I recently read a New York Times article about how some people turn to CrossFit as a replacement for church. And while CrossFit isn’t a replacement for a relationship with God or church, as a fairly new, but committed CrossFit athlete, I can most definitely see why this would happen.
Since I’ve lived in 7 different cities since the age of 18, I’ve had the opportunity to experience a lot of different church communities. Some of the churches were big, some were small, some healthy, and some toxic. I’ve been to churches with big budgets and fancy music, and ones with nothing but a handful of people who come together once or twice a week. I’ve had the opportunity to work or serve in most of them, doing everything from cleaning, to teaching kids, to women’s ministry, and a fitness ministry. No matter how different the churches in terms of people and even culture, there have been some common themes I’ve observed among them. Not all of these observations apply to every church I’ve attended or visited, and those that do, don’t necessarily apply all the time (but enough to warrant mention). At least of few of these might seem familiar to you (but if not, even better!). In my personal experience, however, these observations are pretty consistent:
- the handful of people who serve (and sometimes get their sense of worth from doing so) tend to work their fingers to the bone (and still feel as though they’re not doing enough)
- the pastors wonder why more people don’t step up to serve
- the men tend not to step into leadership roles unless pressured to do so
- the women are warned not to be too (insert your choice of adjective: strong, loud, opinionated, etc., etc.)–and usually feel they are not enough, or way too much in general
- the pastor wonders why more people don’t tithe
- the people who come but don’t serve (or tithe), are sermoned or counseled by the pastor (or well meaning fellow church members) into doing one or the other; or ultimately end up leaving because they feel judged
- people feel judged for a variety of other reasons that typically end up in a sermon or two (so they leave instead of building from where they are and growing stronger (in an atmosphere of grace))
- the focus is more often on sin, and the need for redemption from sin; rather than grace and the God-given potential that exists within each of us
- the truth that obedience comes from faith, which comes from the Word of God–and in that order–is often forgotten
- the idea that you have to be a certain way in order to come to church is pervasive (and yet blatantly contrary to what Jesus lived and taught)
- the pastor’s wife is exhausted and often feels judged (and as though she is not enough)
- when people speak up about any issue they see, they’re made to feel they’re the problem vs. what’s going on in the church (or church leadership), so they leave
- young people come, see the lack of congruence between what’s being taught (rarely grace and everyone’s need for it) and what’s actually going on–so they leave (plus they’re bored)
- people are focused on themselves, their insecurities, or their own circle of friends, instead of making sure newcomers feel welcome and valued
- the vast majority of church gatherings are centered on food (usually processed, full of sugar, and seriously unhealthy) exacerbating the pervasive weight and health issues many members suffer from (which doesn’t support being strong spiritually or any other way for that matter)
- we forgot the most important thing: love (because without that, everything else amounts to zero)
The actual meaning of church is different from what people typically think about when they hear the word. Biblically it comes from the Greek word ecclesia, which means ‘a called out company or assembly.’ Whenever the word is used in the Bible, it’s referring to a group of people (not a building or a denomination as people tend to think when they hear the word used now). So in theory, church could be anywhere, even at CrossFit. But the focus of CrossFit is not the worship of God (there is, however, an awesome organization called Faith RX that unites fitness and faith through bible studies).
CrossFit itself isn’t a replacement for being in community with other believers. It is however, the best example of community I’ve ever seen and as such, an example the church can learn and grow from.
If church were more like CrossFit, I wholeheartedly believe that not only would more people actually want to be there on Sunday, they’d want to be there as often as they could. They’d want to support the church in any way they could (money, time, talent, you name it), because they’d want to make sure it never went away. And they wouldn’t be able to help but share it with others, and be completely unashamed to do so.
In fact, if church were more like CrossFit:
Newcomers would immediately be made to feel welcome by the people that had been there longer. They would make those newcomers feel not only welcome, but wanted–celebrated even (just because they showed up to do the work). They’d even go so far as to make them feel as though they were excited to have them there (even though they had a seriously looooooong way to go to get strong–even a little strong).
A woman’s strength would be something to celebrate, not fear. Every Christian woman, strong in the faith, is a warrior. She knows she needs to put on her armor and prepare to fight the good fight of her life daily, which requires spiritual training and strength building to maintain. It’s a rare woman who can master the ability to be gentle and humble in spirit, who doesn’t know the strength and power these qualities require. A strong woman understands her power comes from the One who created and lives within her.
CrossFit champions strong women, and the church should absolutely do the same.
Members would be encouraged to build from where they are–not made to feel as though they are less than where they should be, and they’d feel inspired (not judged) by the people who are stronger than them. There’s something incredibly motivating about being surrounded by people who are stronger than you, that inspires you to work that much harder and do your very best every time you show up. They model hard work and it holds you accountable to do more than you believed you could, regardless of how slow or weak you were when you started.
Members would be genuinely happy and supportive of one another’s every gain–no matter how small. All without judgement or comparison. All with an attitude of “let’s celebrate that gain! What do you want to go for next?! Let’s work at it together–let’s get stronger together.”
What if church were more like that?! Whoa!!
Members would hail from various income levels and places, have different backgrounds, and represent all ages. They would connect and support each other in their common goal: to do better, get stronger, and encourage one another along the way.
There’s every age and fitness level imaginable at my CrossFit gym (box), including those with disabilities. And, while it it can be humbling to walk into a gym and be the last one to finish the wod (workout of the day), at CrossFit it’s just not about judgement. Instead, it’s about showing up and doing the work and getting stronger from wherever you happen to be that day. The culture facilitates that in every way. On any given day a 50-year-old woman has a 24-year-old man working out right next to her (and they’ve become friends). They encourage and support each other (as they do the 10-15 other people of various age, experience, and strength levels in their class).
The membership would just grow and grow organically–because people love it, and can’t help but share it with everyone they know and meet. I can’t tell you exactly how many people are members of the CrossFit I attend, but I would guess a couple hundred at least, and more people join all the time. Why? Because it’s an environment of people with the common purpose of doing and becoming their best–and not just physically–although that’s foundational in CrossFit of course. But also because it’s the most positive, supportive, fun loving, and encouraging group of people you’ll find anywhere.
There’s so many parallels between physical and spiritual fitness, I could fill a book. With CrossFit, over other kinds of fitness communities I’ve experienced, there’s a culture of acceptance, comradarie, integrity, respect, personal discipline, and mutual support combined with a genuine desire to see each person do and become their best, that any church (school, workplace, or organization of any kind) would do very well to adopt.
And while CrossFit can never replace my relationship with God, or spending time with other believers, I am pretty sure Jesus would feel way more at home in a CrossFit box than in many, if not most, American churches.
The question is, can we as the church do better?
Critics might say the desire to be physically fit is about ego–and while that might be true for some, that’s a personal journey for every individual. For me, and others I know, the desire to be physically fit (and well) is about taking care of this amazing body God built for me, and getting stronger physically, mentally, and spiritually so I can show up in every area of my life as fit as possible.
CrossFit is different from any physical fitness activity I have encountered–and also much, much more challenging. I never really liked exercise–so it’s pretty miraculous that I would stick with something like this after years of trying (but not staying with) different physical fitness activities. Given a choice, I would have gone for something sedentary like coffee with a friend, reading a book (or taking a nap!) over exercise every time. So what’s so different about it?
CrossFit is a culture of acceptance for every person that walks through the door, full of people who want to help one another get stronger from wherever each person happens to be. You can see the joy that comes from hard work and a job well done on each person’s face after the workout of the day. That’s the kind of environment that motivates, energizes, and strengthens people to higher places. It inspires them to work hard–and then harder–and do their very best–and then better–every single time.
Yes, I have to admit, it sure would be awesome if church were more like that.
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