Church of CrossFit (10): CrossFit and the Cross

In my previous post I wrote that CrossFit is often accused of elitism, and I concluded that it was guilty.  Its mission of “forging elite fitness” has indeed led its adherents to elitism.  In other words, they truly believe that they are training the most well-rounded, fittest human beings on earth.

I argued that elitism is a natural and necessary part of life.  But does elitism have to be synonymous with pride?  I asked, is it possible to embrace something that’s true in a way that doesn’t lead to a superiority complex?  Is it possible to be elitist and yet not look down at the people who don’t see things the way that you do?  That’s what I’d like to explore in this post.

[Fair warning: I know that not everyone who reads this blog is a follower of Jesus, just like not everyone is a CrossFitter.  That’s where I’m coming from, however, and I hope that I at least can help you understand what resources the Christian faith gives for holding “elitist” views with as much humility as possible.]

The funny thing is, the longer I do CrossFit, the more humbled I am.  Don’t get me wrong, I am blown away by the results.  But every workout kicks my butt, leaves me on my back, makes me think about how much farther I have to go.

And I’m thinking that’s the point: to crush my sense of superiority and sufficiency and to train myself to become somebody worth being.  Maybe that’s why I like CrossFit – it somehow humbles me and encourages me at the same time.

But if I’m not careful, something that ought to produce humility actually engenders pride.

Like almost anything else, CrossFit can become a functional Savior – it can become  one more thing to add to our image, one more fix to patch up our insecurity, one more argument to justify ourselves, to tell ourselves that we matter, to define our identities over against the “un-enlightened ones”.

“Thank God I’m  not like those Globo-gym idiots at XSport!”

The problem with most of our functional Saviors is that they engender despair when we fail (“I am worthless”) and arrogant superiority when we succeed (“you are worthless.”)

I think the same thing is true when we replace Jesus with religion.  Something that is supposed to produce humility actually leads us to pride.

“Thank God I’m not like those __________!” (Pagans, Democrats, Republicans, etc. Fill in the blank with your favorite group to feel superior towards.)

What bothers me most about Christianity is not the elitism of our doctrine.  Everyone is elitist at the end of the day.  Everyone’s a fundamentalist, we just have different fundamentals.

What bothers me is the fact that our doctrine has often led us to disdain for those not like us – even while the Scriptures say that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

What bothers me is the attitude of arrogance and superiority that we often wear like a badge, even while the Scriptures say that we are justified not because we are smarter or better than anyone else, but simply because of God’s undeserved kindness.

It’s the sneering rhetoric that we celebrate(!) on talk radio shows while affirming our belief that we are so bad that God had to come himself to bleed for us.

One of the things I love about the writings of Paul in the New Testament is he is always pointing out how Jesus destroys any ground we might have for boasting about how good we are, or for feeling superior to anyone else.

The Cross humbles us – because Jesus had to die for us, that’s how deeply flawed we are –  AND gives us confidence – because Jesus was glad to die for us, that’s how deeply loved we are.

Humility and Confidence.  Openness and Elitism.

CrossFit helps me with this during my workouts.

The Cross does it for my entire life.

Question: Any final thoughts or questions on CrossFit, or what I’ve written during the series?


Church of CrossFit (9): CrossFit Cult?

Up until this point, I’ve been examining CrossFit from a very positive light.  Is there a dark side as well?  Some in the fitness community say yes.  When I called XSport to cancel my membership, the lady on the phone said, “Oh, yeah my brother does CrossFit.  That’s like a cult.  So you’re drinking the kool-aid too, huh?”

The XSport lady isn’t alone; just type “CrossFit” and “cult” into Google.  Why the backlash? That’s what I’d like to explore in this post.

Well, some CrossFitters wear the “cult” moniker like a badge of pride. They talk joyfully about “drinking the kool-aid”; one popular site is actually called Gym Jones (a play on the name of the infamous cult leader who had his followers drink cyanide-laced kool-aid). The CrossFit in Melbourne, Australia actually calls its gym “CrossFit Cult.”

Other CrossFitters are defensive when it comes to the accusation.  Greg Glassman, the alleged charismatic leader himself, rejects it outright: “We don’t care if you come, we don’t care if you leave, how is that a cult?”

How indeed.  Is CrossFit a cult?  Well, cults usually have a charismatic leader and brainwashed followers.  Check. They usually engage in practices considered strange by the mainstream – a departure from accepted orthodoxy. Check.  But at their worst, there is usually not only groupthink but manipulation and exploitation going on.  Check?  Ok, maybe not.

So where does the name-calling come from?  In my opinion, the main thing that puts CrossFitters under fire is the attitude of exclusivism, superiority and arrogance that some CrossFitters exude.

This attitude comes out in sneering disdain about the mindless Globo-gym members.  It comes out in sarcastic disparagement for any other workout philosophy, including other high intensity programs like P90X or Insanity.  CrossFitters are quick to point out where each of these programs is missing the point and why CrossFit is smarter and better.

Of course, when your slogan is “forging elite fitness”, how can you avoid the accusation of elitism and exclusivism? Do you even want to?

Let’s be honest.  Some fitness trends should only produce satire.  The shake weight.  Forearm curls. Reading a book while pedaling a stationary bike.  When something is stupid, sometimes the right thing to do is to laugh.

And isn’t elitism necessary, especially when what you are being elite about is actually the truth?   Isn’t some music is just better than other music? (Should we accuse American Idol of elitism?)  Isn’t some food just better than other food, whether in terms of health and taste?  Should we disband the “special” forces for making ordinary servicemen feel, well, ordinary?

You get my point.  Elitism is inevitable.  This is the case whether you are talking about workout routines or worldviews.

But here’s the real question I’m after:

Is it possible to embrace something that’s true in a way that doesn’t lead to a superiority complex?

Is it possible to be elitist and yet profoundly humbled by what you’ve found?

I think that it is.  And that’s Friday’s post.

Question: What are you elitist about?

Friday: Church of CrossFit (10): CrossFit and the Cross

Church of Crossfit (8): Invisible, Universal, Online

The center of the CrossFit world is invisible, yet it connects CrossFitters and CrossFit churches all over the world.  Today’s post will investigate the Mecca of the CrossFit movement, the CrossFit HQ main site:

The focus of the site is a sort of Daily Office for fitness, the daily WODS (workout of the day).  The WOD is posted every day, along with times/loads of notable CrossFitters and instructional videos showing proper form.  Anyone with the necessary equipment can join in the workout, and then post the results to the comment section.  This allows people who live too far from a CrossFit gym to feel a sense of connectedness to the community.

This was how CrossFit began: Greg Glassman posting his workouts online.  Over ten years later, daily posting continues.  But now there are many other extras on the site.

There is a link to the CrossFit journal, an online Bible of CrossFit wisdom.  There are links to all of the CrossFit “churches” (affiliates) throughout the U.S. and beyond.  There are links to certification courses, through which serious CrossFitters can become ordained CrossFit trainers.  There is even Children’s Ministry (CrossFit Kids)!

One sidebar announces regional events and competitions, the chief of which is the annual CrossFit Games (now sponsored by Reebok!), the annual competition that crowns the “Fittest on Earth.”

CrossFit has enjoyed a warm reception by the Armed Forces, and so there is a strong military presence on the site: WODs named after fallen heroes, pictures of special forces doing CrossFit, and endorsements by servicemen worldwide.

Interestingly, there is also a daily link to something seemingly unrelated to fitness: an article from the Atlantic, a poem by John Milton, a violin Concerto by Brahms.

The fact that a site devoted to “forging elite fitness” has so much to offer beyond traditional fitness suggests that they have redefined “fitness” to include much more holistic concerns.

In other words, CrossFit HQ is forging a habitus, a way of living in this world.  And all over the world, despite geographic separation, thousands of people are logging in to participate in this way of life together.

There is something transcendent about knowing that a guy in India and I both did the same workout this morning. (There is a CrossFit affiliate at an orphanage outside of Haridwar, India.)

In the church world, the value of this kind of connection is inestimable.  The movement of Jesus isn’t about my individual church, but about the larger, worldwide body of Christ.  We have spiritual practices, particular ways of living in the world. These unite us.

There is something transcendent about knowing that a guy in India and I both woke up this morning and prayed to the One who makes us brothers.  There is something about knowing that at this moment, believers in Chicago and Chile are trying to live a life of faith, love and hope – in the face of unfaithfulness, lovelessness and despair.

We participate in His movement locally, but the movement is anything but provincial.

Every tribe, every language, every nation is invited and included.

And Jesus makes us one.

Question: When did you first realize the “bigness” of the Church?

Wednesday: Church of Crossfit (9): CrossFit Cult?

Church of Crossfit (6): “Filtering for Character”

So far I have been arguing that CrossFit functions like a church.  But up until now, I have only focused on the vibrant sense of community that sustains that members.  In this post, I’d like to take it a step further and argue that CrossFit is actually interested in more than just elite fitness.  They are interested in character formation, in forming people who can better navigate and serve the world.

I take this thesis from a quote by none other than Greg Glassman, who founded the first CrossFit gym in 1995.  As the Godfather of the movement, he says: “We’re forging elite fitness, but we’re filtering for character.” In other words, he is hoping that CrossFit produces a certain kind of individual.

The sentiment is echoed and expanded by Lisbeth Darsh, Director of Social Media for CrossFit, Inc.  She quotes Glassman and then applies the quote to would-be CrossFitters:

If you enter and leave your CrossFit affiliate and you don’t say hi or good-bye to anyone, guess what? You might as well go to the globo-gym and zone out. You’re missing half the point here…. It’s not enough to be a character in CrossFit, you need to have character. Integrity, honor, respect: these things matter here. If you don’t have them for yourself and for others, then don’t cross my threshold: I don’t want you. Find your own community that does not require these things. But if you have a good heart and an open mind? Come on in…. You’re one of us.

In another post she writes that the secret to success is realizing that life is not about making the world more useful to you, but making yourself more useful to the world.  CrossFit, she argues, “helps you to be of more use to this world.”

In the minds of Glassman, Darsh and others like them, CrossFit’s purpose does not terminate on cultivating world-class athletes, but world-class people – people who actually have something to offer the world.

This is what I mean when I say that CrossFit provides religious significance:  it offers its adherents a larger purpose and fills ordinary actions with meaning.  Simple exercises like a pull-up or burpee take on added significance when you believe they increase not only your muscle mass, or even your overall health, but your capacity to serve something greater than yourself.

It makes me wonder if people going to churches every Sunday have a similar perspective.   Are they going to put in their time, to put a tip in the offering plate, to have their weekly religious experience?  Are they working on a religious image, helping themselves to feel superior to people who didn’t go to church?  Are they just doing religious bicep curls?

Or are they looking for truth?  Are they hoping to be a part of a group of people who, when they walk together end up experiencing deep character formation?  Are they longing to receive power and hope so that they can actually give something to the world?

Question: I am nearing the end of the series: I have 3 more posts planned.  Any aspect of the CrossFit phenomenon you’d like me to comment on?

Wednesday: Church of Crossfit (7): Heroes and Saints 


Church of Crossfit (5): “Invite Your Friends to Experience Our Community”

As I mentioned in a previous post, the core value of “community”  is one of the things that makes a Crossfit workout unique.  As a pastor who is working at fostering organic and authentic communities of faith, it’s that value that I’d like to explore in this post.

Working out together is nothing new.  After all, XSport and the other big boxes offer group classes as part of the package.  What distinguishes Crossfit, however, is the fact that camaraderie is part of the essential DNA.  Even when a person does a workout alone, there is usually participation in virtual community via the Internet, a sort of invisible, universal Crossfit church.  (We’ll look at this next week). For Crossfitters, an essential part of pursuing elite fitness is sharing that journey with others.

When I showed up for my first few classes, the other members noticed me, took the time to introduce themselves, and seemed excited that I was going to be a part of their fellowship.  I thought to myself, “So this is how a new visitor feels when they come to church for the first time.”  Or at least, I hope this is how they feel.

During workouts, everyone cheers for each other.  When you are finished, high fives or fist bumps all around, even if you are lying on the floor.  It’s just the way workouts are done.

Most of the people in my gym see each other 4-7 times per week.  They participate in races and competitions together.  They are even talking about joining a softball league this summer.

When not physically together, there is pretty active chatter on the gym’s daily blog.  Today, for example, people told stories about the longest they’ve ever gone without a shower.  As several of the members began to share past adventures, one guy in particular talked about being homeless in New Mexico and taking baths in the Rio Grande.  The whole exchange prompted one person to write:

Indeed, the community is what it’s all about.  There is even a sign hanging the gym that says, “Invite Your Friends to Experience Our Community.”  Not, “invite your friends to come and get buff,” or even “invite your friends to learn how to work out the right way.”  Invite them to experience our community.

In other words, belonging comes before body-building.  There will be standards and expectations later.  But for now, come and see what’s it’s like to be a part of our tribe.

There is something compelling about a community where you are welcomed just for showing up, where every lame lurch forward is celebrated, where there is space to belong even as you learn a new rhythm of life.

I don’t want to say that a church is supposed to be like a Crossfit gym.  But we could do worse.

We could be like XSport.

Question: What is the closest community you have been a part of?

Monday: Church of Crossfit (6): “Filtering for Character”

Church of Crossfit (3): Stop Doing Bicep Curls

One of the first things Scott told me was that we would never do anything like bicep curls, one of the most common workout techniques to give a person big arms.  The reason?  That exercise isn’t functional; you never do an isolated curl in your everyday life or sports.  The only reason why a person does bicep curls is because they want to look good. Emphasis on the word “look”.

This is one of the reasons I am attracted to Crossfit: it’s functional and not expressly image-focused.  Most guys who go to the gym only workout their biceps, chest and abs.  Why?  Because these are the muscles you want to show off when you take off your shirt. (Haven’t we all known people with a massive upper body and chicken legs?)

The truth is, a big upper body can be a decoy.  Having an out-of-proportion upper body won’t really make you that much better at performing everyday tasks and can actually inhibit performance in a lot of sports.

In a society that is so image-focused, it was refreshing to discover a workout philosophy that concentrates on all around fitness first.  “Looking good” is simply a byproduct of good fitness rather than the ultimate goal.  Perhaps it is an indication that people are looking for deep fitness, something beyond the facade.

I tell my students all the time that there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look good.  The problem is that for most of us it has become too important – an obsession, an idol.  Culture tells young men that abs and biceps make the man, and so millions of young men go to gyms and stand in front of mirrors, worshipping. This is the way they know who they are, that they know they matter.  Bicep curls.

Our problem is that we take secondary things and make them primary things.  In workout world, looking good is a secondary thing and actually being healthy and fit is primary.  When we take looking good and make it a primary thing, the result is that our fitness is a mirage.

When we do this in the larger world – take secondary things and make them primary -the result is that our identity becomes a mirage as well.   Beyond the surface level, we don’t know who we are or what the heck we’re supposed to be doing. But we keep doing bicep curls.

C.S. Lewis writes that if we let primary things have their place, we get secondary things thrown in.  When we aim for secondary things, we get neither.

Simple lesson: Is looking good the goal, or the byproduct of something else more important?  Apply it to how you dress, how you do your job, how you present yourself in front of people.  What’s the goal?  Image is nothing, and it’s not enough.

For all our fascination with the superficial, somewhere in the soul, humanity craves depth.

Here’s to making primary things primary.

Wednesday: Church of Crossfit (4): The Local Crossfit Church

Question: Any funny stories about people consumed with their image?

Church of Crossfit (2): The Seeker-Sensitive Gym

For the sake of context, I should probably begin by describing my experiences at the big gym that I joined.  XSport fitness is a 24-hour one-stop fitness shop.  Crossfitters call gyms “boxes” and the large gyms “big boxes”, or more disdainfully, “Globo-gym” (after the hilarious depiction of Ben Stiller’s gym in the movie Dodgeball).

As you walk into XSport, you realize that this gym has been designed to anticipate and meet your needs.  Want to pump iron?  We’ve got every kind of machine imaginable.  Want to swim?  We’ve got a salt-water pool.  Want to ball? We’ve got a court with six hoops.  Want to be outdoorsy?  We’ve got a climbing wall where you can self-belay.  Want to just hang out?  We’ve got an Internet cafe that serves “healthy” recovery shakes. Got kids?  We’ve got a daycare.  Need to clean up? We’ve got showers, a sauna and as many towels as you could want.  There’s not even a need to miss your favorite shows: we have 300 televisions, since every treadmill, elliptical, rowing machine and stair-master has a personal flatscreen.

Their marketing slogan: “We’re All About You.”

Upon further examination, however, you begin to wonder if this is actually the case.

The base price to join the gym is low ($35/month), but there are all kinds of extras to add on if you need them (and you need them).  They work hard to get you involved in their programs that increase their sales: personal training, tanning, massage therapy.  They give you a “free fitness evaluation” which is designed to show you how out of shape you are before recommending 20-150 sessions at $50-80 each.  They push hard to get you to buy the PT sessions, buy supplements and an expensive heart rate monitor.

Ironically, they also have promotional days when they bring in a bunch of free junk food, as a gift to all their members.  I asked Scott what this was about, and he said, “These are the days that we try to increase our sales by getting people to eat crap.  If I see you go anywhere near it I will kill you.”

Not wanting to be killed any more than he was already killing me, I didn’t go anywhere near the food.  But it made me think that maybe this gym didn’t care as much about my fitness as my money.  They are less concerned with building my body and more concerned with building their brand.

XSport is like a mega-church for fitness.  It is a gym built with the consumer in mind.  It begins by asking, “what do the people want?” rather than “what do the people need?” There is a huge difference between the two.

In the world of fitness, people wants options: they wants to feel good about working out without paying too much of a physical price.  But what most people need is a program that will actually challenge them and force them to get healthy and fit.  We need truth, discipline, and purpose, not coddling and Krispy Kreme.

In the larger world the same is true.  We want comfortable self-help with lots of options.  We want results without paying the price.

But we need something far more painful.  We actually need to change.

Monday: Church of Crossfit (3): Stop Doing Bicep Curls

Question: Any stories about joining a gym?