Bringing Jesus to the Gym
If you want to get Vince E. Cooper excited, have him talk about leading people to Jesus and discipling them. Have him talk about his own transformation through winning souls in an unlikely place: a local gym.
Cooper and his wife, Nicole, joined Little City Fitness in September 2019, with a missionary mindset. Now the facility’s “sweat equity” is less in building bodies and more in changing lives.
The couple have been pastoring Oasis Church in Norwalk, Ohio, since 2004, and they hold various ministry roles. But the Holy Spirit’s work in Little City has made this outreach a priority in their schedules.
Vince got the idea for a gym ministry after a friend told him about joining a CrossFit gym. He saw the potential to connect with folks outside the church. The Coopers prayed about such opportunities.
Settled into the program, Vince, 52, and Nicole, 48, discovered that the gym had its own outreach.
“There was this familiarity, with the owners really looking after their members and checking up on them,” Vince Cooper says. “All kinds of different things the church strives to do, they were already doing.”
The Coopers developed relationships with their gym coaches and let them know they are pastors. Wanting to extend help, they asked the owners if they could clean the gym. The owners turned down the request — but asked the Coopers to teach a Bible study.
Bible studies are common in CrossFit gyms, Vince says, so the request didn’t seem all that unusual. Still, one of the Little City Fitness owners, Danielle Sidell, warned the Coopers she had no interest in religion. She viewed the Bible study as merely a means to bring more people through the doors.
When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, the gym closed and delayed the start of the Bible study. But closure didn’t delay the Holy Spirit. Sidell, 32, had been drawn to Nicole as a mother figure and shared some issues about her personal life. Nicole encouraged her. During the shutdown, Sidell ended a bad relationship with a man and reached out to Nicole.
“I wanted her to say something that was going to make me feel better,” Sidell recalls. “I even asked her, Isn’t there a prayer you can say to take all this hurt and pain away, like now?”
The prayer of salvation removed the sting. Two days later, on April 23, Vince led Sidell to Christ. Her negative mood and emotions instantly changed.
“I was able to dig myself out of this really dark place by handing over all of my doubts, my pain, my fears, and everything that was going on to God,” recalls Sidell, who was baptized June 7.
Sidell’s conversion lit a spiritual spark at Little City Fitness. She created a platform to connect with people there, inviting them to dinner, to church, and to Faith Fit, a weekly mixture of Bible study and exercise taught by the Coopers. Sidell also shares Scriptures with 66,000 followers on Instagram.
By the end of last year, 20 people, mostly from the gym, came to faith through the Coopers’ ministry. That included Sidell’s mother, Suzy, who was saved June 25 and baptized Aug. 30. Nine of those converts formed the God Squad, a group that meets at the Coopers’ home to work out their problems and grow in their faith.
So far in 2021, six people have accepted Christ at Little City. This fruit is largely borne through Vince’s discipleship approach: to provide a safe place where people can talk problems out and the Holy Spirit can work.
“In that type of environment, people will be convicted and repent right there,” Vince says. “I don’t have to do anything.”
Vince has a new confidence in sharing Jesus and a fresh vision for gym ministry, with Nicole right beside him. The focus is making disciples, not increasing the size of the Oasis congregation.
“The church is not a building,” Vince says. “It’s about people who love one other and are willing to be transformed to the degree that we become disciplers, like Jesus.”
Photo: Vince Cooper (left) and his wife, Nicole (center) evangelized gym owner Danielle Sidell.