Fewer Millennials are going to church these days. So where are they finding alternative sources of community?
The obvious answer is the internet: many of us rely on social media for camaraderie and connection, to catch up with friends both new and old, near and far. “[Y]oung people are both more globally connected and more locally isolated than ever before,” Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston wrote in their 2015 report “How We Gather.”
The two researchers also observed that Millennials are increasingly gathering outside of conventional spaces, finding their own rhythms and means of association outside of expected venues, such as churches.
One of those unconventional means of community is the gym, and specifically Crossfit and Soulcycle centers. Tara Isabella Burton interviewed Casper ter Kuile for Vox this past week and talked to him about the religious appeal of these organizations. His comments are worth quoting at length:
People come because they want to lose weight or gain muscle strength, but they stay for the community. It’s really the relationships that keep them coming back.
That need for community was something that was so strong in our research. People were longing for relationships that have meaning and the experience of belonging rather than just surface-level relationships. Going through an experience that tests you to your limits, especially if you’re doing partner or team-based fitness routines, there’s an inevitable bonding that comes from experiencing hardship together.…
Ritual is so much about intention and attention and repetition. One of my favorite things to think about with CrossFit is—Christian congregations will say the Lord’s Prayer at the same time every week. And here you have these workouts of the day named “the Angie,” or whatever it is, and you have communities all over the world, thousands and thousands of people, doing that same ritual motion. …Ritual gives us a rhythm in a world where we’ve lost so many of the traditional markers of time. We no longer have a harvest calendar. A “9 to 5” [job] no longer really exists. So much of our life is completely independent of the natural world around us, and ritual is about bringing part of that rhythm [back].
While many Christians (and other religious adherents) are likely to roll their eyes at someone who says “CrossFit is my church,” or “SoulCycle is like my cult,” it’s worth considering the ways our religious organizations have failed these young people and pushed them into the arms of athletic associations that are better fulfilling their needs. In pointing out the ritualistic rhythm, vulnerability, accountability, and community available at CrossFit and SoulCycle classes, ter Kuile hints at the fact that many Millennials are not receiving these same benefits at church.
Over the past century or two, American churches have gotten larger, less ritualistic, and more consumptive—moving away from the very things that CrossFit and SoulCycle adherents seem to enjoy in their workout communities. Megachurches often employ smoke machines during worship time and serve fancy lattes in their coffee shops: they have the trappings of cultural “coolness” and youth. But congregants flock in and out of services with little to no real connection to other members. Without accountability in the form of a smaller church service or vibrant community group, there is nothing holding young people there and no one to notice if they decide to stop attending.
Meanwhile, outside of the high church (which I would argue more and more Millennials are tending toward), few churches offer liturgical rhythm or ritual during their services. This can be a disservice to those who crave order and meaning in a disenchanted, patternless world. Much like AA meetings, the vulnerability and “rawness” required by CrossFit and other workout programs enables members to connect. But it’s also important that these athletically focused organizations foster storylines that members can adhere to. This is what the Gospel (and liturgy) has traditionally represented for Christians: a teleological narrative that gives meaning and purpose to our days. Workout classes often do the same thing, albeit in a less holistic and more physical way: they encourage adherents to make goals for weight loss, muscle gain, or other forms of wellness. Working out enables adherents to identify a “before” and “after” in their lives. Their progress through an athletic class often gives them a “testimony” that they can share with outsiders.
In many ways, CrossFit is the perfect religion for our individualistic age, because it is not “spiritual” at all. It focuses on the transformation of the tangible and quantifiable outward self. In today’s world, we can understand submitting ourselves to a given order, ritual, or vulnerability in order to sculpt our bodies. But soul submission and soul growth are much harder for moderns to comprehend.
CrossFit or SoulCycle religiosity are not all bad. They are certainly better forms of communion than Facebook and Twitter. But as Burton notes at the beginning of her article, they are also more exclusive—usually enjoyed by the wealthy more so than by lower-income Americans. They are also more individualistic and age-specific: a workout is something we might do with a spouse or a friend, but kids generally get sent to daycare in the gym. At church, even where there are nurseries and Sunday schools, children are still seen as part of the family (and in liturgical churches, children are often present for much of the service with their parents). Gyms may offer a form of community, but they are not as likely to be holistic, multi-generational, or lifelong.
Churches are meant to fight segregation and judgment, pushing us to live and worship with our “neighbors,” as Jesus defined the term in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But of course, the church has often failed at this, as racism, elitism, and self-selection are vices the human race has grappled with for millennia. New forms of association—even gyms—will be prone to the same problems.
Our larger craving for community and meaning is never going to go away. CrossFit will not give Millennials a deeper sense of telos or spiritual comfort. But in an internet-addicted age, perhaps it will kickstart young people’s journey away from smartphones and Facebook in search of something more. And—just as importantly—perhaps churches will look to CrossFit and see the ways they have failed their youth—and foster some reformations of their own.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.