12 years ago, Mike Gibney was hired as lead pastor at Belhaven Free Methodist Church, near Keswick, Ontario. That same year, he joined a local gym in town. “The initial reason for getting [the gym membership] was for my health and as a way of relieving stress,” Mike says. Very quickly he discovered that his gym membership was a key to building relationships in the community. “What it’s done is provide a context where I can meet people, re-establish relationships that I had years ago and make new relationships.”
Over time, Mike has had the opportunity to speak to people about his faith in Christ. Mike has built a reputation in the community, sometimes carrying out impromptu one-on-one counseling sessions among the weights, but more importantly, Mike is seeing people coming to faith in Christ and people coming to church. “It has been a very fruitful investment of time and energy. Going to the gym is great for me physically and mentally, but it’s also incredibly productive spiritually.”
Pastor Mike with gym buddies who attend the church. Mike says, “By the way, right after this photo [was taken], they dropped me!! Somebody needs a little extra time in the gym.”
Mike can point to numerous people in his church who attend as a direct result of his having made contact through the gym. “It’s fantastic the way God is working and using something as ‘extra curricular’ as body-building as a way to connect to people in the community.”
Pastor Mike recently attended the Cultural and Missional Church course at the Ministry Centre. (He can be seen here, making a cameo appearance on Jared Siebert’s recent video interview with Jason Tripp at 2:29 ;).) From the course, Mike heard that the church needs to move out into the community in order to connect to the community. He understood that can be done by identifying people in your community with a common interest or similar personality types. “I found that my cultural group to be able reach out to –although certainly not limited to the gym, has been the gym. It’s been a tremendous resource for me to go into the gym and visit with individuals and connect with them there. The missional course has re-enforced that. This is something that I have been doing and it’s a direction our church wants to go, which is a very good thing.”
As Mike puts it, this “gave a name” to what he was already doing. “It reinforced that I have been ‘missional’ for 12 years now…”
“I started calling [the gym] ‘my fishing pool’ almost immediately upon getting my membership… meaning that God has been enabling me to reach out to people at the local gym and have an effect in their lives.”
Mike points to the most recent story of an acquaintance at the gym, Dean, an avid body-builder, “The guy has 21” arms!” Previously Dean’s only contact with the church was when Mike enlisted him to “show off his muscles” at a youth event. It was an object lesson for the kids. Mike says, “The correlation is that just like physical muscle, you can’t build spiritual muscle unless you invest time and energy.”
Then Dean suffered from a stroke a few months ago where half his body was paralyzed. Mike heard from another church member who also went to the gym about Dean’s illness and together they went to the hospital to visit Dean and pray with him.
With time and rehabilitation, Dean has been able to get back to 100% mobility.
“Dean said to me ‘I’m going to get my license this week… and you’ll see me every week [at church].’ I just about fell over – I’ve known this guy forever in a totally different way… He is now in this place where the Lord has been working on his heart. He’s been receptive to that as a result of what he’s had to go through and now he’s volunteering that he wants to start coming to church.”
Pastor Mike (L) with Dean, after the stroke.
I asked Mike how he engages his congregation.
When I preach, I’m very passionate about witnessing and telling others about witnessing and encouraging that in other people and pointing to people in the room who have come as a result; these are, fruits of sharing and caring for other people. Right now I’m really trying to nurture spontaneity. If you come up with an idea, it’s your idea, you’re going to do it… Recently I’ve been telling my church if I do it on my own, we can only go so far. I’m trying to keep it before my people now that it can’t just be me. Otherwise we’re not going to see the type of growth that can happen. We seem to be in a place where we could see incredible growth over the next while, but only the Lord really knows that. The church is currently breaking records as far as giving goes. Monies will be needed, this is a tired old building, must be close to 100 years old. It needs work, it needs care, and we are also investing in individuals on the ground.
Here’s an interesting tidbit. I spent a good chunk of my childhood in Keswick, on the very road that Belhaven FMC meets. I had no idea about this church and it was only 1.5 KM away. To say it is tucked away where no one can see it is an understatement. I asked Mike about the rural, hidden quality of the church, is it a barrier to his ministry?
Surprisingly, Mike replied with enthusiasm.
It’s tucked away in the country. This is what I love. This has been my emphasis since I came here, ‘Let us be less, Lord, so that you can be more.’ Whatever has the appearance of detriment or ‘less than’ or even ‘pathetic,’ I’ll glory in that, you know why? Because when God’ strength is revealed in me, we’ll only be able to boast in God’s power… In the words of John the Baptist, ‘I must decrease so that he might increase.’ I find that if we’re almost invisible – that in itself is somewhat of a PLUS. Because if they come here, it’s because God did that.
It’s like Isaiah 53 – ‘He had no beauty…nothing in him that we should desire him.’ This is Jesus – he was like one from whom men hid their faces. He was basically ignored. Yet when the power of God was upon him, people thronged to him. That’s what we want for this ministry. We want the power of God to be revealed through his Holy Spirit. We have to be careful that we don’t become big in our own eyes. This is always a temptation that I’m confronted with because I want the nice stuff… yet the humility of the ‘cattle shed’ type ministry is really cool. We just hope we’ll have more opportunities to boast about God. It’s not about us, it’s about God.
Mike admits that this sounds contradictory to working out at the gym. “I mean, I go to the gym to try and improve myself. Dean himself says, ‘you know, this is a vain sport.’ I’ve wrestled with this about my gym membership. But I’ve come to the position in my life that it would be sin for me to stop going to the gym because I would be saying no to the good things God is doing. I could feign humility in it – denying the flesh – but then I would be giving up the opportunity to connect with people who need Jesus. God is wanting me to rub shoulders with these men.”
Mike assures me that one does not require a gym membership to attend. “For some people, that’s not their bag and I understand that… If all of us are reaching out in our own way, if all of us are getting involved, there is no limit to how far we can go and how much we can grow!”
If you have a story to share about how God is working in and through your church, please contact Loreli. We want to celebrate the good things that God is doing.