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Today, we welcome Chad Pierce as a guest blogger on The Twelve. Chad teaches biblical studies at Central College in Pella, Iowa and is a minister in the Reformed Church in America. Thanks, Chad!
Just over two years ago I made a decision that changed my life. I joined a CrossFit gym. The first time I walked through the door, I had no idea what I was in for. I had signed up for an exercise program, what I found was a religion.
OK, the last part might be hyperbole, but not as much as one might think. CrossFit is defined on its website as “constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity” (www.CrossFit.com). In other words, you never know what the workout of the day (WOD) is going to be, but you do know you are going to suffer. CrossFit was founded by Greg Glassman in 2000. Today, the company consists of over 7200 affiliate gyms, 35,000 trainers, and hundreds of thousands of participants. They also host the annual CrossFit Games, now aired on ESPN.
Given its popularity, the CrossFit corporation, its workouts, and its community have been polarizing. Those on the “inside” hear stories of life transformation like “CrossFit saved my life!” Others though have not joined the choir. Among the insults levelled against the movement are that its followers have “drunk the kool-aid” or that they have joined the “cult” of CrossFit. The reality is that both the messianic and demonic ascriptions are misguided.
I am not going to lie, I love the workouts. In a sadistic way, I love the suffering. However, what has been most important to me is the community. I have made friends with such a wide variety of people. We come from very different backgrounds. From engineers, managers, and vice-presidents, to professors, line workers, grandmothers, and housewives, all of us gather together 3, 4, 5 or more times a week. Occupations are not the only divergence among us. We are men, women, old, young, strong, physically disabled. But at the start of the timer, none of that matters. All of us are pushed to our limits. In the midst of the sweat, the exhaustion, and the pain, we have developed a bond.
Each workout contains a liturgy. From warm-up, to skill development, to strength, to workout, to cool down, most gyms develop a rhythm for the hour. We use words, acronyms, and phrases that do not make sense to others but carry much meaning for us. Women’s names like Fran, Karen, and Amanda sound innocent enough but send shivers down the spines of those who see their names on the board.
CrossFit is both global and local. CrossFit’s website posts a free workout roughly six days a week that is followed by athletes around the world. Others join local gyms or communities and can pay up to $200 a month for coaching and workouts. Of course, CrossFit has its stars, but the community of average CrossFiters has made the business. As noted at CrossFit.com, “CrossFit is also the community that spontaneously arises when people do these workouts together. In fact, the communal aspect of CrossFit is a key component of why it’s so effective.”
So what’s the point? It is hard to study the contemporary church without hearing about the “nones”; those who have no religious affiliation. I am bombarded with reasons why people are leaving the church, what the church is doing wrong. I read about the lack of denominational loyalty and the perceived disdain of institution. And yet, more often than not, it’s these anti-institutional youth who are drawn and fiercely loyal to their local gym (box). I have been reflecting on CrossFit’s success and contemplated what the church can learn from it. Of course I am comparing apples and oranges here, but here is what I have noticed:
1) CrossFit welcomes everyone and makes everyone feel welcome. Of course it is intimidating to walk through the door for the first time, but most people are quickly and pleasantly surprised to find a place and a community that is glad you are there no matter how in or out of shape you might be. No questions are asked about your background, your orientation, your beliefs, or anything else. You are simply invited to join in at a level you are comfortable with.
2) CrossFit is authentic. It is unapologetic for what it is and what it is not. The suffering also breaks down the facades of its members. Everyone has workouts that push them to and even beyond their limits. People truly want the best for each other and often cheer each other on to finish once they are done.
3) CrossFit is demanding. It can be expensive. It takes time, commitment and a willingness to be pushed beyond your comfort zone. It does not make things easier to get more to sign up. The opposite is true. People are flocking to it because it demands much.
4) CrossFit is pastoral. The CrossFit community takes care of its own. In the last two weeks, one CrossFit athlete was paralyzed during a competition. Since then over $320,000 has been raised for his medical bills. There are numerous stories similar to this. Whether known individually or not, CrossFitters help CrossFitters.
5) CrossFit is missional. Of course being missional for a business could just mean good marketing. However, for CrossFit it’s more than that. While it’s a product, it is more than a product. People who do CrossFit try to get others to do CrossFit because they believe it will benefit their lives. Other CrossFit gyms have organized trips across the globe, building schools and digging wells in order to bring justice to those in need.
While I don’t believe that Glassman’s CrossFit has found the “how to” for energizing a lost generation, I do think it gives hope to the church. It gives me hope that there is still a longing for welcoming, authentic, demanding, pastoral, and missional communities. Is CrossFit a religion? I doubt it. But it has given me a sense of community that I can bring into the community. And for that, I am thankful.