Thirty-four people converged at College Park Baptist Church on a cold January night in Indianapolis, Ind. The ink was barely dry on New Year's resolutions as they took their seats for the first of 12 weekly classes designed to teach them how to lose weight, and much besides. Founded in 1992 by Gwen Shamblin, the Weigh Down Workshop grew by this spring into a for-profit company with a staff of 60; an estimated 125,000 people enrolled in Weigh Down programs worldwide in 1999. Her book, The Weigh Down Diet (Doubleday, 1997) has sold over one million copies. Thomas Nelson Publishers last summer committed $500,000-"the biggest launch of a book" in its 200-year history, it says-to helping her new book, Rise Above, sell two million copies by the summer of 2002. Fans can purchase Weigh Down videos, audiocassettes, CDs, T-shirts, journals, devotionals, mugs, mouse pads, yo-yos, tote bags, bookmarks, magnets, pens, note cubes, leather coasters, and a host of other memorabilia from the Weigh Down Workshop website, which claims to receive over two million hits per month. Maybe the success has come because, for Mrs. Shamblin, weight loss is not the main measure of success. "From day one," said the 44-year-old president, "weight was going to be the bait, then I get them in there, and on the first tape, the first page of the book, I talk about tobacco, alcohol, drugs, pornography. There will be a lot of people that will enter my program that will tackle marriage problems before they even start tackling the food." Jeff and Gina Graves of Murfreesboro, Tenn., are two of Weigh Down's prize graduates. They lost a total of 200 pounds, but they were more eager to tell WORLD about a newfound power of confession and forgiveness for each other. Piqued by the Workshop's emphasis on purity of heart, Mr. Graves confessed and pleaded forgiveness for periods of marital unfaithfulness over the course of their 13-year marriage. Two weeks of separation ensued, but Mrs. Graves, needing forgiveness for her own sins as well, sensed an obligation to accept her husband's repentance. They now say God not only used the Workshop to help them lose some weight, but to save their marriage. But while Mrs. Shamblin's books, videos, audiocassettes, and website are full of testimonies celebrating delivery from slavery to pounds and problems, measuring such personal change is tricky. In 1999 Weigh Down Workshop hired the Perdue Research Group to study the program's effectiveness "in order to provide prospective media with hard statistical data," according to the Workshop website. After initially agreeing to provide a copy of the report to WORLD, the Workshop instead provided a one-page summary of the firm's conclusions that gave little specific information. At the grassroots level, grand personal changes and weight changes seem to be the exception. Some 16 of the 34 students in the College Park Church class participated in an informal survey by WORLD. Six of those surveyed did not complete the 12-week class, which costs $103. Seven of the 10 surveyed who did complete the class reported losing weight, with weight loss averaging eight pounds. Most reported keeping the weight off one month after the course's completion. But there is no clear consensus about exactly what accounts for that weight loss. All the students surveyed agreed with the Workshop's basic tenet that moderate food quantity intake is an important aspect of weight management, but beyond that, some found the program's philosophy wanting. Jessica Dodson readily credits the basic Workshop principle of moderation for helping her lose 20 pounds, but maintains that her new habits of regular exercise and eating healthy foods made the big difference. Lisa Dumaual says she and her husband believe the basic philosophy of moderation is "a great program" but added that they are uncomfortable with what they feel is the program's rigidity and inflexibility. (The Workshop emphasizes small portions. Blending in programs of exercise and calorie reduction is a moral no-no, tantamount to returning to the slavery of legalistic do's and don'ts. Yielding to such rules, Mrs. Shamblin warns, amounts to surrendering one's grace-based relationship with God to one based in legalism, where foods are considered good or bad.) The Workshop says that some 60 denominations are cheering "amen" to its prescriptions, but officials declined to specify what denominations make up that endorsement list, citing only an unspecified Unitarian church and a single Roman Catholic Church. Mrs. Shamblin and her husband, David (Weigh Down's CEO), joined a number of families last year that withdrew from their respective churches to form what they refer to as Remnant Fellowship. There are no pastors, no elders, no deacons, and no church officials of any other kind. Christ Community Church, of Carmel, Ind., initially hosted a Workshop, but discontinued the program after becoming uncomfortable with Weigh Down theology. Diane Gaskins, a former women's counselor with the Biblical Counseling Center of Carmel, Ind., expressed concern with what she feels is the Workshop's association of fat with theological fatheadness: "[Martin] Luther was a chunk. [C.S.] Lewis was a chunk. Am I to believe that I'm more spiritual than these chunky saints because I'm skinnier?" But those who stick with the program seem to like it. Overall, when finishers were asked whether and how vigorously they would recommend the program to a friend, the average score was 4.375 on a scale of 1 (lowest rating) to 5 (highest). The roster for the new spring class reveals that almost half of the winter class had paid the reduced fee of $50 to take the class again.
-Christopher Mann, a World Journalism Institute fellow, lives in Indianapolis and went to the Weigh Down Workshop. He still emulates Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis