What CrossFit taught me about manhood and faith

Jujimufu doesn't need CrossFit
It took me a couple tries at first. I couldn’t quite climb high enough up the rock wall to grab the overhang. But eventually I got comfortable enough with the holds to reach out, grab the ledge, and crank out three pull-ups before jumping to the ground. 

Without a doubt, this was the strangest job interview I had ever participated in or even heard about.

I spent five hours at Castle Rock State Park with my interviewer - hiking, climbing, and fielding questions about small group ministry philosophy and God’s sovereignty. In advance of the interview excursion, I was only told that “we’re going on an adventure so dress accordingly”. During my candidacy process with Garden City Church, I was asked which high school team sports I had played, how I would function as part of a team, and finally, whether I would take advantage of the CrossFit membership benefit. It turns out the male staff did CrossFit workouts together at least twice a week and were highly encouraged to participate. I balked and wondered if I was joining two overlapping religions - this particular church and the cult of CrossFit. I felt this impending baptism into a hyper-masculine culture that was an overcompensation for the feminized Christianity I had been reading about for years. 

The candidacy process turned out to be wonderful - a tremendous encouragement to my wife and me. And yet initially, I was afraid of what I might become if joined the church’s staff team - a short, buffed Asian Christian poser. Despite my misgivings, the process awakened a deeper part of my soul and made me wonder if I was manly enough to make the cut. One of the last phases of my candidacy took place at a CrossFit gym where upon completion of the interview, I was invited to participate in the workout of the day (WoD). As my movements were observed by other Garden City staff, I imagined this was the type of scrutiny beauty pageant contestants experience during the swimsuit round of a competition. I felt like a small calf amidst large cattle - hoping my meager flanks would be found wanting.

I did end up making the cut at Garden City and accepted the offer, despite questions about how one's physicality connected with the job description. As far as I was aware, my CrossFit prowess was not evaluated as a job performance metric. And as the smallest in stature of the male staff and the only minority hire, I felt like I had something to prove. 

In spite of my doubts and insecurities, I’m not sure if I can separate my physicality from my experience of faith and manhood. 

I’m also not sure I want to. 

My first spiritual mentor tricked me into meeting him for a one-on-one session by inviting me to play basketball with him. I kept waiting for other boys to show up but later realized I was the only person he invited. Years later, I realized his intent was not to play basketball but to engage me in conversation. He never would have earned that credibility without the rapport of a hoop and a ball. One of my favorite boyhood memories was push-up contests and playing sports with my guy friends. During youth retreats, my brother and I started boys-only midnight wrestling matches called bedroom brawl. These moments provided a visceral faith experience.  

A couple years ago, I visited an international church in the United Kingdom and played basketball with some of the men from the congregation. The pastor of the church, who didn’t play basketball, commented how playing sports with his congregants forged bonds that ordinary contact couldn’t match. Having heard dozens of faith conversion stories over the years, I've noticed a strong pattern of men being mentored into faith through sports. I know a youth pastor who led 300+ young men to Jesus over twenty years through his platform as a high school football coach. For guys who did not excel at sports, I have seen many instances where music played a pivotal role in nurturing faith. Music may not seem particularly masculine but playing an instrument on a worship team gives boys something to do with their hands and connects their physicality to their spirituality.

To paraphrase the book of James, works evidence faith. Churches today emphasize more sedentary and individual disciplines of prayer and reading of the Word. In recent years, evangelicalism was known more for talking than doing. Yet God, the first mover, designed us to move. Literally. And having strayed from our agrarian past, there is nothing more literally “work” than to lift heavy objects off the floor. 

Six months later and after recovering from Achilles surgery, I now look forward to the twice-weekly, hour-long sessions of self-inflicted suffering with the Garden City male staff. There is plenty of playful banter and boasting (I am the keeper of a spreadsheet of our team’s personal records). CrossFit is a fantastic and healthy way to express our masculinity. Our aggression is poured out on medicine balls and kettle bells.  In the gospel, I have nothing to prove and yet the gym offers a forum for us to sharpen ourselves against each other. It is a testing ground of discipline, courage, and self-control. We’re simultaneously building a team through the building of our bodies.  The workouts expose our physical and mental weaknesses - an invitation to accept each other in grace. But not before giving each other crap about it. 

I look back with fondness on my “adventure” candidacy. No interview process is perfect and yet I appreciate this journey’s emphasis on physicality and teamwork. I did not simply talk about being adventurous, I was asked to live it.  

Faith expresses itself in action. To put a twist on Olympic runner Eric Liddell's quote: When I move, I experience God's delight. And when I move in competition and cooperation with men, I experience His delight to the fullest.

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