I cannot do CrossFit. I’m not being sarcastic. I really wish I could, but a medical condition prevents me from taking part in the Workout of the Day (WoD). I have many friends that swear by CrossFit. They find it meets a multitude of needs, both physical and social.

When I was newly ordained and working on a diocesan staff, I would be invited to parishes to present on “the millennial question.” Where are the young adults and why aren’t they coming to our church? (These parishes were looking for a meatier answer than “Because your parish stinks.”) They wanted the meta answer to the meta question every generation asks: Why are young people so different from us?

In my presentation, I would show an online video advertising CrossFit. The video opens with the CrossFit motto: “Making People Better.” In the highly-produced video, young people work out and smile and hug. They tell the camera how much they love CrossFit and how it has transformed their lives. They find meaning, community, fulfillment, and self-actualization in the workouts and gyms. They say that they love to tell their friends about it, saying, “You haven’t heard about CrossFit? Let me tell you about CrossFit.”

At the end of the video, I would ask the gathered crowd of good churchgoers, “What does that sound like?”

“It sounds like church,” they would respond.

Bingo.

Much has been said about the religious character of CrossFit, including on this website. A recent story from Vox picks up this theme. Beginning with the somewhat played-out research on the “nones,” the author turns to the research of Casper ter Kuile from Harvard Divinity School, who argues that millennials are leaving organized religion but not the drive for spirituality, meaning, and transcendence. While they may not be in church pews on Sunday morning, millennials are flocking to fitness classes with personal trainers who moonlight as spiritual gurus.

The most fascinating statement comes at the very end of the piece, when Casper ter Kuile says, “It’s not that religion is dying; it’s just changing. Who are going to be the providers of content and wisdom and community that’s going to help people belong and become? That [need] is not going to change.”

The argument is simple and convincing. I know, because I’ve made it before. People are wired for ritual, community, and meaning. If they don’t find it in a church, they will find it at the gym.

I realize now that I was mistaken in my comparison.

I am not terribly interested in the spiritual component of CrossFit. I have nothing bad to say about the workout trend. I am genuinely happy for folks who find meaning, community, and connection at their local box. I can’t bring myself to be mad about people finding purpose.

What troubles me is that we so easily make the jump from church to gym.

This argument of the Vox article starts from the assumption that religion and religious institutions are “providers of content and wisdom and community.”

From the outside, this is an easy assumption to make. Those of us within the church can fall into this trap too easily as well. The church is not just a provider of content and community. Ritual is not “this really helpful way of making people think of something greater.” The church and the rituals contained therein are forms of participation in reality as opposed to the delusion of my own sinful understanding.

The church does not exist to “make people better” like CrossFit. The church exists first and foremost for the worship of Christ and the proclamation of his Gospel. This sole focus serves to remind people who they are and to proclaim the Good News that we cannot make ourselves better but there is One who makes us whole.

The church is not a provider of spiritual wisdom, but foolishness. It does not exist for improvement or even growth. Saying that CrossFit is the logical home for those who no longer darken the doors of the church is an indictment of the church more than anything.

It shouldn’t be an easy walk from the pew to the weight bench, but it is made easy by a Christianity that looks more like a spiritual fitness program than a Gospel balm.

Any mention of “nones” and someone will mention the “dones,” those who are burned out and tired of giving their all to the church. For the “dones,” the prospect of endless burpees sounds better than one more sermon about the next political issue they need to care about or the next moral ladder they need to climb.

What is happening in the church when the Workout of the Day sounds like better news than the Gospel?

Jesus is not a personal trainer or a guru espousing wisdom. Jesus is Lord, and he calls to each of us, saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The church is not like CrossFit; it is more like the hospital, or even the morgue. It is not a place where bad people go to be made good, but a place where bad people are loved in their badness.

The grace of God is the only salvation plan that does not lead to burnout. The work of Christ is the only thing that can pull the sin-sick soul from the depths of despair and death.

If you want a workout, find a gym. If you want to rest, come to Jesus.

In his book The Foolishness of Preaching, Mockingbird Patron Saint Robert Farrar Capon says this about the church:

The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent—even gleefully aggressive—job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business.

Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost … and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea. The church’s job is not to go around implying that those desperate states are conditions we must get over as quickly as possible once we’ve been found; its true work is to invite us all to go moonstruck over the news that the one operative consideration in our life is the Passion of the Finder to find.