What Churches Can Learn From Crossfit Culture

I write this blog post with a bit of hesitation for several reasons, one of which being that it easily fits into the stereotypical crossfit narrative that the number one rule of crossfit is to always talk about crossfit.  I get it, it’s a warranted stereotype for the most part.

Further, in full disclosure, my brother owns a crossfit gym and no I am not being given any royalties for this blog.  It will, however, include an unashamed plug for his gym and it will happen right here: shout out to Crossfit Bison, which is located in the promised land otherwise known as Midland Park, NJ.  Check it out.

Finally, it may come across as a potentially offensive concept to believers that churches can and should learn anything from our culture that is not specifically “Christian”.  In our day, the narrative of “us versus them” between the church and the culture is one that is neither Biblical, nor helpful.  The culture is not something to be defeated, but rather it consists of people to be reached to make disciples for the glory of God.  Rather than drawing lines in the sand all over the place to the point where the church finds herself boxed in a small square, we will be served well to see how often Jesus operated outside the lines in order to build bridges and find common ground with the world he came to save.  It doesn’t mean we lay down our convictions, but it means that we love and serve a world we’re called to reach so that when we live out and share our convictions, they’re actually seen and heard.

So with all the qualifiers out of the way, let’s get going.

What is Crossfit?

By definition, crossfit is a strength and conditioning program that covers a wide array of movements and exercises that can be scaled and modified for any level of fitness.

It has been one of the fastest growing workout regimens across the world in the last decade, and the reason is that it’s not just a workout regimen.  Crossfit is unique because it’s become a culture of its own (and one that often gets parodied pretty hilariously on social media).  There are some clear parallels between crossfit and church, like when you often hear members of a crossfit gym say that it’s “not just a gym, but a community” which echoes something that we say about church all the time – it’s not the building you meet at, it’s the people you do life with.  The communal focus is at the heart of both.

After being a part of Crossfit Bison for over 4 years, one of the things I’ve casually noticed over time is that the lure of physical fitness is what makes people check it out, but it’s the community that makes them stay.  Top of the line equipment and a spacious gym is not what deems a crossfit gym successful, it’s the members that cultivate a culture of pushing each other to levels they wouldn’t attain on their own that people are drawn to.  Similarly, an impressive worship band, a modern and tech savvy building, and a gifted preacher may draw people into a church to check it out, but it’s the members who cultivate a culture of pursuing Christ and pushing each other that people are drawn to.

Now, I want to be clear and careful.  There are immense differences between the two as well.  Church is not crossfit, and crossfit is not church, regardless of what this 2015 NY Times article says.  For one, any close-knit community is centered on something that binds it together.  For crossfit, it’s fitness, which is to say it’s people-centered and conditional on a certain type of person: namely, someone who can afford a relatively-expensive membership fee (or has a brother who owns a gym!) and someone whose body is physically able to endure the rigorous workout routines.  Basically, if you’re not wealthy or healthy enough, then the crossfit community isn’t a place where you’ll find a home.  The church, on the other hand, is Christ-centered and unconditional, which means that anyone can walk through the doors to encounter the love of Christ and be part of the community regardless of background, socio-economic level, or life stage.

With that said, however, let’s go back to the primary intention of this blog.  Being both a crossfit member and a local church pastor, I’ve noticed three things that churches can learn from crossfit culture:

1. You Are What You Celebrate

We live in a society where people who finish first get all the glory and those who finish last are overlooked and forgotten about.  Crossfit culture goes against that grain.

If you were to look in on a typical crossfit class, you’d notice that those who finish a workout first get no clapping, cheering, or applause.  They don’t yell and scream and let everyone know they’re done. If you finish first in a workout, you sit down or slump against the wall and watch everyone else until they’re finished.  No one notices.

However, there is cheering, clapping and yelling in nearly every class, but it’s reserved for those who are finishing last.  They get the glory, they get the attention and the encouragement because of how hard they’re working and the determination they have to not give up until the time cap.  No one clean ups their weights or equipment until the last person is finished.  There is a famous saying, “you are what you celebrate”, and crossfit celebrates those who finish last.

Churches ought to be known to go against the same grain.  In a community where Jesus Christ stands at the center as Saviour and Lord, it should be automatic that people have their head on a swivel for those who society may deem “last”.  If a church is just for all the spiritually healthy, “I’m great, how are you??” people in the world, then that’s not the church.  That’s a social club.  We should celebrate all the times that people who are struggling physically, emotionally, and spiritually are encouraged and sustained by a Christ-centered community.  In Luke 15, Jesus tells this parable:

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

In churches, people should not be overlooked, marginalized, or forgotten.  We should take notice, and do what we can to help them along, because in church, it probably won’t be long until you or I are that person that need the encouragement to keep going.

2. New Faces are Expected and Welcomed

It is common for a coach to start off a class by saying, “Hey guys, today we have ______ joining us for the first time” and the class follows suit by welcoming that person into the fold.  Sometimes they were brought by a friend, other times they did a random google search, or they may have just moved to the area from another place they did crossfit.  Either way, you’ll also often see a member go up to that person after the class to get to know them better, see how they’re feeling, and encourage them to keep coming out and persevere through the initial stages of soreness they are bound to feel!

New faces are expected, and they’re not threats.  There is a mindset of making room for people and being patient with them as they learn the ropes.  It’s possible, and even probable, that they will need the time and grace to “mess up” on things like putting equipment away, or knowing where to go and when to go there.  But it’s all good, because after all, they’re new.  How would they know what to do when they haven’t been here?  They need time, and encouragement, to get rolled into the program and pick up on the way of doing things.

Likewise, church culture should expect and welcome new faces into the fold.  Again, maybe a friend brought them, or maybe they did a random google search, or maybe they just moved to the area.  It’s one thing when a ministry leader or pastor extends a welcome, but when one of the members go out of their way to introduce themselves, encourage them to keep coming out, and ask questions to get to know them better, that serves to be far more powerful.  And we, too, ought to be patient with anyone who walks in for the first time and needs the space to pick up on things.  Churches that noticeably have a culture where new faces are expected and welcomed will stand apart from those that are filled with people who have blinders on and only care about those who are already there.

3. It’s a Journey

Everyone in a crossfit gym is at a different level of fitness, and that is not a problem.  The elite athletes in the gym are not bothered by the fact that not everyone is as awesome as them, and the beginner athletes in the gym are not resentful of those who can lift more than them.  While it’s a community, everyone’s programming is personalized.  The point is not how fast your times are, or how heavy the barbell is, the point is the desire to grow as an athlete and take that “next step” whatever it may be.  It’s a journey, and what members of a gym have in common is not the location of their physical journey, but rather they have a common desire to push one another to keep moving forward.

Coaches help every person customize the workout in a way that is best for them, and they never resent someone for not doing more.  The standard of success is not a number, it’s a desire to give it all you have and be at peace with that.

Similarly, the church is a community of believers who are all encouraging one another to take that next step in their spiritual journey, whatever that may be.  The mature believers are not bothered by the fact that there are those brand new in the faith or wrestling with the faith in their midst, and those that are brand new in the faith are not resentful of the spiritually mature who have been walking with the Lord for a long time.  Everyone is there to help one another and be thrilled for them when that next step is taken, because as long as we are breathing, there is a next step to be taken in the Christian life.

Final Word

“for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” 1 Tim 4:8

I am grateful to be part of a gym community where these things are all realities, but I am even more grateful to be part of a church community that embodies them as well.  We’re not perfect, for no church is, but we are genuinely striving towards the goal of pushing one another deeper into the love and mercy of Jesus Christ in such a way that strengthens faith and makes disciples for the glory of God.  Both are great, but only one has eternal implications.