The Church of CrossFit

Gyms and other secular communities are starting to fill spiritual and social needs for many nonreligious people.

“People’s behavior and practice is really being unbundled from the institutions and identities that would have been homes for it,” ter Kuile says. “[For example], ‘I was raised Catholic but yoga is really the practice where I find my experience of contemplation.’ As institutional affiliation decreases, people have the same age-old desires for connection, relationships, connection to something bigger than themselves.”

 

“You always know if someone goes to Harvard or if they go to CrossFit—they’ll tell you,” said Casper ter Kuile, a ministry innovation fellow at Harvard Divinity School. “It’s really interesting that evangelical zeal they have. They want to recruit you.”

CrossFit is his favorite example of a trend he has noticed: how, in the midst of the decline of religious affiliation in America, and the rise of isolation and loneliness, many ostensibly non-religious communities are “functioning in ways that look a little bit religious,” he explained on Friday at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

“People’s behavior and practice is really being unbundled from the institutions and identities that would have been homes for it,” ter Kuile says. “[For example], ‘I was raised Catholic but yoga is really the practice where I find my experience of contemplation.’ As institutional affiliation decreases, people have the same age-old desires for connection, relationships, connection to something bigger than themselves.”

And ter Kuile has found that meditation groups, adult summer camps, fandoms, and even fitness communities at specialized gyms like CrossFit or SoulCycle are stepping in to fill some of those needs.

 “Strikingly, spaces traditionally meant for exercise have become the locations of shared, transformative experience,” ter Kuile writes in “How We Gather,” a paper about this phenomenon. These are not places where you go run on a treadmill with your headphones blasting Carly Rae Jepsen and make as little eye contact as possible with the people around you. They are inherently communal. With CrossFit, that community includes accountability for your actions, something religion also offers. Ter Kuile writes:

The two most striking things about CrossFitters are their evangelical enthusiasm and the way they hold one another to account. … CrossFit expects members to call each other out if they don’t appear at their usual time and let each other know if they’re out of town.

Of SoulCycle, ter Kuile writes:

As with CrossFit, many participants joke about the cult-like loyalty they have for SoulCycle, which illustrates both the depth of participant commitment and the hope for these organizations to fulfill brand promises like “find your soul.”

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