The Common Good

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.

Photo by CrossFit Fever / Flickr
Photo by CrossFit Fever / Flickr

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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 tee?

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?

 Kirsten Lamb is a writer and editor in Denver. She blogs about faith, parenting, and natural living at naturallyconfusedmom.com.

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