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Welcome to the Church of CrossFit, Part of America’s Growing Secular Spirituality

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John Burger - published on 12/01/15

Are the People of the Cross less responsive, in community, than the people of CrossFit?

We’ve all heard of people doing something secular in a “religious” way, and one area of life to which that applies is sports and physical fitness.

Now, some are suggesting that the culture surrounding training gyms may very well fall under the umbrella of religion.

The New York Times noted recently that in a society that is increasingly secular, many people are applying their religious sensibility to athletic activity. Many of the parallels with religion can be found, the newspaper noted, in a Crossfit gym: adherents getting out of bed at an ungodly hour in order to spend a significant amount of time in a gathering place with other people, going through rituals that will help one transcend the everyday, and striving to “save” oneself.

That “salvation” might not be of one’s soul, but corporeally, yes, one might speak of a kind of salvation.

“We’re saving lives, and saving a lot of them,” said Greg Glassman, co-founder of CrossFit. “Three hundred fifty thousand Americans are going to die next year from sitting on the couch. That’s dangerous. The TV is dangerous. Squatting isn’t.”

Glassman gave a talk this month: “CrossFit as Church?!” hosted by Harvard Divinity School students Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston. The two wrote “How We Gather,” a study of spaces other than churches that function as spiritual communities.

“CrossFit is family, laughter, love and community,” Ali Huberlie, a 27-year-old Harvard alumna who was interviewed for the study, told the researchers. “I can’t imagine my life without the people I’ve met through it.”

Huberlie wakes up each morning at quarter to five to go to the gym and work out for two hours.

But is this religion? The Times contends that it’s hard to say what constitutes one.

“Is it about belief in a deity? Judaism and Christianity have that, but many varieties of Buddhism do not. Existence after death? Mormons believe in that, but plenty of liberal Protestants do not.”

Ms. Huberlie speaks about her box as others might speak about a church or synagogue community. The same is true of some 12-step program members, and devoted college-football fans. In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.

“What really struck us was the way in which people were bringing their kids to their box,” ter Kuile said, “or the way different workouts of the day were named after soldiers who had died in battle. So there’s all of these things you would expect to see in a church—remembering the dead through some sort of ritual, and intergenerational community.”

Rebecca Lane Frech agrees that there is a vital community at Crossfit. Frech, a blogger at Patheos’ Catholic portal, is a coach at her box.

“Two years ago, my nine-year-old daughter sustained a concussion and broke her jaw in two places in an accident,” she recalled in an interview. “I called my church and my Crossfit box. It was over a month before anyone from my parish returned my call. The people from the Box were at my house and taking care of my other children that afternoon, before we were even home from the ER. They brought us food for two weeks and took care of our family.”

Said Frech, “I go to my parish for God, but I find fellowship at my Crossfit box.”

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