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The Holy Church of CrossFit

Fewer Millennials are going to church [1] 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 [2].”

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 [3] 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:

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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 [4]), 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 [5], 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 ConservativeThe WeekNational Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "The Holy Church of CrossFit"

#1 Comment By Hound of Ulster On September 16, 2018 @ 11:03 pm

If it’s a choice between low-church Protestant drivel and CrossFit, I’ll take the CrossFit.

#2 Comment By DrivingBy On September 17, 2018 @ 1:05 am

I’m disabled now and can’t walk for half an hour, much less Crossfit. I tried it just once, and it was awesome. Very little equipment, very much energy. Very much wish I could still do that.

#3 Comment By Phillip On September 17, 2018 @ 9:33 am

Why is it that we compare these athletic endeavors to Christianity? Why didn’t you compare it to Islam, or Judaism, or Hinduism? Why does everyone feel free to take shots at Christianity at every opportunity?

#4 Comment By FL Transplant On September 17, 2018 @ 11:04 am

1. I suppose the self-selection that occurs with those who enjoy CrossFit, SoulCycle, Pilates, and other similar exercise programs plays a part, much as it does in churches. Many express interest, some begin, a number drop out, and you’re left with those who now adhere to the activity.

2. The exercise programs you list are all hard-core workouts that all require substantial sacrifice. CrossFit’s known for worrying about rhabdo, newbies will run outside to puke; hard indoor cycling will do much the same (minus the rhabdo, usually). None of them are cheap–you’ll be paying a hundred or more a month. There’s a significant time commitment involved–a couple of hours in total for an exercise session, most days of the week. And, yet, if you work through the pain, suffering, and sacrifice you’ll see change you can be proud of that had to be earned. How many churches offer that for most of their congregation?

3. People are inherently tribal. Today, beyond proclaiming their membership in “Steeler Nation” via a football jersey, how many tribes are there for people to belong to? Work? Not hardly for almost everyone. Community organizations? Dead for almost everyone. Churches? maybe in a small town, but not in a metro area where CrossFit and SoulCycle find their target market. Family? There aren’t many places where there are extended families to be part of–welcome to our mobile society, especially among those in their 20s and 30s where geographic mobility for career–going away to college, then finding your first and subsequent jobs away from where you went to high school–It’s a tribe you can join and if you work at it can become a full member.

#5 Comment By Not Crossfit On September 17, 2018 @ 11:24 am

That pic is not crossfit

#6 Comment By Wellb On September 17, 2018 @ 11:33 am

There is a trainer here who used to say “this is your church” for her Sunday class.

Two thoughts: fitness classes offer a mission. They are intentionally difficult and even dangerous. Injury is not just a possibility but a certainty. Everything church screens out.

2: the people you meet in fitness are more likely to be fit!

#7 Comment By JS On September 17, 2018 @ 12:52 pm

I don’t think it was taking a shot at Christianity. I think it was taking a shot at a culture that has abandoned religion and is seeking something to fill the hole it has left behind even as it claims it has outgrown it.

I spent my youth living an anarchistic, pagan lifestyle. As I began middle age I returned to conservative Judaism and I found intense comfort from the ritual observances and the sense that everyone in the community is participating in the same rituals at the same time. I now feel sorry for my old friends who seem to remain rootless, anxiety ridden, and depressed, constantly seeking relief from therapy, drugs, and superficial facebook “friendships”. They won’t welcome my input so I don’t offer it.

#8 Comment By DRZ On September 17, 2018 @ 2:55 pm

Rule Number One of Fight Club: Nobody talks about Fight Club.

Rule Number One of CrossFit: Nobody ever shuts the hell up about CrossFit.

#9 Comment By Marius On September 17, 2018 @ 3:30 pm

So, I’m a fencer and although I would disagree with the point about a desire for Liturgy, I would say that athletic clubs can offer a sense of community. Our club of swordsmen/women has about 20 active members, out of eighty or so people who pay to be on the rolls, but it meets twice a week with relatively high attendance, it has a drill session and most people in the club have at least a handful of friends that they know only through the club. Its a place where teenagers and adults hold the same rank and treat each other with respect regardless of age and gender. There’s a rank system yes, but its one people can move up based on a willingness to put in effort.

Its also a group made up primarily of outcasts and weirdos, who are pretty accepting of each other as long as everyone remains courteous and treat each other/the art with respect.

#10 Comment By Joseph Caiola On September 17, 2018 @ 4:18 pm

Thank you very much for your article which touches upon many aspects of my own thoughts I have had about society and religion. I am 75 years old and after a long hiatus from my birth faith (Roman Catholicism) from 12 years old to about 60, when I had experimented and pursued a number of different faiths, therapies, philosophical systems, and political beliefs, I have now for the last 15 years or so been returning to Christianity (broadly considered). Of late I have been bringing up the same considerations about the absence of worshipful “spirituality” in religious services (both Catholic and Christian) and in Aikido which I have given up in the last year due to medical reasons. In Aikido where I practiced with an intention toward development of body, mind, and spirit there was the absence of spirituality even though the founder had been an extremely religiously oriented worshiper. While praising him for his skills there were no indications of the values of Aikido above the profane level of techniques, and even some tittering about the old man’s religious obsession.I experience this same lack of spiritual worship and social fellowship now and refer to it as “religion lite” more suited to entertainment with music, coffee and donuts and then everyone parting atomistically to their quotidian conserns.

#11 Comment By Patrick On September 18, 2018 @ 12:01 pm

Why do so many women spend their days running, lifting weights, doing cross fit, or hot yoga?
The simple answer is because chastity is no longer a virtue, and we all want to be virtous.

#12 Comment By Joan from Michigan On September 18, 2018 @ 1:23 pm

The author missed a great chance to go deeper into the way Health has become the new Virtue, not just in the sense that good health is seen as one of the modern virtues but in the sense that healthiness has taken over a great deal of the cultural space that used to be occupied by traditional morality. The language of sin and temptation is used for fattening foods and sedentary amusement. Acts that used to be straightforwardly called wrong or evil are now called unhealthy behaviors. In this context, it makes perfect sense for gyms to fill the social role that churches used to.

Talk about what sort of institution most effectively meets the needs of the younger generation is marketing talk that has bled over from the retail sector. It doesn’t really apply here because this is about what people believe and what they value. Community is downstream from Truth. All the tweaking of liturgical style in the world will get you nowhere with people who don’t believe.

#13 Comment By Myron Hudson On September 19, 2018 @ 2:28 pm

Speaking as a boomer who the church left a while ago, I can sympathize with the younger generation on their not finding meaning or community in what many churches have become. These things drove me and my children away: the noise and spectacle of Christian rock (light metal); video screens all over the place; not a moment of silence from entry to exit; the institutionalized fear of What Is Outside The Church. I speak mostly of the non-denominational and mega churches, but the drift is pervasive. It is impossible to find meaning in any of that. And I find it to be an exhausting experience. Might as well just get a good workout in, among people who share your goals, and support you in your pursuit of them.

#14 Comment By mrscracker On September 19, 2018 @ 2:32 pm

Joan from Michigan says:

“The author missed a great chance to go deeper into the way Health has become the new Virtue, not just in the sense that good health is seen as one of the modern virtues but in the sense that healthiness has taken over a great deal of the cultural space that used to be occupied by traditional morality.”
*******************
Yes.
I guess if one isn’t convicted of a hereafter, this life & this body are all you get. So you turn all your attention to them.

Unfortunately,that can morph into a lack of charity or self righteousness.

A family member shocked me years ago when they questioned how I would still be in close friendship with a neighbor who was quite overweight, drank cokes, etc. The family member had newly embraced holistic health practices & radically changed their diet. So it really was similar to a religious conversion. And my dear neighbor had become something akin to a heathen in their eyes.

I’m actually pretty careful about diet & exercise & attempt a healthy lifestyle but think Christ said it best:

“Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man.”
Matthew 15:11