In a certain country in Central Asia,* churches are legally allowed to exist, but that doesn’t stop believers from facing persecution for their faith. Much of persecution they face is from their own families.
“Very frequently the family [of the new believer] will make threats against them, and sometimes there is even physical harm done to these folks as a result of their conversion,” explains Michael,** a pastor in Central Ohio.
“There’s definitely huge implications for those who trust in Christ…it’s a tough road to hoe.”
“For the gospel ultimately to take root, there has to be some sort of relational foundation,” he continues. “If they are not relationally engaged, then their message will almost certainly be dismissed. It’s a culture very different than ours.”
So how does one engage unbelievers there with the gospel? This past February, Andrew,** another pastor in Central Ohio, joined Michael to try something new: why not use fitness training as a means to share the Gospel?
“One of the ways men connect with one another [in this Central Asian country] is in the gym,” said Michael. “One of the neat things about this type of fitness is that you work out in groups, so it encourages people to be together to build camaraderie. These workouts tend to be quite intense — there’s almost camaraderie by virtue of mutual suffering.”
During their week-long trip, the two educated gym members on the principles of “functional fitness” – a workout strategy similar to Crossfit — and held a competition at the end of the week. They hosted two daily sessions for the week featuring training and practice in functional fitness techniques. At the end of the week, the two also hosted a dinner where they had the opportunity to share their testimonies with the group.
“The owner and all the staff of the gym we visited are all believers, which is pretty rare in this country. When we arrived, our mission was to try to help guys at the gym put into practice a new type of fitness and then use it as a rallying point for men, hoping for opportunities for further spiritual connection as they worked out together.”
Michael believes that the specific vehicle of fitness training has an important place in the cultivation process:
“The reason why we take stewardship of the body seriously because God has given us this body – he’s created it ultimately that he’s redeemed it.
“Anytime we have a common interest or passion with folks who aren’t yet believers, there’s the opportunity to let that interest to be platform for the Gospel. Fitness training is particularly effective in that regard, because it presents natural bridges and demonstrates a degree of credibility on the part of the believer. People involved recognize that the believer is engaged in something constructive and not just ‘calling something out’ in terms of a social issue.”
Plans are tentatively being made for another trip this coming winter. Michael asks for prayer for the seeds planted during that week in February, as well as a continued interest at the gym.
“One thing I would add is a call a plea for people to think of opportunities that the Lord has placed around them as they pursue their own physical stewardship,” he said.
*not named here for safety of believers involved.
**names have been changed to honor the safety of believers in Central Asia, some of whom are facing significant persecution for their faith.
This story first appeared in GraceConnect eNews. To subscribe to the weekly e-newsletter that includes news and information from congregations in the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, click here.