Tech + Health

04.27.14

Is American Christianity Becoming a Workout Cult?

Plenty has been written about the cult of CrossFit—the widely popular, DIY workout craze. But maybe CrossFit isn’t a cult at all. Maybe it’s a new religion.

CrossFit is a workout philosophy, a brand, and a network of affiliated gyms. It’s also a subculture that, with its manic friendliness and clan-like vibe, carries a whiff of cultishness.

Browse the digital pages of our nation’s finest periodicals, and you can read about the cult (or is it more like a church?) of Crossfit, that attracts “Painiacs” who have either joined an ordinary conditioning program or a bona-fide cult that feeds you Kool-Aid.

These critics do have a point: CrossFit gyms—called boxes—tend to nurture the kind of close-knit communities more commonly associated with desert-bound Mormon sects. CrossFitters work out in groups, moving to the demands of a benevolent taskmaster. They pepper their conversations with a strange, clubby lingo—the Yiddish of fitness—and they undertake special workouts to honor comrades who have fallen in combat (CrossFit is especially popular among military personnel.)

CrossFitters can buy apparel that plays on this reputation: “Like a Cult, Without the Creepy Leader” reads one T-shirt. There’s even a gym in Connecticut that’s called CrossFit Religion. The name, they assured me, is tongue-in-cheek; their motto, a play on the acronym for CrossFit’s Workout of the Day, is “In WOD We Trust.”

Since 2000, CrossFit has grown from a single gym in Santa Cruz to around 10,000 worldwide. According to Jimi Letchford of CrossFit, Inc., the brand adds 10 to 15 boxes per day. Like Orthodox synagogues or third-century churches, CrossFit spreads without any centralized orchestration; boxes are independent affiliates, not franchises.

Actual religious groups, one imagines, watch CrossFit’s growth with envy. Church membership is declining, millennials are disaffiliating, and, as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam famously bemoaned at the beginning of the last decade, in-the-flesh communal life in the United States may have reached a nadir. Meanwhile, CrossFit has taken the relatively solitary world of weightlifting and calisthenics and spun a communitarian dreamland.

CrossFit builds exactly the kind of community that many forward-looking religious groups would probably like to nurture: one based on intense, directed communal experience rather than any historical, ethnic, or political ties.

Still, religious groups may be catching up. The fascinating thing about CrossFit is not that it looks vaguely religious. It’s that religion in the United States—in particular, certain strains of Protestant Christianity—is starting to look a lot like CrossFit. “Across the country, congregations are whipping members into shape with highly marketed, faith-based health programs,” wrote Leslie Leyland Fields in a Christianity Today feature last year. Churches are adding weight rooms and launching weight-loss programs. There’s even a consulting firm that specializes in helping churches open gyms.

When megachurch pastor Rick Warren launched a dieting initiative in 2011, more than 12,000 people signed up on the first day. The Daniel Plan, as Warren named the program, offers a kind of Bible-inflected Weight Watchers in which participants often join together in small support groups. Citing research into human social networks, the Daniel Plan Web site explains, “Community has the power to change our overall health more than any doctor or clinic.”

Elsewhere, as Jesse James DeConto wrote in Christian Century in December, many Christian groups and churches, with names like Team Sweaty Sheep, are combining worship with a Sunday morning jog. These mobile worshippers, DeConto writes, are joining “a wave of churches that are embracing physical exercise in their ministries.”

Some Christians are directly applying CrossFit’s workouts and strategies to their faith. There are Christian-oriented CrossFit gyms, such as CrossFit 27:17, named after a verse from Proverbs (“As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another”), and CrossFit For My Savior (“Because My Savior Was Fit for the Cross”).

On Easter, some CrossFitters participated in a special Easter Workout of the Day, an especially grueling session that, wrote one gym leader in Texas, “is brutal, but not nearly as brutal as what Jesus endured for each of us.”

CrossFit Faith, associated with competitive CrossFit world champion Rich Froning, provides a spiritual Workout of the Day, which pairs Biblical readings with guidelines for reflection.

At One Church in Columbus, Ohio, you can even do a CrossFit workout as part of a Sunday morning service. As One Church pastor Greg Ford told me, the church realized that “instead of doing music, we could do the workout as the worship.” The service leader eggs on his congregation by telling them things like, “This is giving glory and honor to God and our bodies.” Afterward, congregants stretch, eat bananas, and hear a sermon. Between 50 and 70 people attend on an average Sunday, says Ford, and a second campus is in the works.

Is American Christianity about to re-emerge as a workout cult? No. But, along with concerns about epidemic obesity, there are good strategic reasons that a religious organization might want to get physical. Quite simply, organized fitness makes for a great bonding experience, as CrossFit gyms around the world could no doubt attest. And for many people, there’s nothing quite like a good workout. We often talk about religion in terms of commitment and ideology, but the aesthetics and experience matter, too. So does a community’s ability to provide tangible benefits to its members—including, perhaps, lost pounds and better biceps.

Fitness is also apolitical. As a number of sociologists of religion have argued, many millennials and Gen Xers have fled churches because they want to avoid any flavor of culture war and social strife. Running and dieting, suffice it to say, are less polarizing than sexual politics. Really, CrossFit builds exactly the kind of community that many forward-looking religious groups would probably like to nurture: one based on intense, directed communal experience rather than any historical, ethnic, or political ties. The CrossFit-ification of American religion is not just a question of fitness, though, or even of group bonding in general. It’s also a matter of organizational structure.

When I spoke with Jimi Letchford, who works for the CrossFit brand, he went to great lengths to emphasize that CrossFit has “grown organically,” with no master plan from the top. Letchford also took pains to explain that CrossFit gyms are much more casual and much more individualized than a typical workout chain. You can “skip the person in the collared shirt” greeting you at the door, said Letchford, and CrossFitters pride themselves on avoiding expensive exercise machines. (They also, controversially, get hurt a lot). If 24-Hour Fitness is the Catholic Church of gyms, with a centralized corporate hierarchy, then CrossFit styles itself as Martin Luther.

Something similar, perhaps, is happening with religious groups in the United States. Jews are fretting about the breakdown of traditional denominational lines, as young people gravitate to communities that shy away from the old Reform/Conservative/Orthodox model. Pope Francis aside, the Catholic Church wonders if it can hold onto, well, anyone in the global North. Pew Research Center surveys show young people expressing plenty of spirituality, but more and more skepticism about religious institutions.

And mainline Protestant denominations find themselves shrinking. Instead, the past few years have seen a surge of small, casual, and intensely local churches that resist institutional authority. The emerging church movement, in particular, has embraced a kind of steady, decentralized growth that can seem CrossFit-ish. (It also resembles the ancient Church, before Christian hierarchies coalesced; CrossFit didn’t invent this kind of loose-knit, small-cell structure.) CrossFit boxes that boast of starting in garages and spreading by word of mouth might find much that seems familiar in the world of house church, small group fellowships, young church planting movements (such as Vineyard), and emerging church communities.

I’m not saying that churches or other religious organizations are actively looking to CrossFit for guidance. But, with its decentralized network of casual, grounded, common-interest-driven communities, CrossFit has clearly found a social model that jibes with our historical moment. And many religious groups seem to be reaching toward a similar kind of goal—whether or not they get there with pushups.