CrossFit: a Secular Church?

The first Christmas after my daughter was born, I got a two-year membership to 24 Hour Fitness as a gift. Included in the membership was one personal training session.

My trainer bristled with annoyance at my “fad diet” when I told him we were going Paleo for three months. Then he showed me to the elliptical machine and told me that he lost weight by drinking sugar-free Kool-Aid all day and ordering off of the light menu at Taco Bell.

Obviously, our philosophies weren’t in line. But I was still able to get some cardio, weights and an occasional spin class in at the gym. No hard feelings. But staying motivated and committed to working out while staying home with a toddler has been hard.

That might be because I haven’t tried CrossFit.

I think CrossFit is like secular church. It offers more than weight loss or fitness. It speaks to our innate desires for community, purpose and transformation.

Community:  When you workout regularly with the same group of people, you form a bond. It’s like how adrenaline helps you connect with people, so misguided young suitors take their first dates skydiving. Sweating, groaning and rolling on lacrosse balls multiple times a week offers plenty of opportunity for vulnerability and sharing life beyond the workout. When people notice that you weren’t at the 5 a.m. WOD*, you feel known, missed and loved. Then people start hanging out together, outside of the gym and without their crazy colored socks and workout clothes. And real relationships, complete with vulnerability, accountability and acceptance come into play.

*When my husband told me they pronounce “WOD” like “wad,” I cringed. A highly unfavorable word, right up there with “panties.”

Purpose:  Beyond the after-workout NorCal Margaritas or themed parties catered by Paleo food trucks, there’s a more personal reason CrossFit is like church. It provides discipline that meets tangible goals, something to be passionate about and to tell others about. Regular classes, white boards recording personal bests and very specific warm-ups and workouts provide CrossFit-ers with a way to measure their progress and work toward gains. If I could go from lifting my puny 10-pound hand weights to hang cleaning a bar with a bunch of weights piled on, I would totally feel successful and purposeful. And if you really buy into the CrossFit philosophy, you’re getting back to Grok, the best version of you. (Maybe Grok is this subculture’s savior. Hmmm … something for another post.)

Which brings us to the real clincher.

Transformation:  Who hasn’t seen those bathroom selfies of CrossFit masters who have crazy muscles and perfect Instagram-filter-induced tans? We have a deep desire for our bodies to be new. We want to go from decay to life. Strength and vitality helps us forget that we all die anyway. And who doesn’t want to look good in some spandex shorts or a form fitting T?

I have no doubt that CrossFit provides a version of community, purpose and transformation. And I’m sure that people feel alive, healthy and better than ever when they’re regularly doing CrossFit. Which means the other side of life-giving fun and health is there too.

Legalism: I imagine there’s guilt for the CrossFit-er who hasn’t made it to a workout in a few weeks. Or shame for the poor sap who can’t do a chin-up to save his life. Or superficial hope for everyone, that if they just show up, just do it, do it, do it, they’ll get better, be fitter, look hotter, be stronger. Add to that the temptation to cut out all grains and dairy, to become a Paleo warrior, and suddenly a Friday-night beer threatens your identity and security in who you are.

I should include my disclaimers at this point:

  • I haven’t gone to a CrossFit gym or done a workout, although my husband regularly does. I’ve just read about it a lot.
  • I believe our only true hope and salvation can’t be found in anything we do (including CrossFit); that comes only from Jesus.
  • That being said, don’t get your panties in a wad. I would totally try CrossFit. Maybe when my gym membership expires.

I think this CrossFit thing is going to be around a lot longer than Jazzercise from the ’80s, big-box gym memberships from the ’90s or boot camps from five years ago. Now I’d love to hear from people who are actually part of the culture. Do you agree that CrossFit can be like a secular church?

  • Adam Pasha

    My roommate (who is an old school lifter) thinks Crossfit is both trendy and dangerous. He says that the workouts are not smart (ie going too hard, too quickly) and that most instructors are not properly trained. What you know about that?

    • naturallyconfusedmom

      Interesting. I don’t know much about that. I would guess the risks are in line with any exercise program, and technique is key to safety.

  • Katie Magee

    I once did a session of cross fit. I mistakenly signed up for the advance session and was horrified when I saw big bulky men roll semi truck tires across the room. I was the only female…it was horrible….reminded me of seventh grade basketball practice when all I wanted to do was puke then go home and eat soft batch cookies. Needless to say, the next day I couldn’t walk & I found a new love in a combination of zumba and bikram yoga.

    • naturallyconfusedmom

      Glad you found something you love, Katie! Although I’m a bit surprised you didn’t arm wrestle a few of those burly guys and show them what you’re made of :)

  • Steve Vandiest

    Love your article. I was Nick’s campus crusade director at CU. I have done crossfit for over a year and my wife is an instructor. One of the best incarnational communities we have ever been part of. God is doing something really cool in the crossfit competitive scene as well as we know some neat jesus followers who compete globally and kill it.

    Great job. Tell Nick hello.

    • naturallyconfusedmom

      Nice to meet you, Steve :) It’s interesting to hear the perspective of someone who knows the Body of Christ and also the “Church of CrossFit.”

  • Chris

    I go to church regularly, I was previously a young life leader, and was active in Crusade in college. I agree our only salvation is in Christ.

    That being said Crossfit has changed my life. I’ve lost 40 lbs in about a year crossfitting. The community is amazing. For anyone who played sports or was in a club in hs or college I think Crossfit fuels that fire for us.

    Its so great to walk into the gym see 20 people whom all love you and have similar goals. And like your friend above said, God is doing some amazing things in the Crossfit community. I know in my family of Crossfitters about half the population is “believers.”

  • Devin

    You are on the right track in your observations, but you’ve only scratched the surface. There are a lot of things that any average Crossfit gym is doing much better than the best churches, which is sad, considering I agree with you that true life comes from Christ.

    Imagine the Christian/Church who:
    1. Talked about Jesus as much as a crossfitter talks about crossfit.
    2. Invited their friends and neighbors to church as often as crossfitters invite their friends to church.
    3. Spent as much effort on becoming more disciplined in scripture, prayer, encouragement, etc. as a crossfitter works on their diet/ pullups/ rowing technique etc.
    4. Introduced themselves to strangers at church as often as crossfitters introduce themselves to everyone at a workout.
    5. Got out of their comfort zone the way that every crossfit WOD is designed to do.

    :/ yikes, that would look a lot like an Acts kind of church.

    • Devin

      *as often as crossfitters invite their friends, neighbors, and strangers to crossfit.