I first heard of CrossFit from my twin sister, Gretchen, when she joined about a year ago. With the fear of gross over-simplification, CrossFit is an intense strength and conditioning program consisting mainly of a mix of aerobic exercise, calisthenics and Olympic weightlifting. She fell in love with it and continues to go several times a week. As a health-conscious young adult and non-church go-er, who lives in a small town in Wisconsin, it gives her a place to meet people. She’s seen gains in her physical strength and discipline. She’s pretty much a beast. While her inspiring experience hasn’t yet motivated me to head out to a box (what CrossFit gyms are called - predominately re-purposed empty warehouses) of my own, it has made me particularly intrigued by their recent press. Recently, the New York Times published an article entitled, “When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit.” The article was prompted by the research of two Harvard Divinity School researchers, Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston, who were studying spaces other than churches that function as spiritual communities.
As an emerging pastor, and someone who walks by a CrossFit gym every day, I have to wonder what this new trend --- which, looks like it is here to stay --- can teach us about our churches and life together at St. Paul? While I could go on and on about gathering trends for millennials, I particularly wonder how it might inform the way we think about the way we honor our bodies as we gather together. I have to admit, in my own life, when I was undergoing chemotherapy treatments for cancer, it was my weekly yoga classes at the cancer center that felt like church to me. I needed a community that didn’t forget that I had a body that couldn’t be disconnected from my soul, my heart, and my life with God. My body mattered to me and I needed a safe place where it would not only be recognized for the trauma it was going through and also its awe-spiring ability to heal itself, but also be engaged. I so appreciated a place that connected body and spirit, by encouraging breathing, movement, and awareness. My guess is that for the thousands of people who flock to CrossFit gyms each day, they are also looking for these type of places too.
Despite lifting up an incarnational theology that claims bodies are good, and believing in a God who thought it was essential to take on human flesh to be in relationship with us, the body is something that is often neglected. So often we prize our intellect over our bodies --- as if we could have a brain without a body! Or, (and I am particularly guilty of falling into this trap) we are too quick to jump into and cling on to hyper-spiritualized imagery of the body, especially as we interpret scripture. Perhaps, this makes sense, especially here, given our own church’s namesake is St. Paul, whose writings often get used to do just that. As Lutheran Christians, we understand our lives and bodies to be a gift from God. We also believe that how we respond to God’s gracious gifts is important, and part of honoring our bodies can be, but is in no way limited to, eating well and exercising. My thoughts about CrossFit are not ones which lack critique. As one of my beloved professors, Stephanie Paulsell notes in her writings about honoring the body, “Our culture has so many ways of sending us the message that only one body type will do—we must be a certain size and shape, we are told over and over again or we will not be beautiful or happy. When attention to health and fitness is powered solely by the desire for the "perfect body," our body can seem more of a burden than a gift.” I worry that romanticizing CrossFit as an alternative to church, simply plays into a culture that can be damaging to so many if taken to the extreme.
But, the question still remains how can we, as a community, really embrace and receive our body with joy as the gift that it is? While an easy answer would be to simply add an exercise program in the fellowship hall, I think a more intriguing question is how we might honor our bodies in our liturgical spaces in a way in which all bodies might feel included? How do we incorporate smells, tastes, touch, physical postures in our praying, singing, preaching, that goes beyond our regular exercise routine of standing up and sitting down in a very rote and rehearsed way? How do we encourage families to have open and honest conversations around bodies and how to take care of them? As Clifford Green urged us to think deeply in last’s week’s morning forum, the way we think about our bodies has major consequences to how we pray, how we read scripture, and how we live out our lives together, especially with people experiencing homelessness or hunger.
I’m thankful that there are places like CrossFit where people like my sister and friends are finding community, belonging, and discipline in their lives. As a church, I hope we become good neighbors with these boxes, rather than see them as competition, because at the core we fill different needs. There is a lot that can be learned from these communities, and they bring up so many questions for me about our practices and theology; questions I think that are worth asking and wrestling with together.
In Body and Spirit,
P.S. If you have time, I recommend watching this video of Greg Glassman, CEO of CrossFit, speaking at Harvard Divinity School in November about about the connection his organization has to finding meaningful communities outside of the church. Also, I highly recommend Stephanie Paulsell’s book, “Honoring the Body.” I also recommend e-mailing me at