Beyond Welcome Mats: Hospitality at the Gym

With all of the tasks that fill your schedule, it’s possible to pack your weeks with Christian community. But without intentionality, you may miss out on serving those in your midst who do not know Jesus.

I recently interviewed Jill Miller, a Revive Our Hearts Ambassador, and asked her to define hospitality. Initially, she said that hospitality involves having people over and opening her home. Then she paused and added, “You know, the more I think about it, hospitality is not so much the physical act of inviting people into something. It’s about inviting them into relationship—no matter what the venue is.” 

If you could talk to those who know Jill well, you’d hear examples of the way that she models biblical hospitality holistically. She seeks to reflect the heart of Christ in drawing others in as she serves with Revive Our Hearts and in her church. But she doesn’t limit her hospitality to those within her Christian circle. 

In this interview, Jill shares how she has learned to be intentional about extending hospitality in other areas of her life. As you learn from her, ask the Lord to bring to mind places you regularly frequent—perhaps it’s the library, a local restaurant, or a neighborhood park—and prayerfully consider what it would look like for you to welcome those who don’t know Christ into your life. 

K: You’ve learned to be hospitable in an unlikely place. Will you share about that?

Jill: It’s been a longstanding thing for me when I go to the gym—for me, that’s the place where I can interact the most with nonbelievers, especially since I retired. When I was still working full-time in a secular organization, I had a lot of nonbelievers around me. When I retired, it’s not that I didn’t see people at places like the grocery store, but the gym was the place where I could build relationships.

Ultimately, it morphed into a group of ladies going out to Starbucks after our Saturday morning workout. I don’t even drink coffee really. So at first I was like, “What am I going to order here?” But this routine began by simply inviting people, and then it became a normal event.

One week I had made something for church and I had a lot of leftovers. I thought, “What are you going to do with all of this?” So I decided I would take it for the Starbucks crew. It wasn’t anything special; it was leftovers. But they really appreciated receiving something that was homemade. 

I find myself being surprised because I often think that everybody’s just like me, but everybody’s world is different. I make too many assumptions about what people’s lives are like until I begin to know them. I was surprised how much they appreciated the dessert, so much so that I thought, “Well, you know, occasionally I should just bake something for them.” Then I realized, “Wow, this is hospitality: inviting somebody into relationship. Granted, it was through food—that was the vehicle. But hospitality is deeper than the surface-level invitation. Hospitality is relational.” 

Play the Long Game 

Jill: It takes a really long time to get to know people. There was one day when [a friend from Revive Our Hearts] had visited my Saturday morning class. One lady overheard us talking and realized I was part of the ministry. So when everybody dispersed, she came to me and she said, “I just want to apologize to you.” 

At first, I was thinking, “What? Apologize?” 

She said, “Well, my language has been horrible.” She didn’t have the word for it, but she was feeling convicted. She was afraid I would judge her for what she said. Then she started telling me about how she’s estranged from her mom, and it gave me the opportunity to pray for her. She lost her job, and she has now occasionally come to me to ask for prayer for whatever is going on. 

Has anybody become a believer since I’ve been at the gym? Not yet to my knowledge. But another woman is going through cancer, and one night, we came out of that class and grabbed eight people who were standing around and said, “Let’s pray.” I’m fairly sure I’m the only one who had ever done that before, but the other people were like, “Yeah, well, how do we not join this?” It was awkward but it was okay. God is working at the gym. 

K: It sounds like there has been intentional consistency on your part. You’ve taken the long term approach by getting to know people and then meeting them practically where their needs are.

Jill: Being the data and numbers person that I am, I’ve found you can’t really measure relationships numerically. I am focused on just intentionally trying to build relationships. I can be an introvert and choose to do my own thing, but instead I intentionally try to go up to talk to people and ask them, “How are things going?” I try to keep track of information about people to have meaningful conversations, asking them pertinent questions. It’s like a snail’s pace to have meaningful relationships because their lifestyles are so different from mine, but the gym is common ground. 

You can’t just show up every now and then and expect to build relationships. You have to be there regularly. There has to be some consistency to actually going wherever you’re going. Then you have to be intentional about making sure you’re living in a way that is noticeably different. As a Christian, you’re different than the average gym member. People will notice if you’re not complaining. Or if you’re picking up the towel and cleaning up afterwards. Or that you’re carrying the weights and putting them back. 

There are little things that you can do to stand out. People may not notice a particular event but they will notice a pattern. Those activities are not spiritual in and of themselves but they allow you to model Christlikeness. The people watching won’t connect it to Christ necessarily but it allows them to see there’s something different about you. 

K: What are some practical ways that you’ve gradually welcomed these gym relationships into other areas of your life?

Jill: It really does take a long time to start a relationship from scratch. One plan that hasn’t come to fruition yet is to organize a small gathering for the woman who has cancer. When her radiation is over, I want to have some kind of brunch at my house to invite them apart from the gym. 

Something else I’ve tried to do has happened as I’ve worked to make a little gym in my basement. There are times when the gym closes because of snow or I can’t go because it doesn’t fit with my schedule, so I was trying to install something at home. I’m not very talented at that, but I knew one trainer at the gym and I talked to her about liking to do projects like that. So I started by asking for her advice and began to build a relationship that way. I could go down the path of asking, “Hey, can you come over and help me?” 

I found out another trainer goes to church. When Revive Our Hearts held a recording last spring, I invited her to that. I realized showing hospitality at the gym does not just need to be focused on the nonbelievers, but it can also include taking believers or those who go to church and inviting them to go deeper spiritually as well.

K: Will you pray for the leaders who are reading this and looking to take the next step in extending hospitality to their community? 

Jill: Lord, . . . help them to be willing to depend upon You to put something unfamiliar into practice, wherever You may be leading them. Help them to not just shut down thinking, “I don’t have the skill set,” or “I don't have the time,” or “I don’t have the whatever.” Enable them to be willing to take the risk. May they be willing to make the effort to step out and to welcome people in their own world. Help us each to play our part, to the best of our ability, relying on You for everything. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

About the Author

Katie Laitkep

Katie Laitkep was working as a hospital teacher when God called her to join Revive Our Hearts as a staff writer. She serves remotely from Houston, Texas, where God sustains her through saltwater beaches, Scripture, and her local church. Katie's blog A Patient Process is a record of the Lord's faithfulness in chronic illness, for even in suffering, He is good.