In a bleak, ninth-floor room overlooking LBJ Freeway’s snarled traffic, six people hoist kettle bells under stark fluorescent lights and the walloping beat of Louis The Child. Their instructor breaks them into two teams: three of them running laps around the empty concrete-walled room while the other three do an exercise called inchworms on a deck of mats taped together on the floor. The instructor shouts encouragement, corrects someone’s form, and applauds the effort of her charges.
This scene is not in a gym. It’s at a church. A program called Well at Watermark Community Church puts members through 36 workouts in 12 weeks directed by Bobby Rodriguez, a Watermark staffer and Class 2 CrossFit coach.
Founded in 2000 by Californians Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai, CrossFit may be the most far-reaching development in the world of fitness since the invention of aerobics classes. It boasts 4 million users, called CrossFitters, worldwide. In North Texas, there are more than 200 CrossFit gyms, or boxes as CrossFitters call them. Like the program at Watermark, many of those boxes serve to improve more than just the physical health of their members.
“We’re at this interesting place of the crossroads between faith and fitness which I don’t think many churches really address,” Rodriguez said.
But CrossFit addresses it often. Dozens of boxes include some sort of metaphysical element behind the physical exercise. Spoon Barbell Club in Richardson hosts two weekend weightlifting meets per year. Each includes a Sunday morning sermon by club founder Tom Witherspoon, who says that 90 percent of the members of his gym are Christians. Faith RX is a parallel organization offering CrossFit-style workouts at dozens of chapters in seven countries around the world. Some boxes make the workouts themselves part of the mission. Daniel Crisler founded Trinity Athletics as an after-school CrossFit program in an underserved neighborhood in southern Dallas.
“In every city I’ve been in there have been one or two gyms where faith is intentionally part of the culture,” Crisler said. “They do things like giving sermons after the workout or organizing service projects.”
In 2015, two Harvard Divinity School students, Angie Thurston and Casper ter Kuile, published a study called “How We Gather,” which asserted that organizations like CrossFit are replacing religious communities for millennials.
“What you will see among young people is that they are indeed participating in communities and they are in communities that are some ways mirroring the function that religious communities have served,” Thurston said in a post on the school’s website. “These are communities that are helping people aspire toward goals, transform themselves, and work toward change while holding each other accountable to make things better. They are inspiring creativity and inspiring people to find their purpose and mission in life.”
The elements of CrossFit that make it a competitor of church are the same elements that make it appealing to people familiar with church. Christians may be drawn to CrossFit by something as simple as the name. But devotees say there are deeper similarities between a gym and a faith community. A video on the CrossFit website describes it as a lifestyle and a family. One member says, “You come to a CrossFit gym and everybody knows your name. Everybody loves you. You’re part of something bigger than just getting a workout.”
There are friendships and mutual support. CrossFit workouts are done in groups, and the workout isn’t finished until the last person completes all the exercises. So CrossFitters encourage one another, cheer one another on.
“There’s a rah-rah factor in CrossFit that I think is present in a lot of evangelical churches,” Crisler said.
Accountability is another buzzword in both the CrossFit and Christian worlds.
“People say, ‘I wouldn’t work out this hard or this much if I didn’t have someone keeping me accountable,'” Crisler said. “You can say the same on pretty much any moral issue and the church.”
There are rituals as well: certain workouts at certain times, milestones celebrated, stretching routines. Even the meetings have similarities.
“If you look at a CrossFit class, it’s about an hour long, and church services tend to be about an hour,” Crisler said. “And like a preacher, if I keep them 61 minutes, I’m in trouble!”
Back at Well, Rodriguez gives a short talk to his class about the spiritual nature of the human body. There are three talks per week at Well: one on the Bible, one on the science of exercise and nutrition, and one on family. Rodriguez says that fitness aligns with the teachings of the Bible.
“One of our principles is the idea that fitness is a stewardship issue,” Rodriguez said. “It’s not about how fit or fast you are or how good you look. That’s vanity. It’s about how you steward this machine God has given you.”
And that’s a message Rodriguez sees missing in most churches.
“Churches will talk alot about a porn addiction or an eating disorder,” Rodriguez said. “We create programs like Celebrate Recovery for those issues. But if you want to sit in your living room and watch The Biggest Loser while you eat a tub of ice cream to fend off the temptation to do that thing that we officially label sin, then we’re OK with that.”
CrossFit disciples say it’s here — in the differences between gym and church — where the former may serve as a judgment on the latter.
“A lot of young people especially go to church and start viewing it as entertainment,” Witherspoon said. “They listen to the singing and preacher and then go home the same as when they came.” With many, the model of church as entertainment falls flat. In contrast, CrossFit meets some kind of animalistic need for communal pain. In a culture of division and aloneness, people find release in an experience of shared suffering. And it’s in that way that CrossFit may provide a key to disciple-making that some churches miss.
“In a workout, we’re all going to suffer together. And we’re all going to help one another get through it,” Rodriguez said. “That’s a microcosm of what it looks like when we suffer together as a church community. We remember that lesson when something tragic happens to one of us, like when a loved one dies. It’s like training for sharing in suffering.”
That idea of shared suffering is an important element for faith communities to consider. Often, churches, mosques, temples and synagogues work hard to make their gatherings easy — easy to park, easy to find a seat, easy to get coffee and enjoy yourself. But most of those faiths also teach that true devotion is hard. It involves suffering, surrender, accountability and sacrifice; all things that are part of the CrossFit experience.
The Apostle Paul wrote about “the fellowship of sharing in Jesus’ suffering.” If he were here today, perhaps Paul might be inclined to ride the elevator to that bleak, concrete room above LBJ Freeway and take his turn with a kettle bell.
Ryan Sanders is a writer and pastor at Irving Bible Church. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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