly, “judgment free” environment, Planet Fitness is growing and attracting many people who would otherwise never set foot in a gym.

This reminds me of our discipleship in the church.

It seems that we have an internal “Lunk Alarm” when we meet people who are more advanced in their discipleship maturation than we are.

We call them “holier-than-thou” or “holy roller” or accuse them of non-Christian progressive ideas and biblical interpretations.

They are, in our Christian perspective, the “lunks” – they grunt, sweat and breathe heavily, making themselves a spectacle in prayer, piety and public profession.

What is more, these “Christian lunks” intimidate us. They make us feel inadequate, too far behind or just out of place in discipleship formation.

The New Testament would call Christian lunks “Pharisees” and accuse them of hypocrisy and intimidation.

Their public prayers, legalistic interpretation of Mishnah and Torah, and their personal piety turned out to be the main points at which Jesus attacked them.

They had missed the point of the greatest commandments, loving the Lord their God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and loving their neighbor as themselves.

Let’s not be so hasty in kicking out the lunks, though.

I personally think that Planet Fitness has taken the same overzealous approach to fit people that many Christians take toward mature believers.

We have a tendency in our culture to seek the lowest common denominator in our groups, which often leads us to a devaluing and dissolution of expertise and experience.

I am personally motivated by the people Planet Fitness would exclude from their gyms, much as I am inspired by the people around me who are far more spiritually mature than I am.

The tendency in our culture to remove the “intimidating” people is to render the community as a democratic, equal-footing congregation of people all at similar places in life.

While this sounds perfectly American and certainly Christian, our tendency to judge people as hypocrites or “lunks” in our churches means that we have few examples of spiritual maturity to copy.

Paul was a “lunk.” He was spiritually mature compared to the people to whom he wrote. He arrogantly instructs them to “emulate” him as he “emulates” the Lord.

What bravado! What self-centeredness! What man would dare encourage his Christian brothers and sisters to live like he does?

Yet Paul consistently offers direction from a position of spiritual maturity and authority, and we consistently resist such language as undemocratic and in some way a violation of the priesthood of the believer.

Our discipleship efforts in the church must include those believers who have progressed farther along the spiral of spiritual maturity.

We must not seek out churches where everyone is at the same level of maturity; such churches are nothing more than Planet Fitness wannabes.

As soon as a brother or sister starts getting spiritually fit, we sound an alarm, decry them as a “lunk” and seek that more comfortable setting where no one will judge our weak, pathetic attempts to self-disciple.

Our churches must actually produce disciples who are strong, powerful and mature. They must be the ones whose souls have been strengthened and built up through the teaching of the Word.

We must resist the feelings of intimidation and inadequacy that come when we are around such people.

Rather, they must be the ones we look to for motivation, for inspiration and for the proof that a life well lived is a life of discipleship to the Lord our God.

Perhaps, then, our churches need an “anti-lunk” alarm to detect those who refuse to mature spiritually.

Never mind. Our churches would be empty if we demanded that members grow in faith and wisdom. There’s too much sweat involved.

Brock Ratcliff is a minister at Madison Chapel in Madison, Miss. He also teaches mathematics and computer science at Clinton Alternative School in Clinton, Miss. A version of this column appeared on his blog, Fides Quaerens Intellectum, and is used with permission.

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