In the first post of this series, we looked at the history of the relationship of sports and the church.
In the second post of this series, we looked at the demand for commitment and promise of reward from both sports and church.
In the fourth post of this series, we look at the ritual and liturgy implicit in sports and church.
In the fifth post of this series, we look at the celebration of human capability as worship of the ultimate Giver.
“When Hurricane Sandy is heading toward your or your neighbors’ homes, we want to make sure you’re capable, strong enough, and fit enough to pick up a shovel, fill a sandbag, and protect that home from whatever might be coming ahead. That’s what we want for you when you join CrossFit. We want you to be the best possible version of yourself physically with us in community.”
That’s exactly how CrossFit was pitched to me by one of the trainers leading the mandatory introduction “On-Ramp” course for new athletes. As a seminarian at the time, my mouth dropped open in shock. This was familiar language. This was language that I believe, support, and want for others and myself. All kinds of theological bells and whistles were going off deeply inside me. I thought to myself, “So, you’re basically telling me that you want me to be able to love my neighbor as myself for whatever life throws at me by joining this fitness program?” A sports community that wants to prepare people physically to serve others and make them the best possible version of themselves. I found myself thrust into the world of sports and a (surprisingly) youthful community through the fitness program of CrossFit.
Yes, I know I said it. The community of CrossFit. Now, before you stop reading this article let me assure you that this submission is not an evangelistic tool to get you to drink the Kool-Aid and join your nearest CrossFit box (“gym”). But, seriously go sign up because it is incredibly fun! Instead, I want to note that CrossFits around the world have their finger on a pulse for successfully developing communities of youth and young adults. They are not merely good at attracting people to their communities; they are exploding in paid memberships. As a 14+ year youth worker I have been intrigued with the connection between sports and youth ministry especially regarding community development with young people. There’s something here to pay attention to.
This blog series is exploring sports and youth ministry and for the purposes of this entry, community. We’ve been asking the question, “What are sports offering that is attracting people?” This question invites us to delve into what deep needs sports might be meeting for our youth and families. I believe the community of sports can complement our youth ministries and teach us a little about crafting communities of belonging and support. Indulge me as I sprinkle in some of what I have seen some CrossFits do for community building. But, my hope is that we can see how the sports community and church community can complement one another as opposed to compete. So, let’s talk first about the importance of belonging. Specifically, belonging through scalability.
No one wants to be an outsider. We are meant to be with each other (Gen. 2:18)! We are wired to be in relationship with God and one another in community. However, it is often easy to belong to groups or communities who are mostly reflections of ourselves. Is there a key to creating gatherings where people from all backgrounds are attracted to be together? CrossFits have a unique approach. Philosophically, they believe people can belong together in fitness communities, no matter their differences, thanks to scalability. Meaning, all of their programs and experiences are accessible by participants with some adjusting of the intensity. CrossFit founder Greg Glassman explains, “We scale load and intensity; we don’t change programs.” All athletes are doing the same movements together, just at a different pace of scale of intensity. What does that look like practically? Well, it means there could be a group gathered consisting of a paraplegic, parents, grandparents, military, teens, and others who all have unique physical abilities (This was an actual class I experienced, by the way!) requiring different weight lifting limits, longer or shorter times for completing the exercises, and equipment that can be adjusted for strength abilities. Importantly, there is a coach who guides the adjustments through encouragement, movement cues, and watching for safety. The focus on scalability is directly related to the “come as you are” mentality. Now, I want to be clear that physical abilities differ and I understand that there are people who might never be able to CrossFit. However, I want to highlight their hope. CrossFits, like churches, want to be accessible communities of belonging for people to participate in their programs. They drive toward that hope through the means of scalability. As a Christian educator, I love this. Could thinking about scalability help with the deep theological work of creating communities of belonging? What would a scalable youth ministry or program even look like? This could be a great and lively conversation with ministry teams in our churches.
What all athletes in the CrossFit world know is that they have people in their corner even when it appears as though they are failing. What a gift!
Along with belonging, sports communities can become important support systems for youth in addition to church ministry offerings. Not one community over another, but rather both together in support of the youth. As youth ministers, we understand and appreciate the myriad people who represent the cloud of support for our youth — family, pastors, teachers, physicians, coaches, and more. In fact, the more good and faithful people we have in our teens’ lives the better! Youth need a community to cheer for them, remind them of their larger journey, and encourage them to continue on when the going gets tough. CrossFits almost annoyingly have the support feature down to a science for their communities. Even if an athlete does not want to be cheered for, the chances of having people shout words of encouragement and high fiving them is pretty much unavoidable. What all athletes in the CrossFit world know is that they have people in their corner even when it appears as though they are failing. What a gift! Sports communities can add to the number of good and faithful people in youths’ lives enhancing their support system and complementing ministry offerings.
In closing, creating communities of belonging and support in the church requires more than good planning and ministry strategies. It requires us to be prayerful to a God who ultimately has created us to belong to one another and support each other in community. I appreciate CrossFit’s emphasis on scalability as an entry point for community members and I wonder what scalability would look like in youth ministry programs. Uniquely, youth ministries have the opportunity to speak love, blessing, and the grace of Jesus Christ into the lives of our youth. They will not receive that kind of support in sports community, which is why these communities can complement one another as opposed to compete.
Chris Baldwin is a Princeton Theological Seminary graduate (2014) and has served in youth ministry for over 14 years. He currently works in Family Ministry at Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, CA. When not working, Chris loves spending time with his wife Carly and their son, Reed. They all love being active outdoors, doing CrossFit, and watching LA Angels baseball!