First Church of Crossfit: Is the Box the new Church?

The post below is a final mark-up of my Gospel Communication in Context course taken at North Park Theological Seminary. This class was geared toward understanding and evaluating how the Gospel of Jesus Christ was, and is, communicated in the many different contexts of society. Edits to this paper were also made by Professor Al Tizon.

The idea of evangelism in the 21st century is one that is constantly evolving. From churches meeting in breweries to offering classes on parenting or financial stewardship, the church is in a prime spot for ministering to the needs of the communities in which the church finds itself. Of particular concern for this paper, is what good news does the church offer for an increasingly obese culture that we live in, and how can we best encourage them, not necessarily to be thinner, but to be healthier, and to love them as children of God created in God’s image. This paper will be a convergence of those subjects.

First, I will evaluate how the churches function in their community. We will attempt to using scripture to define the church, the function of the church, and the role of the church in the broad community. While each church is independent and unique to their culture, in general, most churches will affirm basic orthodoxies such as the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed. In this section, I will also mention research surrounding obesity and obese culture as this has become an increasingly common thread among churches specifically within the United States.

For the purpose of this post, obese culture can be defined as: anyone who could be considered overweight or obese by the standards of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Any adult with a body mass index (BMI) between 25-29.9 would be considered overweight, an adult with a BMI of over 30 is considered obese. For children, if they are at or above the 85th percentile and below the 95th percentile, they are considered overweight. A child over above the 95th percentile is considered obese.[1]  While each individual church may find themselves in a varying degree of overweight and obese culture, the harsh reality is that we live in a culture that is increasingly overweight and obese. The CDC published research in 2010 that showed one out of every three adults, and one out of every six children in the United States are obese.[2] The higher your BMI, the greater your risk for health concerns such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc. This is of particular concern for youth and young adults, as this can also lead to an increase in bullying among peers, lower self-esteem, and a greater risk for suicide or developing unhealthy habits such as bulimia or anorexia.

Second, I will evaluate how Gyms, specifically CrossFit gyms, function. I will provide material that should point us toward evidence that suggests that CrossFit gyms provide similar support for their athletes with the whole person in mind. In this section I will focus on what CrossFit is, it’s methodology, and how it’s functions mimic that of the church. With charitable organizations, an increased sense of community, and shared common experiences that focus on personal and social betterment.

Finally, I will merge the two to show how I believe the gym has actually become the new ‘church’. It is my belief that we as the church spend considerably more time focusing on being spiritually healthy, or financially healthy, or emotionally healthy than we do being physically healthy. If we are to live out our call of partnering with God to show others the love of God, we need to be able to physically do that; we need to take care of the gift of the body given to us by God if we are to partner with God in bringing the Kingdom of God to others. Just as Jesus Christ was the embodiment of God, so too do we need to be the physical embodiment of the church.

There’s an old Sunday School song that goes, “I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together!” Are all of these statements true though? Can you or I as individuals be the church, or are we truly only the church together? I define the church as a body of believers united in their love of God and their love for neighbor, whom, because of their love for God and love for neighbors, are compelled to reach far and wide to share the Gospel message of grace extended to us through Christ’s sacrificial death upon the cross and His victory over death through the resurrection. In the Gospel according to Matthew, Christ tells His disciples, “Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”[3] This scripture tells us that the church isn’t just people getting together, it’s people gathering together in the name of God to do the work of God.

If we are going to attempt to answer whether the gym is the new church, we need to be able to identify what the church is. For thousands of years, communities of people have gathered together in the name of God to do the work of God. These communities have lived out what author Scot McKnight calls “the Jesus Creed,”[4] which is taken from the Gospel according to Mark 12:29b-31: “Hear, O Israel the Lord your God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these”

The people who gather in communities around the globe to live out this Jesus creed do so because they recognize that while they individually may represent the church, they are not themselves the church. As the Apostle Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians, the body of Christ—the community of Christ—is made up of many parts (people).[5] If we are a part of the body of Christ, should not one of our objectives be to maintain the health and wellness of the part we are responsible for? The need to be healthy extends further than emotional and spiritual health that is often preached from the pulpit. Wellness and health extend to the physical body as well including our fitness routine and our dietary habits. As a church, we have failed our communities by not giving them a holistic view of health—mind, spirit, and body. We preach with conviction against the ethical vices of injustice and vanity yet turn a blind eye to the leading cause of obesity in our persons which is gluttony. As leaders of the church, we have turned gluttony into a purely health-related issue rather than a spiritual and moral issue.[6] Again, as preachers and leaders of the Body of Christ, we have neglected to care for the body. We have associated some vices as being bad for us while encouraging other vices as good or as a sign of good health. We are morally obligated as religious leaders to care for the communities we live in, but are we not also morally and ethically obligated to care for the body which God has given us?

In a 1999 article published in The Journal of Religion and Health, authors Michael P. Kelly and Craig Huddy argue that “religious institutions have a responsibility to encourage stewardship of the human body by providing experiences and environments that enable and promote health-enhancing behavior and discourage health-endangering behavior.”[7] Involving a healthy lifestyle is something that can be seamlessly inserted into the life of any church or community. It does not, and should not, be disconnected from the larger teachings of the church. Whether evangelical or as a fellowship group, living a healthy life with good eating habits and physical fitness should be as connected to the Christian lifestyle as prayer.

Our world outside of the church is saturated with unhealthy lifestyle choices; why are we as religious leaders also offering unhealthy options when we gather for potlucks, coffee hours, etc.? As Christian leaders, when we model this behavior, we help normalize the behavior.[8] If we’re modeling a diet that is full of soda or high-fat content foods at church functions, we are telling our congregation that this is what is normal, but when we model healthy eating options at church functions like vegetable trays or substitute frozen yogurt for ice-cream at socials, healthy eating becomes the new normal, and it becomes more acceptable, and it becomes something families feel they can do outside of the church.

In their article, “Does Religion Increase the Prevalence and Incidence of Obesity in Adulthood?” authors Krista Cline and Kenneth Ferraro examine the relationship between religious activity and body mass index (BMI) and obesity with the conclusion that religion may affect well-being through the promotion of a personal lifestyle that is beneficial to health.[9] While generally speaking, religious people are physically healthier than non-religious people, with regards to their weight and Body Mass Index (BMI), churchgoers were found to be greater than 20% overweight.[10] Their study found that across some religious groups, physical activity came naturally when they considered texts such as 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“…your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit”). However, generally speaking, the authors found that some religious groups also thought physical activity “relatively unimportant to health maintenance” because the subjects felt that the goal of religious activity was to focus on spiritual matters, and not healthy living.[11]

Interesting in this research is the mode of consumption with regard to religious life. One aspect they researched was the link between electronic religious media (i.e., going to church from your couch). Their research showed that the more that women engaged in religious media practice (online church) the higher their risk for obesity, whereas the higher their attendance at religious services (not online) the lower their risk for obesity. Interestingly, their study also showed that men were more likely to use religion as a comfort than they were food and therefore were avoiding obesity by attending church.[12]  In part, I think the church is allowing herself to be transformed by the culture she finds herself in. We have the best news to share with others, but we’re too winded to share it once we walk up the stairs.

As I have mentioned previously in this paper, the church as a whole does a good job of preparing us to be spiritually and emotionally fit but does a bad job of preparing her people to be physical embodiments of what the church represents. Cline and Ferraro’s research was eye-opening for me as I attempt to find ways to implement religious activity and a holistic approach to physical fitness. Based on the research, making the media available online may contribute to obesity, however, if the religious media is primarily focused on health and wellness, would it still have that effect? In a similar, yet vastly different note, what if the religious activity looked like a church, felt like a church, and acted like a church…but was not actually a church? What I’ve just described is the CrossFit phenomenon.

Since its creation, the CrossFit fitness program has been a great example of how to care for your body, while also holding on to what could be considered core tenants of the Christian faith. The core tenants I see are 1) a need for community; 2) showing concern for neighbor; 3) personal and social betterment; 4) and the giving to charity.

Founded in 2001 by coach Greg Glassman, CrossFit is defined as “constantly varied, high-intensity functional movement.”[13] They have over 13,000 gyms—called ‘boxes’—with between 2 and 4 million people athletes subscribed to the CrossFit lifestyle of constantly varied, high-intensity functional movements and eating a diet that is 40% carbs, 40% proteins, and 30% fats.[14] In their programming, CrossFit focuses their workouts on 10 fitness domains: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.[15] While YouTube videos and articles of CrossFit may show women and men who look like Olympic athletes lifting loaded barbells, the workouts are designed for everyone to be able to participate. Each of the 10 fitness domains is as important for the Olympic athlete as they are for grandparents. The only difference is the degree of need, not the need itself. As an example, not every person needs to be able to squat or deadlift 500lbs like an Olympian would, but everyone—elderly included—need to be able to squat from a standing position into a chair or pick up a book that has fallen on the ground. This focus on functionality makes CrossFit practical for real life as opposed to an isolated exercise regimen.

As a rule, CrossFit likes to develop its athletes from core to extremity, from inside out.[16] And in the same way, isn’t that how we describe our ‘conversion experience’ with Jesus? As a church, we talk about how God changes the heart of people to become followers of Him. We preach and read texts that tell us not to conform to the world, but have our minds be transformed so God can change us into a new person.[17] We believe that God works from the inside out, just as CrossFit works from the inside out—from the core to extremity—in its programming and methodology.

Within the CrossFit, Inc. organization, one of the branches is The Foundation—a 501(c)3 organization dedicated to supporting the work of CrossFit affiliates and charitable organizations that use CrossFit to serve the needs of their diverse communities.[18] One event the Foundation puts on is called, Saved by the Barbell. Held annually on Labor Day, over 100 churches participate in a programmed workout with proceeds from the workout going to support the creation, development, and growth of CrossFit programs in various communities and help fund training for teachers, provide equipment for kids in schools, and support health and fitness in thousands of kids across the world.  The charitable work of CrossFit, Inc. has been widespread and extends to communities fighting addiction, cancer survivors, veteran organizations, children’s programs, and even a fund designated specifically for communities wishing to create their own healthy programming.

What is there to learn from CrossFit as the church rethinks evangelism? Is the CrossFit box a viable expression of a new kind of church? First, I think it would be helpful for churches to rethink their mission and also what accountability would look like within the church. Famously, CrossFit “specializes” in “not specializing”.[19] Glassman would argue that the way to be the best athlete is to not have a specialty; high-intensity interval training with constantly varied movements is their specialty. In multiple studies, CrossFit has been shown to leave its athletes with a stronger sense of community belongingness, social-capital, a stronger feeling of enjoyment during the exercise, and significant improvements for individuals who suffer from mental distress.[20]

One of the more powerful testaments to the CrossFit culture is the way that accountability works within the organization. During the Open, a yearly CrossFit competition open to all athletes, and each workout is judged and scored by a certified CrossFit judge. During the ‘normal’ days, each box uses a Whiteboard for accountability. On the Whiteboard, you’ll find the workout but also the finishing times for each athlete. Having to publicly put your score for the workout on the whiteboard leads to a greater sense of personal and community accountability.

In my time as a CrossFit athlete, my coaches or other members will check in on me to make sure I am coming to the workouts or to see if I am alright.  The CrossFit box is a special place open to all. You’ll find washed-up college athletes, retired judges, military personnel, stay at home moms, farmers, police officers, and even pastors that regularly attend workouts. The box is open to all people regardless of gender or race or creed and is open to all those who want to challenge themselves and be encouraged. This CrossFit box really is for everybody and everybody. The community built at the CrossFit box is so important that there have been lengthy, and costly, court cases to avoid external investors.[21]

Within the CrossFit community, one group has decided to take on the task of using CrossFit as a means of evangelizing others—using CrossFit as a way to communicate the Gospel. This group is called Faith Rx’d.[22] Faith Rx’d was founded in 2014 by a CrossFit athlete who saw faith and fitness as something that could not be separated. Faith Rx’d has a mission of uniting and strengthening the fitness community to live for Christ, share His love, and serve the world.[23] One of the ways Faith Rx’d works towards spreading the Gospel of Jesus in their context is by having a presence at major CrossFit functions such as the CrossFit Games, Regional invitationals, and Wodapalooza[24]. They have local chapters led by volunteers who lead workouts and also bible studies and prayer as well. Faith Rx’d has taken the CrossFit Workout of the Day (WOD) and incorporated a devotion for the day as well which can be emailed to subscribers.

“The community is doing a lot of good things on a lot of fronts…We are thriving because the end-users are extremely happy with their transformation…That’s the miracle: people are getting something that they did not even know they wanted or needed.”[25] When we hear these words, do we hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Do we hear that our community—our body of believers—is doing a lot of good things on a lot of good fronts or do we hear about all of the things we are not doing? Are our end users—the community that we are trying to reach—extremely happy with the product (whether they’ve bought into the program or not?) And are people coming to the realization that they’re getting something that they did not know they wanted or needed, namely the love and grace of Jesus Christ? Our churches are doing great things in the communities that they find themselves in, but for a vast majority of churches, we lack an attractional hook that tells people that they are welcomed as they are and that we have something they need. For a majority of our churches, we lack the CrossFit mentality that the prescribed workout can be adapted so that the integrity of the workout remains the same, but the movements are functional. We lack the CrossFit mentality that says this is for you now…not after you’ve been here for a while. We lack the CrossFit mentality of being so excited about our faith that it becomes (almost) annoying!  I believe in our churches, but we can do better. We can learn from CrossFit boxes around the globe and make our churches functionally fit again. I think this means not immediately compelling first-time visitors to volunteer at potlucks or joining a small group. I think it means making our sermons accessible and understandable for the college professor as well as the confused 13-year-old while knowing that if we preach only to one audience, we have let down one of the other parts of the body.

 

 

Works Cited

Anshel, M. H., & Smith, M. (2014, August). The Role of Religious Leaders in Promoting Healthy Habits in Religious Institutions. Journal of Religion and Health, 53(4), 1046-1059.

Cline, K. M., & Ferraro, K. F. (2006, June). Does Religion Increase the Prevalence and Incidence of Obesity in Adulthood? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 45(2), 269-281.

CrossFit, Inc. (2019). Article: CrossFit: Forging Elite Fitness. Retrieved Jan. 2020, from http://www.crossfit.com: https://journal.crossfit.com/article/training-guide-compiled?_ga=2.62448559.2047246438.1583190744-275920241.1582150156

Disability and Health Promotion. (2019, 09 06). Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/obesity.html

et al, C. (2018). CrossFit Overview: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-018-0124-5

Kelly, M. P., & Huddy, C. (1999). Keeping Your Temple Clean: Health Promotion and Religious Function. Journal of Religion and Health, 38(Winter), 333-340.

McKnight, S. (2019). The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others. Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press.

Rx’d, F. (2019). Faith Rx’d. Retrieved from Mission and Beliefs: https://faithrxd.org/mission-vision/

ter Kuile, C., & Thurston, A. (2015). How We Gather. Harvard Divinity School.

The Foundation. (2020, March 04). Retrieved from CrossFit, Inc.: http://www.crossfit.com/foundation

 

 

[1] (Disability and Health Promotion, 2019)

[2] (Anshel & Smith, 2014)

[3] Matthew 18:20

[4] (McKnight, 2019)

[5] 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

[6] Anshel & Smith, 2014

[7] (Kelly & Huddy, 1999)

[8] (Kelly & Huddy, 1999)

[9] (Cline & Ferraro, 2006)

[10] Cline and Ferraro’s article shows that religious people are less likely to be hospitalized, suffer from depression, have lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems, etc.

[11] (Cline & Ferraro, 2006)

[12] (Cline & Ferraro, 2006)

[13] (CrossFit, Inc., 2019)

[14] (CrossFit, Inc., 2019)

[15] (CrossFit, Inc., 2019)

[16] (CrossFit, Inc., 2019)

[17] Romans 12:2

[18] (The Foundation, 2020)

[19] (CrossFit, Inc., 2019)

[20] (et al, 2018)

[21] (ter Kuile & Thurston, 2015)

[22] Attempts were made to interview the leaders of the Faith Rx’d organization to understand more about their trainings, etc. but CrossFit, Inc. had a major invitational around the same time and our schedules were hit and miss. Follow-ups post-class will be made.

[23] (Rx’d, 2019)

[24] Wodapalooza is a large-scale, elite CrossFit competition held annually in Florida.

[25] (CrossFit, Inc., 2019)

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