What the Church Can Learn from My Cult

By Brian Mavis

I belong to a cult. I already shave my head, so I thought, why not? (Then I discovered my cult doesn’t require that. Still, it’s cool.) I meet with other members a few times a week. I pay monthly dues. We have a special diet. We have our own lingo. We meet in a place called a box. We have a creed written on a whiteboard in our box. We talk about being part of a family. You know, just regular culty kinds of stuff.

12_Mavis_JNI’m not the only Christian who belongs to this cult. Scott Nickell, teaching pastor at Flatirons Church, is a member. I hear that Gary Haugen, president of International Justice Mission, is too. Frank Shirvinski, senior minister at Chaparral Christian Church, is not only a member, he leads one of these cults (see p. 38). But it’s not a cult like the kind Tom Cruise would champion, and it’s not the kind whose members go around knocking on doors. And even though I can say to other members, “this thing is a cult” and they nod, it’s not technically a cult. It’s CrossFit.

What is CrossFit? Simply put, it is a fitness company, and it is a fitness program defined as “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.”

So why talk about CrossFit in a Christian leadership magazine? Because it has a lot of the characteristics that the missional/incarnational church is trying to capture. It is also growing exponentially. If CrossFit were a church planting organization, it would be kicking butt. The first CrossFit was started in 2000. In 2008 there were 1,000 affiliates. Today there are more than 5,500.

With those facts in mind, here are six reasons I think CrossFit is growing and what the church can learn from it.


1. The CrossFit Business Is Simple.

When it comes to the CrossFit business, the start-up costs are very low. Traditional gyms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment. CrossFit has very little equipment. If all the electrical power went out, nothing would change. The boxes are just what they sound like, mostly open space. They aren’t very big, usually fewer than 5,000 square feet.

What about advertising costs? A couple of days ago, I was talking to one of the owners/trainers of my CrossFit. His wife, who is marketing minded, recommended they take out some ads to promote the gym. He said, “That’s just not the CrossFit way. We want people to come because they’ve met our members.” And that’s happening. We need a bigger box because so many people are joining.

Most church plants fail because they eventually run out of money. They overspend by renting too big of a place and buying expensive electronic audio/video equipment. They depend on direct mail, print ads, and online ads to get the word out. More church plants would do well to be minimalistic by design, and therefore more sustainable. And the church’s message needs to come from the members, not marketing.


2. The CrossFit Program Is People Focused.

Anybody can do the CrossFit program. Even though the workouts are the toughest you’ll ever do, they are scalable to all sorts of people. It doesn’t matter if you are young, old, male, female, a desk jockey, an uber-athlete, or in a wheelchair. It is used by fire departments, SWAT teams, and military special forces. It is scalable because the fitness program is about the people, not the equipment.

The trainers instruct and encourage you. Members cheer and coach each other through workouts. The last person to finish a workout is encouraged by more people than the first person who finishes. Everyone is viewed positively—as an athlete. The people are the program. It is a people-centric system.

When it comes to the church, I am reminded of E.M. Bounds’s words of wisdom from his book, Power Through Prayer:

We are constantly on a stretch, if not on a strain, to devise new methods, new plans, new organizations to advance the Church and secure enlargement and efficiency for the gospel. This trend of the day has a tendency to lose sight of the man or sink the man in the plan or organization. God’s plan is to make much of the man, far more of him than of anything else. Men are God’s method. The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men.

Ahem; and women.


3. CrossFitters Work Out Together

CrossFit is highly relational. Unlike traditional gyms, CrossFit workouts are always done as a group. I could work out at a traditional gym—or attend a church—for a while and not really meet anybody. You can’t stay anonymous at CrossFit. People learn your name on day one. They get to know you more and more with each workout—“What did you do this weekend?” “Do you have kids?” “What kind of work do you do?” (That last question is always a fun one for ministers to answer.)

But I’m not talking about just the opportunity to socialize. The key is actually working out together. It’s not an individualistic endeavor. We share a common struggle and a common story, and it has connected us to each other. I don’t know how it works; I just know it does.

Too often our methods of spiritual formation are individualistic—personal Bible study, personal prayer, etc. Even with people all around us, we can feel alone and stuck in our spiritual journey. But working on something together can produce an accelerated sense of intimacy. A common mission and common sacrifice build uncommon connections. As Dallas Willard has said, to experience the kingdom of God “a group of people should get together and simply try to do the things that Jesus instructed his disciples to do.”


4. CrossFit Connects Fitness to Real Life.

The purpose of CrossFit isn’t about what you look like, but what you can do. The point of going to the box is to live better and stronger outside of the box.

CrossFit does this in two primary ways: First, the workouts are based on real-world, functional movements in play and work (at least blue-collar work). There is a ton of running, jumping, pushing, pulling, getting down and back up.

Second, the trainers frequently inspire and inform members about healthy living, and members share advice with one another—swapping recipes and any fitness tips they have. Food, drink, sleep, and moving around are all choices that affect us the other 23 hours of the day.

Spiritual growth isn’t just abiding “in” Jesus; it is also living “out” the way of Jesus.

We need methods of spiritual formation that are connected to real-world challenges and opportunities. The purpose of spiritual growth is not merely self-improvement, but also improving relationships with our coworkers, spouse, children, neighbors, etc. We need to pay attention to the results. If what we are doing isn’t connecting to real life, then we are just playing church.


5. CrossFit Has Gratitude-Motivated Workouts.

CrossFit has a tradition of honoring soldiers, firefighters, and police who have died in service. CrossFit names workouts after these individuals, and these “Hero Workouts” are brutal. CrossFitters give their all in these workouts to demonstrate gratitude for people who gave their lives. People work their hardest, not out of guilt, or pride, or earning something, but out of gratitude.

Too often people in the church either coast on cheap grace (we might call them church consumers) or work hard to try to earn God’s grace. Neither of these is right. Rather, our effort needs to be motivated by gratitude. Grace isn’t against effort; it’s against earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. As the apostle Paul shows, grace and effort go hand in hand: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:8-10).


6. CrossFit Does Collaborative Community Outreach.

CrossFit gyms hold fund-raisers to help members and their families deal with illness and injuries. But more than that, they also work on behalf of other nonprofits and charities in the community to raise money for them.

Most churches do well at taking care of their own. That’s good. But many have a long ways to go on collaborating with other organizations in their community. The church can work along with others in a positive way.

In the phrase, “Be in the world, but not of it,” we usually put the emphasis on the “not of it” part. In other words, we start at “in the world” (because we are forced to be in it), but the destination is to be “not of it.” This is opposite from the way Jesus looked at it. In John 17:14-19, “not of the world” is the starting point. It is who we are in Christ—loving, humble, joyful, honest, gracious, etc. The goal is to be sent, as we are, into the world.

The church today needs leaders willing to take risks and try something different. It’s not enough to have a consumer model, or an informational model, or an attractional, or a cool model, or whatever you want to call it. CrossFit is not the church, but the church can learn from it. What would it look like to have a church that was kind of like a CrossFit? It would be simple, people focused, growing together, connected to real life, grateful, and community minded. Not a bad start.


Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado. 

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