*Yes, I am aware of the pun when talking about church, but it is the best term for the subject!
“How do you cross-train, especially in the off-season?” the ballerina with the microphone prompted her colleagues.
Yoga, tap, jazz, hip-hop, and more yoga. These responses made sense; they are related enough disciplines. Then the speaker held up a pair of boxing gloves. Why has the ballet company started cross-training in boxing? The lunchtime exhibition did not answer all our questions, but started with the simplest answer: proximity. Our city’s ballet company shares a building with a boxing gym. Obviously no one wants the dancers to be bruised, but boxing training teaches these professional dancers and their neighboring athletes even more ways to be in tune with their bodies’ movements. It builds community in such an unlikely way. Such collaboration explodes the stereotypes of the audience for either group.
What if congregation members and leaders alike improved our fitness for being Christ’s body in the world through cross-training? There are the more obvious ministry-adjacent gifts to develop: storytelling, public speaking, teaching, child and elder care, social work, music, or art. But perhaps our imaginations would be better ignited by engaging the least seemingly “relevant” connections, those that would make bystanders furrow their brows: perhaps city planning, repetitive assembly of products, botany, or the histories of indigenous people groups far from where we live? We could become more agile in expressing our own faith by noticing connections alongside folks with whom we cannot assume a common vocabulary, facing the necessity of always defining our terms. We would need to re-train our own minds and emotional responses to think about how our traditions might affect those who are not accustomed to moving in ways we have practiced for so long. We can certainly all benefit from the humility required to be in the place of students, learning from experts outside of the church.
As our country becomes less religious, congregations need to become increasingly relevant to the multiple needs of marginally-churched people, not less. Maybe your neighbor is not looking to attend worship services but they do really need community. We cross-train in that! In addition to worship, we also hold space for difficult conversations, too rare in the public square. Congregations can be a place for forming inter-generational relationships and surrogate family for those whose relatives are physically or emotionally distant. We could be safe spaces to try out new ideas, try on leadership (where there’s grace if we fail) and where people know we can be “real” about our struggles. We could certainly be more obvious about our cross-training, beyond Sunday mornings, weddings and funerals.
My personal example of reading outside my area is the book Lab Girl by Hope Jahren. This memoir about the life of a botanist and her research assistant, woven together with a deep knowledge of how trees and other plants reproduce, survive, and flourish, awoke epiphanies in quick succession for this preacher. I know so little about the lives of actual scientific researchers, but they know things that are certainly meaningful to my faith.
Here are 4 starter ideas (definitely adapted from other contexts) for “cross-training” in churches:
“Career Day” speakers who share about their favorite parts of their jobs or hobbies, followed by discussion of what insights people of faith might gather from this field
Curated YouTube short-video festival: nominate and vote for those that surprised you or taught you something you never would have known about otherwise
“Neighborhood Walk-And-Talk”: Get to know the meaningful work of those businesses near your church, in their own words
“A Day in Their Shoes” visits to each other’s homes with households from an interfaith partner or congregation with a predominant ethnicity different from your own
As the dancers and boxers discovered, collaboration breeds relevance to a larger population than either parties were reaching before. When we cross-pollinate our interests and activities, folks who do not completely fit in either group get hints – or loud testimonies – that the boundaries between communities of like-minded people are more porous than we thought.
So go ahead, ballerina. Glide into the boxing gym.