For some, March Madness isn’t on television screens and basketball courts, as it is on sweat-stained rubber mats, lines of pull-up bars and racks of barbells. This week marks the end of the CrossFit Games Open — a five-week competition that allows accountants and nurses, lawyers and middle managers to test their bodies against the fittest people on earth. The workouts are a particular form of madness to the uninitiated. But more than 2 million worldwide have embraced the mixture of Olympic weightlifting, hard sprints and gymnastics that make up the sport of CrossFit.

CrossFit, for all its popularity or perhaps because of it, has had a slew of detractors. Many critics scrutinize its rigorous methods. Others worry about the semi-religious fervor devotees seem to bring to the sport. “CrossFit is a cult,” someone might say. Or, “CrossFit is a religion.” The accusations are understandable for those who have had a friend or relative become a regular member of a box (CrossFit parlance for a gym). There’s a kind of dedication, a gleam in the eye that many don’t find in a weekly Zumba class.

Many CrossFitters have embraced the criticism. A CrossFit box in Connecticut calls itself “CrossFit Religion” with the motto “In WOD we Trust,” referring to the Workout of the Day that is the foundation of the practice of CrossFit. But J.C. Herz, author of “Learning to Breathe Fire: The Rise of CrossFit and the Primal Future of Fitness,” says that she would class CrossFit as “spiritual but not religious,” similar to yoga. But while many yoga instructors tend to focus more on calming the mind and body, Herz says that CrossFit is spiritual in that every workout asks you to dig deeply.

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In an age where many are opting out of organized religion, CrossFit provides a rare place of community and holistic transformation. It may not be religious institutionally, but CrossFit does a better job than many religious communities in transforming people’s lives. It may seem strange for what is essentially a fitness program, but CrossFit involves an identity shift that carries over into life well beyond the gym. “CrossFit starts with an identity shift off the bat: You become an athlete,” Herz says. “Not just a lady who doesn’t like her thighs or a guy trying to lose the spare tire but an athlete.”

The move beyond the narcissism of “exercise” draws people out of a focus on themselves and toward something else. When people start CrossFit, Hertz says, they start thinking about what their bodies can achieve and stop focusing on their perceived physical flaws. “They start eating for performance, which is about getting the nutrients that you need versus the passion play of self-denial,” Herz says.

Even many who have a deep love and commitment to organized religion have found CrossFit a place of transformation. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and Crossfit Open competitor, told me that people embrace the sport because it represents something unique.

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“CrossFit is asking people to draw on something that the rest of the world isn’t asking them to access, and you feel more human when you do that,” she said. “People show up without any evangelism committee trying to get come up with ways to get them there.” People willingly join a box, work hard and pay several times the regular gym membership fee. Bolz-Weber cites “real transformation.” Why doesn’t that happen in many churches?

I am a seminary student on the ordination track in the Episcopal Church. I believe in the Christian church, and I’ve seen lives change there. I’ve also been a part of CrossFit boxes, learned to snatch a barbell above my head and worked out so hard that I felt like I was going to vomit afterward (and sometimes did). The thing that I found in CrossFit that is unfortunately rare in churches is the willingness to ask people to do hard things because the coaches know — more than you know yourself — that you can do more. CrossFit is nothing if not demanding, and those who stick with it long enough, working through the pain side by side with others, will be transformed.

Christianity, and a good number of other faiths, has a lot of language about change through suffering for something more, dying to be reborn, taking up your cross daily as the only path to rise again. But many churches seem afraid to ask someone to do so much as commit to baptism before taking part in the sacred meal of communion. And while CrossFit grows, religious commitment falters.

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Religion can learn some important things from CrossFit, even while faith holds onto something deeper than any WOD can achieve. CrossFit appeals to the elite, those who can spend a modest car payment to participate in a fitness program. CrossFit is a place for the strong to get stronger. It calls humanity to its heights, though  I’m not sure CrossFit has much to offer us in our deepest brokenness. And of course, that is more than one should expect from a workout, however transformative. CrossFit is not actually a religion, after all.

“At church you have the lost, the last and the lonely,” Bolz-Weber says. “These are broken people, not the shiny, high functioning people at CrossFit.” We are all both broken sinners and aspiring saints, and the church, for all its faults, does better than any other organization at encompassing both sides of ourselves and drawing us not only to self transcendence but to true transcendence.

A CrossFit WOD is good and hard and teaches me how to push my limits. But Sunday morning I sit in the pews, pray the prayers, sing the songs, eat the bread and drink the wine. I worship alongside the mentally ill woman who is too paranoid to get help, the homeless man who smells so bad that newcomers shuffle away, the mother who is just making it through each day, the man unsatisfied in a career he’s spent the best years of his life achieving. Together we are all called to love God and love our neighbor, and in that we are called to something harder than any CrossFit coach can yell in our ear.

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If you want to challenge your mind and body, go join a box, jump into a WOD. If you want to join the slow, hard, prodding march toward a new humanity, join a church and put your shoulder to the hard work of love.

Interested in more religion stories? Read more from Acts of Faith:

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