Across America every morning, afternoon, and evening, people are driving to a new temple. They show up at the local sanctuary, receive an order for the hours’ events, greet their friends, and proceed through the day’s programs. This isn’t a new religion—or at least not on the surface. And yet, it has all the trappings of religion, just without a prescribed higher power.
I am talking, of course, about CrossFit.
CrossFit describes itself as “constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.” What this means is that it is a combination of cardiovascular exercise, Olympic weightlifting, and gymnastics movements in different arrangements each day. Some people see it in the vein of other fitness fads like Jazzercise and the Thighmaster, but practitioners see CrossFit as a revolutionary approach to fitness.
What would it look like if the church started to learn from CrossFit? What if you took some classes at a local “box”?But before you get defensive about the description of CrossFit in religious terms, remember that when Greg Glassman, the program’s founder, was asked if CrossFit was a cult, he said, “Are we a cult? Maybe we are.”
While CrossFit is certainly not a religion in any formal sense, it is liturgical, communal, transformational, and evangelistic, all elements of classic religion. You go to any CrossFit website and the testimonials read like Christian conversion stories. So just how similar is CrossFit to a religion?
First, it is highly liturgical. When you enter the gym (which they call a “box”), the coach escorts the class to a board where the workout of the day (“WOD” for CrossFitters) is described and demonstrated. The class then disperses throughout the box to begin to work their way through the day’s events. When members of different gyms meet one another, they inevitably start sharing the last few WODs with one another in much the same way church folks will describe the last few worship sets and sermons with their friends from other churches. Additionally, CrossFit has a list of “saints,” many of whom are fallen U.S. Soldiers. These men and women are ritualized with special workouts. In particular, nearly every gym celebrates Memorial Day with a particularly brutal WOD called “Murph,” named after a Navy Seal killed in Afghanistan.
CrossFit is also communal. Most gyms are small enough that members see each other several times a week and are encouraged to support one another. One CrossFitter said that he felt “more supported when he failed a lift or fell behind than when things were going well.” This sense of community, that celebrates and encourages in the face of failure, could teach the church a lesson or two. And seeing the same people each day keeps people accountable. Members often contact other members who have been absent for just a couple of days. This close-knit relationship spills out of the gym too. Many CrossFitters consider their gym-mates their primary support network; their first calls for house-sitters, rides to the airport, and consolation in the face of tragedy are to people from their boxes. This is particularly true of many of the millennials who populate CrossFit gyms.
CrossFit gyms focus on the transformation of their members. “If a gym has been open for 5 years, I am pretty sure they have seen at least one person lose a hundred pounds,” Greg Glassman told students from Harvard Divinity School. He goes on to show that the transformation doesn’t stop with bodies, adding that “CrossFit impacts every area of their members lives in a way that clergy and other professionals are [sic] not. As people’s health improves, so does every other aspect of their life.” Given the expense of CrossFit (significantly higher than big box gyms like Planet Fitness), the transformation is really the selling point. Go anywhere that CrossFit is discussed, say something negative about it, and watch people come out of the woodwork with their stories of personal transformation. And these stories aren’t small. You will hear tales of significant weight loss, strength gains for professional athletes, and meeting partners for life.
Perhaps most significantly, CrossFit is evangelistic. There is an old joke that goes something like this: “How do you know someone does CrossFit? Don’t worry, they will tell you.” Whether bragging about their most recent lifting stats, complaining about ripped hands, or walking funny after squats, CrossFitters are anxious to tell you about their boxes. And why not? If you found a place that changed your life and provided you with community and order to your weeks, wouldn’t you want to tell others? Of course you would. And so they do, even to the point of cultural ridicule. Why else would you constantly bring up CrossFit when you know it will likely be met with eye-rolling and arguments?
It is easy to how CrossFit is similar to religion and how it manifests many tenets of Christianity. The challenge for the church is to think critically and approach CrossFit well. We can be defensive or we can engage. CrossFit is appealing to millennials in a way that traditional religion is not. We can choose to see that as a threat, or we can choose to see it as a mission field. The church has a great opportunity to tap into the field.—because the one thing CrossFit lacks is any sense of higher power or metaphysical goal. Fitness is good, but it only chases the shame away for a few hours. Gains in lifting are great, but they can’t cover up my guilt. Christianity fits clearly in the hole in the heart of CrossFit. What is more, CrossFit members already understand things like community, repetition and ritual, transformation stories, and how to share these things with others.
With 4 million members spread across 1,300 boxes, the field is white unto harvest. What would it look like if the church started to learn from CrossFit? What if you took some classes at a local “box”? (Most gyms offer free introductory classes.) If you did, you would not be alone. Some Christians have already gone before us and blazed a trail. The most celebrated CrossFit athlete of all time, Rich Froning, is a strong Christian. Faith RX’d is a ministry devoted to helping foster Christianity inside the CrossFit world. Guido Trinidad, who runs one of the biggest CrossFit events of the year in Miami, is outspoken about his faith.
This is not something for the church to be afraid of or hostile to. CrossFit gyms are supportive and engaging places. If you go, you may just lose a few inches or gain some muscle. More than that, you will probably learn a few things about discipleship. Boxes are crucibles for physical training and commitment. The church should be the same sort of crucible for the faith.