(This is a guest post by Seth Yelorda)
Screams of exhaustion accompanied by unresponsive bodies strewn across the floor is hardly what you’d expect to see at a workout facility, and yet this is exactly what you’ll find in one of the fastest growing sports in the world. I was first introduced to Crossfit ten months ago by my sister-in-law who was a recent convert to the sport herself. With much reservation, I gave it a shot, and ten months later I haven’t looked back.
If you’re not familiar with Crossfit, it’s essentially a strength and conditioning program consisting of aerobic exercise, calisthenics, and Olympic weightlifting. Classes are an hour-long and they generally include a warm-up, a skill development segment, the high-intensity “workout of the day” (or WOD), and a period stretching. Performance on each WOD is often scored and ranked to encourage competition and to track individual progress. Each class will leave you thoroughly exhausted, extremely sore, and eager to come back the next day.
But greater than what Crossfit is, is what Crossfit creates. When you step into a Crossfit box you won’t find the latest elaborate workout machines or wall-to-wall mirrors. What you will find are kettlebells, gymnastic rings, pull-up bars, rowers, barbells, and a coach. Yet despite such simplicity, something is happening in Crossfit boxes around the world that is leading to this sport’s explosive growth.
The first Crossfit affiliate gym (or “box” as they call it) was in 2000. Fifteen years later, there are nearly 13,000 affiliates boxes worldwide. In terms of actual membership, in 2011 about 26,000 people signed up for Crossfit’s annual five-week, online competition open to all Crossfit athletes worldwide. In 2015, the number of people signed up was over 272,000. That’s an increase of 946% in just 5 years!
If Crossfit were a church plant it would be the fastest growing church in history. Outpacing the 1st-century church in Acts 2, Crossfit will be on track to crack the one million member mark in less than 30 years after its conception. In comparison, it has taken the Adventist church in North America roughly 150 years to reach one million members.
So how is it that an organization that offers nothing more than an intense exercise routine can experience such monumental growth while the North American church is growing at a staggeringly slow rate of 1% a year?
It didn’t take long for me to understand that it was the Crossfit culture that is leading to its monumental growth. Specifically, there are three elements of this culture that keep people coming back, despite wanting to vomit at the end of each WOD.
1) Crossfit is a place of unconditional acceptance. My first experience at a Crossfit box shattered all the myths I had previously formed about it. It wasn’t a place where the sons and daughters of Zeus gathered to compare their rock hard abs, sculpted legs, and chiseled bodies. Rather, I encountered a place filled with people of all different shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities. Tall, short, skinny, plump, old, young, white, black, brown… every size and age imaginable were there. Even more startling was that everyone was accepted. There was no judgment and no shaming. If an exercise program was too difficult for someone the coach eagerly modified it and encouraged them to only do what they could. You weren’t browbeaten for not looking a certain way or for giving up before the workout was over. You were accepted just as you were.
It’s this gospel truth of unconditional acceptance that creates an environment for transformation to take place. Further, it’s this environment of acceptance that allows people to feel comfortable coming and even more comfortable inviting their friends.
2) Crossfit is a place of unconditional encouragement. Crossfit is built upon a culture of unconditional encouragement. No matter where you are in the workout or how badly you’re failing, you will readily find a chorus of fellow sufferers and coaches encouraging you along the way. Whether you’re in the middle of a 400-meter run, or suffering through a front squat routine, it’s typical to hear your name called out followed by cheers of encouragement. In fact, it’s this encouragement that so often fuels you to finish the workout when all you really want to do is give up. This encouragement is so invigorating that you are compelled to return it without hesitation.
Having served as a pastor for over ten years, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been a part of an experience where there was unconditional encouragement. Yet, I’m convinced that people are desperately longing for an environment where they will be surrounded by shouts of “you can do it!” no matter how bad they’re failing. And many are finding this environment at Crossfit. No one laughs at you when you fail nor scoffs when you struggle. In fact, it’s this motivation that empowers you to push harder, run faster, lift heavier, and squat deeper than you thought yourself capable.
3) Crossfit is a place of continual accountability. One of my greatest challenges with working out at a traditional gym was the lack of accountability. No one called me out if I didn’t finish a set or pushed me when I felt lazy. Crossfit has created a culture where, though you are accepted and encouraged, you are also held accountable. The coaches are not simply cheerleaders. When you’re faced with the temptation to quit they are there to push you to go harder.
This accountability looks like experienced members sharing tips with you on how to perform better, coaches not letting you casually waltz through a workout, and even receiving phone calls or texts from teammates if they haven’t seen you in a while. This nonjudgmental accountability is received without recourse because of the culture created by unconditional acceptance and encouragement.
As you can imagine my experience with Crossfit has highlighted the gaps many people experience in the church and the opportunity the church has to create a safe environment for transformation to take place. It has also led me to wonder if our lack of growth in North America is a result of failing to create this type of culture.
So what about you?
What impact would our churches really have if they, like Crossfit, had a culture of unconditional acceptance, unconditional encouragement, and continual accountability? How many would eagerly join our fellowships if this was their experience? What great difference would the church make in this world if it was characterized by a Crossfit mentality?
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[image by Runar Eilertsen]