While trying to raise membership rolls, some churches look for ways to trim the fat, literally, as well.
"Sports are very popular in America," said Dan Lipp, church building consultant for the Baptist State Convention (BSC) building planning ministries. "I think churches are looking toward (fitness). More than fitness there is the recreational aspect."
Lipp said churches consider recreation and exercise options a draw for both church members and others.
With obesity a growing trend, especially among Southern Baptist churches, many are planning multi-purpose facilities to offer more options to members and reach out to the community.
More and more churches are buying into the "if you build it, they will come" philosophy … especially when it comes to family life centers.
"You can get a lot of bang for your buck," said Phil Stone, a BSC senior consultant who oversees the building planning ministries, which offers free consultations to N.C. Baptist churches.
While the Convention does not keep up with precise numbers, Lipp said many are considering buildings that serve more than one purpose.
"Every church is looking at this," Lipp said. "Most churches that are building or even renovating during this day and time are giving a hard look at multi-purpose. We have to think about the stewardship in the funds of the church."
The trend is visible nationally as well.
"Recreation and sports ministry undergirds every other ministry in the church," said John Garner, recreation and sports, marriage and family specialist with LifeWay.
Churches come to him to learn how to set up a walking program or an entire wellness/fitness ministry.
More people and churches are taking "the long look" at a better life, Garner said. He sees more senior trips adding adventure elements to cater to a generation that is staying active longer.
Garner said he believes the walking track is the most used part of a church, it if has one.
The No. 1 walking group is senior adults.
"Ministers especially … they get stressed," said Garner. "They get tired. They don't eat right. They have long, irregular hours. They begin to have physical problems because of that. Some of these programs can really help them."
Lipp said it is a win-win if churches can turn a recreational outlet into an encouragement toward healthy living.
"They are multi-purpose in so many ways — sanctuary, fellowship, education, recreation," said Lipp of the trend "that is picking up speed."
Some churches are not only using these centers as ways to minister to their congregation but to the community at large.
Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh hosted its first 5K run in 2007 to raise money for a local ministry. The race, which also featured a one-mile fun run and a kid's dash, drew 288 racers and raised about $5,000. The church is planning another run Sept. 13.
Spencer Good, minister of recreation and activities at Trinity, said the church was looking for ways to reach out to the community when the 5K idea was developed.
"Part of outreach is getting people on site for the first time," he said.
Trinity also reaches out through its Recreation Outreach Center (ROC), which opened in September 2004. The church offers Upward Basketball and Cheerleading, a women's basketball league, a walking track, a weekly volleyball game, summer day camps, a cardio room, weight equipment and fitness classes. Good said the activities are open to the community and no fees are charged. The church sees them as outreach opportunities with an evangelistic component, he said.
The ROC has also raised church members' awareness about health issues, Good said. He also includes wellness articles in the church newsletter.
At Scotts Hill Baptist Church in Wilmington, two professional trainers approached pastor Phil Ortego, BSC second vice president, to begin a holistic health and fitness program at the church.
Ortego, who talked to the Recorder just after a run while on vacation in Louisiana, said the trainers are putting together a program that will be based on biblical principals recognizing that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit and that "we have a stewardship to take care of what God has given us."
The plan, to be launched this fall, will direct and encourage participants through diet with proper exercise and will involve them in growth of body, mind and spirit "to honor the Lord," Ortego said.
When featured in the March 29 issue of the Biblical Recorder, Ortego said his family is physically active and fit. He and his wife, Chris, run "for holiness," he said.
"If our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and we're to be stewards of our bodies, the issue is not that I should be in shape to look good," Ortego said. "I want to be in shape to honor God."
Garner said most anything people do in their leisure time can be used as a ministry tool.
An important thing to remember, Garner said, is that ministry doesn't have to occur at your church.
"Sometimes it's done at the bowling alley," he said. "It's done at the softball field."
Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Boone is just a quarter mile off the Blue Ridge Parkway, a popular area for cyclists. For several years the church has hosted the "Tour de Bamboo" starting in the church parking lot.
Pastor Allan Blume launches the riders with a devotional thought and says for some, it is their first exposure to church in any fashion.
Garner said one of the most well-rounded programs for churches is First Place 4 Health.
First Place 4 Health just released a revamped version of First Place, a popular Christian health/wellness Bible study plan from the 1980s and '90s.
"It's one of the most balanced Christian programs out there for weight loss and weight management," he said. "It works."
Through its spiritual, physical, emotional and mental components, Carole Lewis said the program applies to the whole person.
As part of the program, people talk about losing weight, but Lewis, who serves as the national director of First Place 4 Health, said "what they will always say is that the spiritual changes is what changed their life."
The 12-week lesson plan involves Bible study, prayer, and Scripture memory as well as information about food and exercise.
Participants are also encouraged to walk. There is a 100-mile plan in the book so walkers can highlight each mile.
"Some of our people go 200," Lewis said. "But some of our people literally can barely walk when they join the program."
National training for leaders is in July, but Lewis said there will be a February 2009 event in the Raleigh/Durham area.
At Western Avenue Baptist Church in Statesville, the Stretching Seniors class draws about 16 women ages 68-86 every Tuesday and Friday.
The class started as a class project for a student who recently graduated with a degree in sports management. It began as a one-day offering and expanded to two days because of its popularity.
"They've all gotten really good reports from the doctor," said Debbie Coutchure, one of the teachers of the class.
Using resistance bands, weights, stabilizer balls and even chairs, Coutchure, along with Peggy Furr, teach the class. When it began in March 2007, Furr was teaching it one day a week. By June they had added a second day and Coutchure was asked to teach also.
"It was like the Lord led me there to do that," Coutchure said.
Each time the women exercise 45 minutes to an hour in a multi-purpose room in the church. Some stay afterwards and walk another mile.
During the summer, Western Avenue offers short-term classes. Coutchure said that sometimes includes diet or nutrition classes. And the classes seem to be paying off.
"They are doing a lot more than when we first started," Coutchure said. At first some could only do one or two of each thing, she said but "you can see them growing so much."
All of their numbers at the doctor's office are better.
"They can feel they are getting healthier," she said. "It's been amazing the transformation that's happening since they first started."
Coutchure said it has been a growing experience for them all. The women are encouraging others to get involved too, or at least get healthier.
Garner said he uses people from Hickory Grove Baptist Church, First Baptist Church in Charlotte, and other N.C. Baptist churches to train others in the state to start their own ministries.
Each year LifeWay holds a conference called Rec Lab, the longest-running conference LifeWay does. In January 2009 it will be in San Antonio, and in April 2010 it will be at Ridgecrest Conference Center.
"What it is all about is developing relationships," Garner said, "so later on you can meet needs."
(EDITOR'S NOTE – BR Editor Norman Jameson and BR Managing Editor Steve DeVane contributed to this report.)
Health Care Crisis
Churches build for fitter future