It should come as no surprise that, as society becomes increasingly secular, church affiliation continues to decline. What may be surprising, however, is how people are now filling the life space that used to be reserved for God and his church. A New York Times piece by Mark Oppenheimer reveals that one major substitute that offers connection, relationships, and accountability is CrossFit, a core strength and conditioning program that functions much like church.
Another article in the Atlantic by Julie Beck entitled “The Church of CrossFit” makes some interesting comparisons between the church and the popular fitness program. She writes: “The two most striking things about CrossFitters are their evangelical enthusiasm and the way they hold one another to account.” CrossFit boxes (gyms) are thought of as places of physical transformation and where a person can find social support. And if you want to become a CrossFit affiliate gym owner you are required to write an essay about “what CrossFit means to you, why you want it, and what you want to achieve.” For example, one application made the following confession: “CrossFit to me means family, a very hard-working family persistent on the creation of a larger, stronger family.”
There are three things that we as Christians need to understand about these comparisons between the church and CrossFit, and/or any other substitute “religion.”
1. We should take care of our bodies.
First, being physically fit is biblical. In fact, we should take seriously the stewardship of our bodies since they ultimately belong to God and are temples of the Holy Spirit. We are told in scripture to glorify God in our bodies. The Apostle Paul said there was some profit in bodily exercise (1Timothy 4:8). One of the co-founders of CrossFit, Greg Glassman, boasted, “We’re saving lives, and saving a lot of them. 350,000 people are going to die next year from sitting on the couch.” He went on to say, “We’re stewards of something salvific, even messianic.” Wow, that’s quite a statement. So yes, we are obligated to take care of these tenement houses of clay that house our undying souls.
2. Man is religious by nature.
Secondly, the popularity of CrossFit proves that man is a religious being. All of us possess a basic need for living life with purpose and meaning. Because we are created in God’s image we are relational creatures who crave connection and belonging. We were made for community and now some 13 million Americans are finding that community through CrossFit. So, comparisons between CrossFit and the church are actually understandable and quite natural.
One Republic’s popular song “Connection” voices the longing for community in all of us.
- Right now, right now, I'm switching to a new lane-
Foot to the floor, man searching for the real thing
- Need somebody else, sometimes ain't no shame-
Head to the clouds sayin'
- It's like can I get a connection?
3. CrossFit is not church.
Thirdly, and most importantly, CrossFit is not a substitution for the church. The church is not just an organization. Rather, it is a living organism whereby the Spirit of God transforms hearts from the inside out. CrossFit produces physical transformation primarily through self discipline and willpower. In church, God gets the glory for transforming lives. In CrossFit, you get the glory for transforming your body.
In church, God gets the glory for transforming lives. In CrossFit, you get the glory for transforming your body.
While it may also meet people’s social and emotional needs, it will never be able to be or do what the church is and does. The articles I’ve referenced demonstrate how a secular world attempts to fill a void that can only be filled by Jesus Christ. As Augustine said, “Our souls are restless until they find rest in thee, O God.”
While CrossFit is not a substitute for the church millions treat it as such. Therefore, as the church, we should address this phenomenon in two ways. First, believers involved in CrossFit can use it as an evangelistic tool to reach others for Christ. The best way to reach people with the gospel is by developing meaningful relationships with them. CrossFit is a great way to do that. Second, churches could host CrossFit gyms using their facilities to attract outsiders.
The bottom line is this: The church exists to fulfill the commission of Jesus Christ to make disciples of all nations. While CrossFit can certainly be a means to that end, it must not be confused with the church Jesus loves and for which he gave himself up (Ephesians 5:25).