The Crossfit Effect

It has been widely reported that the religiously unaffiliated are on the rise, especially among younger generations. Fewer and fewer people are choosing a traditional or organized form of religion, though some consider themselves spiritual. Correlatively, measures of loneliness and isolation are up. This makes sense. As people disengage from a proven means of social connection, a void opens.

What will fill the void? 

One answer, surprisingly, is exercise. Julie Beck of The Atlantic reports that fitness movements like Crossfit and Soul Cycle are functioning like religious communities. There are obvious parallels, like routine meetings, a common ethos, and mutual accountability. Beck observes:

Gyms are places of physical transformation, so in some ways it makes sense that these companies are trying to foster mental and spiritual transformations, too. And for some people at least, it seems like they’re becoming loci of social support, much in the way a church might be.

There is also an evangelical element: Crossfit athletes are eager to share about their experiences and seek converts. Even though exemplary Crossfit athletes like Ben Smith and Sara Sigmundsdottir have reached a level of fitness most of us can only dream about, Crossfit constantly broadens its story to include all kinds of athletes from all life stages, stressing the inclusivity of their fitness philosophy.

 Beck also reports that there is a formal organization which integrates Crossfit with Christianity called Faith RX’d. Faith RX’d has a theology of the body that sees fitness as a means to glorify God and understands the communal element of Crossfit as a natural setting for sharing the gospel. 

There are several ways to react to this trend. First, caring for the body is good, as is an emphasis on community. As an outside observer, Crossfit seems to stress positivity, encouragement, and equipping others to succeed in reaching their goals. They want people to achieve physical fitness, and Crossfit veterans are eager to bring newcomers along.

But there are also negative ways of understanding Crossfit’s increased popularity. Fitness can become an idol, and a focus on the body can become obsessive. Also, the body is temporal and passing away. While one can prolong life, no one gets out of life alive, and traditional religious communities offer ways of understanding our fleeting human experiences in light of eternity. Additionally, Christianity invites us into the peace of God, which begins now and lasts forever, as well as offering the hope of a resurrected body and a renewed world. This does not mean that Christianity should be dismissive of the body, but rather that Christianity, rightly understood, puts body and soul into a proper and integrative complementarity. 

Nevertheless, millennials are finding in Crossfit something spiritual, and it is the church’s responsibility to understand this and build bridges. For example, check out this interview from PBS Newshour on millennials and Crossfit.

One response would be to join your local Crossfit box and begin building relationships. But another is to stress the theological distinctives that strengthen community, offer accountability, and ignite our passions toward challenging kingdom goals that can inspire us in faith.

Millennials are looking for community, but not only for the sake of companionship. The greater energy driving movements like Crossfit is a grand vision or a hard goal. Therefore, churches not only need to get in touch with how they foster togetherness, but they also need to clarify why they exist. Then, they need to encourage and equip all members of their community to grow as disciples of Jesus. 

That’s the greater lesson of the fitness movement. Community is great. But purpose is supreme.