It Can't Be Wrong if It Brings People In

It began when Cletis Moermon died quite unexpectedly of a heart attack. He had not been a I member of Faith Church but had stopped in for | worship often enough—always in his satin joggers. For Cletis, church was just one stop along the way on a Sunday morning constitutional that, on sunny mornings, took him out of the guarded confines of the Oak Glen subdivision he'd created.

"The place made me sing," he told people years ago when he'd begun interrupting his walk for the morning service. Those were the old days, and sometimes people remember incredulously that the church council back then secretly discussed the appropriateness of his satin joggers for worship. Now the only ones who don't wear them are the people dressed in shorts!

Cletis meant quite seriously what he'd said about singing. He'd been raised in a strict Methodist home, he'd told people back then, and because his parents had been so pointedly righteous about so many things—no dancing, no drinking, no nothing—he'd long ago left church behind like a vial of bad habits. But on those early Sunday constitutionals, he'd occasionally hear old hymns waft through the open windows, and he found himself drawn almost mystically into what was then the Fellowship Room. One morning in '74, he said, all by himself and quite apart from the witness of anyone in Faith Church, he stood near the water fountain and simply sang along to "Beneath the Cross of Jesus."

Madelyn Moermon came to Sunday services at Faith Church less frequently, but she would show up occasionally at lawn picnics and other social functions, where the two of them sometimes arrived in matching fuchsia or teal joggers. She was the first woman at Faith to wear reading glasses dangling from a gold chain, to own a tanning booth, and to walk a dog to church. (The council, not wanting to offend anyone, bought Madelyn's idea of a "puppy church" especially for community people like Cletis and Madelyn who attended as the spirit moved them as a part of their Sunday morning walk. That change had cost them only one family—the Jacksons, custodians, who'd resigned for obvious reasons.)

After her husband's death, Madelyn came to the council, portfolio in hand, and showed them a few architectural sketches she'd had drawn up for improvements at Faith Church. She had a good friend, she said, who'd told her he'd throw together some ideas on how to make Faith Church architecturally more a part of the community it served, so the plans included some sculpting of the exterior too—most of which Cletis's estate could handle, she said. After all, she told them, smilingly, this place had made him sing. She wanted to do something, for him, after all.

Not really wanting to offend Madelyn Moermon, the council decided that if it was to serve the community it found itself in, her ideas were not only interesting but even—with her help, of course—manageable. What's more, Madelyn claimed some of her friends from "the hill" would likely be interested in attending if the whole place had a little more, well, flair. Her word was style, actually. And the council bought it too, remembering how Paul had said he would be all things to all people for the cause of the Lord.

But the cornerstone of her dream facility—Madelyn never called Faith a church—was an exercise room, which Cletis's company would furnish, stem to stern, she promised. You see, Cletis had made most of his money in real estate, but for a song he'd picked up a patent on what he eventually marketed as a "High-Stepper," a piece of exercise equipment designed by a man whose inventiveness far outpaced his business sense. The "High-Stepper," manufactured right there in the city, was a winner, advertised nationally on CNN with an 800 number and proclaimed by two or three fitness professionals as the finest thigh thinner on the market.

This was Madelyn's idea: in addition to a general redoing of the church itself, a generous Cletis endowment would fund a High-Stepper Room, where other women from the community—men, too, if interested—could work out. At that first meeting, she suggested that, like everything else about Faith, the name itself needed a little more attractiveness and that it would therefore be a good idea for the council to consider a few other options.

The council, not wanting to offend, thought the exercise room was actually a good idea. Wasn't it the goal of the church—they'd written up a mission statement after all just a year before—to meet the needs of the community? Churches all over the country were doing specialty ministries. And certainly an exercise room could be seen as God-glorifying. Isn't health a blessing? Isn't fitness something the Lord would want of his people? Isn't gluttony a sin, after all—"one of the seven deadlies," someone said?

With Moermon money, and some help from her friends, the church was transformed from a brick box into a manta ray with a long, thin, uplifted tail, big on windows. One of the deacons sat down late in March and penciled out just exactly how much Madelyn wrote off that year, coming up with a figure he never reported. But, not wanting to offend, the council decided that the whole project was really evangelism in a way—after all, Madelyn herself was not a member, even though once her exercise room grew, she and her friends showed up quite regularly for workouts. This, after all, was good.

The loss of some members throughout this process was unfortunate, or so the council reasoned; but by then it had become clear to everyone that something of a choice had to be made since the rolls hadn't been increasing significantly before Cletis's whispered rendition of "Beneath the Cross of Jesus," and they did once the new facility was up and operating. Local television stations featured the new place quite regularly, its design winning several prestigious awards.

Whatever reluctance some of the traditionalists still harbored, however, disappeared when what Madelyn had designed as an exercise room turned into something of a spiritual phenomenon. The High-Stepper Room was not simply a neighborhood gym—not at all. People cameónot just women eitheróat prescribed times to begin their exercise regimen at precisely the same moment, all of them mounting their High-Steppers simultaneously—there was even something communal in that, the council reasoned, something less individualistic than so much of American culture. A minister of music, an exercise therapist who'd once been a music teacher, was hired to keep abreast of the latest in Christian music and use that music solely in the operation of the downstairs facility. His name was Pastor Randy.

It started almost miraculously. The High-Stepper, you see, offers two options to its users: you can hold to the pastel handle bars located approximately at shoulder-height and pull them toward you as you climb, thereby increasing upper-body strength; or you can simply high-step the calories away without holding to the handles, an exercise which requires a bit more coordination.

What Pastor Randy created with his choreographed workouts was a moment in time, after a strenuous exercise, when those participating would, simultaneously, loose their hands from the bars and throw back their arms, that moment coming at a time when the music—always soul-stirring, always spiritual—reached a obvious crescendo, something quite amply provided in most Christian music. Already sweaty and nearly exhausted, on something of a runner's high, the exercisers found that moment to be physically, emotionally, even spiritually climactic, so much so that it created something some exercisers felt to be, well, religious, a rush of joy at the flinging out, the freeing of one's hands. In a kind of choms of multicultural utterances, some sang (like Cletis himself—he would have been proud), some whispered prayers, some spoke in tongues, some screamed, some laughed, some simply reached a plateau one man described as overdrive, when one's RPMs simply fell away in the rush of ecstasy. Work became play. Sweat dripped like holy water. One's depleted muscles literally succumbed to a quickening that was unidentifiable, except by miracle.

It was, the council thought, a kind of answer to unuttered prayer; because, not wanting to offend, they'd never really thrown up any red lights to all the new activity at Oak Glen Worship Center (they'd found a new name), even though a number of them sometimes wondered where all of this would end and whether it really reflected the sense of the New Testament church.

However, once exercisers—many of them unchurched—began testifying to the local media outlets of the blessings of the facility at Oak Glen, the council became sure that what Cletis's endowment had funded (they had no debt) was bringing a real spiritual blessing, not only to their members, but to the community around them.

Videos were made with choreographed exercises, suitable for use in one's own home, and available for free—donation requested. Visitors appeared from all over the state, not so much bewildered by the success of the enterprise as covetous of what the council began to call the "gifts of the spirit" offered by "Oak Glen's exercise ministry."

"Without question, people are being blessed, their spiritual life enriched by the experience," Pastor Mark Thomas, himself a marathoner, reported in every news outlet's feature piece. "I challenge anyone to deny that real blessings are happening in the lives of those who exercise with us," he'd say. "Talk to those who exercise. I assure you that lives have been changed. Come and see for yourselves."

Many did. What seemed most clear was that everyone was blessed—everyone was so happy. And wasn't that what faith, really, was all about?

Of course, the council reasoned.

James Calvin Schaap (jschaap@dordt.edu) is a writer and professor of English at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa.