Towels mop up sweat from foreheads after another successful workout. Several gym members finish stretching, while others arrange the benches and Plyo workout boxes in a church-pew formation in preparation for that evening’s church service.
It’s an unorthodox location for a church — a cross-training gym — but that’s what it is—a growing body of believers and seekers who gather to worship and hear the Word of God preached each week.
The men and women who attend the gym in the northern Thai city of Chiang Rai are each other’s community — family, even — going on annual camping trips, white water rafting together and taking vacations to the beach. They’ve traveled to Bangkok to cheer on members as they compete in a CrossFit tournament. Baby showers, weddings, funerals, baptisms and holiday celebrations have all taken place in the gym.
Nathan and Stephanie Crandall serve as IMB missionaries in Chiang Rai. Nathan joined the gym to relieve compounding stress and lower elevated blood pressure caused by his intensive language study.
After his first workout, he told Stephanie, “It’s horrible. I go, and I die, and I sweat. It’s horrible. You should come too.”
The Crandalls got involved in the gym and quickly saw how gym members were not just work out buddies. They were a tight-knit community who loved spending time with one another both inside and outside the gym. It was a perfect place to share the gospel, the Crandalls realized, and plant a church.
Nathan said they’d invited some of their friends to a house church, but their Buddhist friends felt uncomfortable, and the Christian vocabulary was difficult to comprehend.
“We saw that as they came through the doors of the gym … their heart, their ears, their mind was just more open,” Nathan said.
The owner of the gym is a Christian and opened the gym with the hopes of starting a church. He realized they needed someone devoted to the church-planting side of the gym. The Crandalls stepped into the role of church planters.
They decided to have church on Wednesday evenings after people finish their exercises.
“They’re going to be sweaty. They’re going to be in their workout clothes. They’re going to smell. But that’s how they like to hang out,” Nathan said.
Before the service, they eat dinner and fellowship. Church members share in teaching the children. Nathan and several believers rotate who preaches, and someone shares a testimony in each service.
Working out his faith
When Nett’s life started to go downhill, his older brother suggested he go to the gym.
Nathan worked out with Nett one day, and the twosome sweated and slogged through the workout. Even though he doesn’t usually like to open up to people, Nett said he was drawn to Nathan because of his sense of humor.
Nett’s cross earring led to a gospel conversation and an invitation to church. The first time Nett attended, he prayed silently, “Is that you God, who was taking care of me since I was young?”
The sermon that evening was on the prodigal son. Pausing, as tears welled in his eyes and emotion caused his voice to waver, he said it was like God was sitting next to him.
Nett said God didn’t bring up the things he’d done or his sinful ways. God invited him in like a son.
“He said He loved me so much. He just was waiting there for so long,” Nett said. “I know this is God. God is real. I just want to come back for Him.”
Nett accepted Christ that night.
Strengthening community ties
Ministry doesn’t only take place amidst the dumbbells and pull-up bars. The church celebrates all holidays and hosts gospel-centered events for the community. Their fall festival drew around 250 children. Gym members ran carnival games and handed out bags of treats with the story of Jesus in comic-book form.
The story of Jesus resonated with Rachel, a nine-year-old girl who attended. She asked her mother, Nai, whether she’d heard the story before. Rachel felt the message was true. Rachel asked her mom if she was free to make her own decision of faith. Her Buddhist family might have forbidden such a decision, but Nai said yes, she’d support Rachel in whatever she decided.
Nai, who is friends with Stephanie, asked to learn more so she could be supportive of her daughter. She began attending a Bible study and church in the gym. Rachel and her younger brother, Brandon, committed their lives to Christ during one of the services.
The gym helped Nathan with his blood pressure and stress and helped him reach the language level he needed. More than that, it opened the door for Nathan and Stephanie to do what they came to Thailand to do — share the gospel and help plant healthy churches.
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