Why My CrossFit Box Is Like A Church, Not A Cult

One of the comments I hear often when someone finds out I started CrossFit goes something like, “Oh no! Don’t become like one of them. It’s a cult!” This is usually (though not always) said with a smile, but there’s a furtive plea in there. I don’t think it’s a cult (though there may be gyms that are). I think it’s like the church. In many ways, it’s what I’d like my new church – City Presbyterian – to be.

I started working out in January. I’d actually stopped by the gym the summer beforehand because I’d wondered about it. I’ve done a ton of things to try to stay fit – most recently racquetball, running and even yoga. I felt burned out and I needed a change, but CrossFit seemed way beyond any level of exercising that I’d done. And – CrossFit people seem crazy. I know. I poked my head in and just kept thinking about it for those six months. Finally I just said, whatever the cost it’s better than what I’m doing now (nothing), so I’ll just give it a whirl and see what happens. If I hate it, I can quit.

I picked the closest most convenient one that I’d heard good things about – CrossFit405 – and signed up for the on-ramp course. It was filled because of New Year’s Resolutions like mine, and I looked around and felt pretty good about myself. I’d run marathons! That was quickly dispelled by the baseline workout at the end: 50 mountain climbers, 40 air squats, 30 sit ups, 20 push ups and 10 burpees. That took me over 11 minutes, which was fine but I was the last person done by a long shot. Hm, I had work to do.

I’ve been going for over six months now. Last week I went every day of the week. I can tell I’m getting stronger and fitter. I am also getting more flexible. I’m making friends nag and meeting people. I’m inviting others to join me. My wife and three of my kids have started coming which is awesome. I’m eating differently because my appetite has changed. I’m never bored because every day is different.

CrossFit Welcomes Sinners – The whole thing is that you don’t have to be able to do it. There are crazy strong people there, but there are people of all shapes, sizes and abilities. It doesn’t matter if you can’t do something – there is something you can do. It’s all scale-able. What I’ve seen is that the strongest people are the most helpful ones to and for the least strong. They want everyone to keep showing up and it all adds up over time.

I want City Pres and the church to welcome sinners. No one has his or her act together. No one is strong or mighty. We all need help. If you walk in, you may feel intimidated but we want you to know that we’re just idiots a little further along and we want you to show up and join us in the walk. There is something you can do, but most of all we’re just glad you came to join us no matter what your story is and has been before you got here. We need you to make us better. We’re for you.

CrossFit Lets You Decide – There is a schedule and a WOD (Workout of the Day). There are coaches and regimens. There are payment plans and different levels to choose from. You can go paleo or buy recovery powders. You can opt out for a week or opt out of a workout that you don’t like or change a movement. I haven’t felt any pressure to do any of those things. I think that’s because Aaron and the coaches do a great job of helping without selling. Some of it can feel pretty intimidating when you start. There aren’t many of us that just show up knowing how to do double unders, overhead squats and wall walks. But – you can learn.

We’re doing things in our church. Some of these are church-wide and some can be just for you. We meet at certain times all together. We have CityGroups. We have prayers that we read and songs we sing and men’s breakfasts and women’s dinners and… you can choose to do any or all or none of these. We have a normal structure that may be unfamiliar to you. We have prayers we pray – you can learn them. We have songs we sing – you can learn them. We have a way the service goes – you can learn it. Just keep showing up and it will make sense. Ask questions. Pull someone aside and ask for help.

CrossFit Is A Community – This is something you can notice rather quickly – these people like each other. That’s one of the things that’s attractive to me about it. I don’t want to just go to the Y and bang out an hour on the elliptical, but you might. At CrossFit, when you start showing up to the 4:30 class, there is a regular crew that also tends to show up then. You say hi. You ask how long she’s been coming. You find out he’s a law student. You discover she’s a single mom. You learn he’s an architect. He tells you he’s gay. She comments that she’s been having a hard time at work. They find out you’re a _________ (pastor shhh). He owns a restaurant. She wants to get stronger. He hates burpees. When you miss a day or a week, someone will ask where you’ve been. When you gut out a long work out, you get a satisfied fist bump no matter what your time was. You start to see someone out “in public” and give a knowing wink that you had both left it all in a pool of sweat the day before. You slowly know that this is a big deal – this engagement, this new baby, this new home, this moving away, this weight loss, this teenage son, this…life outside of working out that is the life that matters and the one we’re sharing even as we row 1000 meters. They showed up. They cheered your victory and your pain.

I want City Pres to be a welcoming community that likes each other and one that will invite new people to join in. It can feel pretty intimidating when you enter a community like that. We didn’t all know each other before all of this. We worked to build this church from scratch. We’ve cleaned and dusted together. We’ve set up and cleaned up. We’ve cried and wept. We’ve had to ask each other for forgiveness. We’ve drunk beer and coffee. We’ve stayed late and come early. We’ve sweated and frozen. That’s why we’re friends. Because we’re living this life together and like each other. We’re cheering that same victory and pain – that life outside of worship where a million things happen all the time.

CrossFit Celebrates The Victory IN The Weakness – It is impressive when you watch some of these athletes do their feats of strength. They are physical specimens. Massive arms. Six pack abs. So strong. So fit. So flexible.

But they didn’t just pop out that way one day. I’ve seen them work on it day after day. I’ve seen the tears and determination, and I hope they’ve seen it in me, or that they will. I know I’ve seen improvement already.

The thing is they don’t really have very many times at all where they just line people up and see who is the strongest or fastest or fittest. Yes, there are competitions. But these feel a lot more like workout parties. They want you to try. They want you to see what you can do, and are excited if you did better today than you did yesterday. Or not. It’s okay. What do we need to work on next?

The most moving things I’ve seen in my six months is when someone either learned to do something for the first time or when someone kept going who could have quit. That happens with the “best” and it happens with the “worst.” I’ve been in awe not at muscle ups or bench presses – it’s been the guy who I started with who I know hates this work out but he’s still going even though he has nothing really to gain. You see, it’s his weakness that’s eeking out of every pore. That’s what all of us do every time. We go to the gym to get weaker in the short run. That’s what working out is. But it makes us strong. We have have stronger pecs and hips and quads, but really it’s stronger, bigger, fuller hearts, friendships and a life together in this city.

Christianity is about the weak. Christ overcomes death by dying. He proves his worth and dignity by taking the very nature of a servant (think of his washing the disciples’ feet) and went all the way even to die for his people (Philippians 2). We are strong in Christ. We walk together in his strength and our weakness. I’ve seen so many people not quit. I’ve had so many conversations with people who had every reason to throw it in. I’ve sat and cried with true grief. And that’s what gives me hope that this whole faith is real, this whole church is real and this whole thing is actually worth it.

Thanks to Aaron and the coaches and all those at this gym – new friends. Thanks for treating me well, and for loving my family and making a place for them and for cheering us on. Thanks to all of those who are kind to me. Thanks for teaching me more about Christ and his church. I hope I can be a friend to them like they have been to me. I hope I have something to offer instead of just taking.  (Just don’t tell people I’m a pastor. I want to still be able to cuss at the gym!) 

It’s not a cult. Don’t freak out that I talk about it sometimes on Facebook or in real life. I do that because I like it. I also talk about other things – including my church. You’re invited to hate it, ignore it or participate. Just like the church.

Doug Serven