Scripture: Psalm 46
“So, you really believe in God?” she asked me. We were standing in bar in Brooklyn. You see, in Brooklyn, most people don’t have room to have people over to their homes because our apartments are too tiny, so neighborhood bars are extensions of our living rooms. This night was like so many, lingering over a glass of wine with friends in our neighborhood living room just long enough that the real questions start to come out. “Yes,” I responded, “but probably not the version of God you are imagining.”
“The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; You, God, utter your voice, the earth melts. You are with us; You are our refuge … You make wars cease to the end of the earth; You break the bow, and shatter the spear; You burn the shields with fire. “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” You are with us; You are our refuge.”
I didn’t actually quote this scripture in our conversation, but maybe I should have. I give my heart to the God who commands my stillness, who is always with me, who is our refuge. To believe is to give one’s heart.
I was working as a hospital chaplain at the time. These kinds of conversations happened in my life all the time, and not just with patients. Sometimes with friends. Sometimes with new people I met who asked what New Yorkers always ask when you meet, “What do you do?” When I told them I worked as a chaplain, people either awkwardly found a way to leave my company, or proceeded to tell me their life story, complete with the questions about God that haunted them.
It might sound strange, but this was and is one of my favorite things – talking about God with people who don’t have a lot of practice talking about God. I’m an introvert. I loathe small talk. Random conversations about the big stuff – whether with beloveds or people I’ve just met – is way more my thing. And it turns out, most of my friends, most people of my generation don’t have a lot of practice talking about God. According to Pew, 64% of Millennials attend religious services a few times a year – or less. And yet, 50% believe in God. And 57% pray at least weekly.
“You, God, are our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” as our psalmist says.
It’s still true for me, for you and for so many of my generation. The longing is there. The needs for belonging and community and a place to ask hard questions and find your own answers are still there. Millennials and younger generations are not abandoning the traditions and practices and stories to which thousands of years’ worth of generations have clung. It’s just that our congregations and our religious institutions aren’t designed for the way much of my generation lives.
That’s part of why I spent a good chunk of my sabbatical time immersing myself in the culture of another kind of organization that is thriving with participation from my generation – CrossFit gyms. Since 2001 when the first CrossFit gym opened, over 15,000 gyms have opened in 162 countries around the world. Roughly 50% of participants in these gyms are Millennials. I wanted to understand what they are doing that is causing my people to flock to them.
How many of you have heard of CrossFit? Been to a gym? These gyms have a reputation of a kind of glamorous brutality of their workouts, all of which are done in small-ish groups with a coach. And it’s true, there is a military training foundation to many of the workouts designed by the national organization. But just like every church in the UCC feels different when you go to services, every CrossFit gym feels different when you go for a workout. I’ve been to 4 gyms in different parts of the country now. Just like walking into a new UCC church, I’m sure I’ll recognize the hymnal and I’m pretty sure I’ll find a generally standard set of liturgical moves – gathering, scripture, sermon, prayer time, maybe communion, sending forth. At a CrossFit gym anywhere, I’ll recognize the equipment, the general movements and strength exercises, the flow of the hour-long session. But who is in the room, the style of the leaders, and the culture they have created together changes everything – both for church and for a CrossFit gym alike.
My box, as a CrossFit gym is called in CrossFit jargon, is consciously rooted in a feminist ethos and actively works to create a queer positive, anti-racist, all body affirming workout environment. The coaches are trained to understand trauma’s manifestation in the body, invite everyone to share their pronoun during introductions and work to support each individual body’s capacity for strength and wellness. There are no workouts for men and women. There are just workouts with different weight recommendations to choose from, no matter who you are, for example. The gym participates in national advocacy to end discrimination against trans* and non-binary people in weight lifting competitions. They do fundraisers for local non-profits. In other words, these are my people. I imagine I feel a little like people do when they first come to Lyndale about this gym. Like, “How did I not know this existed before?!”
So on this is Reformation Sunday, the day around the world when we Protestants honor the history that set in motion the traditions we belong to, I want to share with you the Reformations I think we and all churches need to consider today based on my experience of CrossFit.
- One size does not fit all.
Our primary offering as a church is Sunday morning worship, the same time and the same general form each week for everyone. CrossFit workouts happen 9 times per day on weekdays and 3 times a day on weekends. Each class has at least three levels of intensity built into the flow of the class so people can take the class at their own speed and comfort level. The result is that you connect with the people 10-30 people you see several times a week through your particular rotation of classes and the coaches of those classes. Over time, you might connect with others through gym-wide events. Everyone shares a sense of identity and belonging to the gym as a whole and shared purpose of building individual and collective power.
I’m not saying we’re going to start offering almost 50 opportunities for worship each week. But I wonder how could this kind of ethos of understanding that people to have lives that operate on vastly different schedules and require different speeds of participation could inform what we do. What if we stopped expecting Sunday morning to be the primary way we gather? What if we empowered and trained more leaders to responsibly run weekly spiritual practice groups that met at different times of day and days of the week, each with a different focus? And here’s the rub: What if we expected these small groups to be people’s primary spiritual communities and didn’t see them as just another way to get people in the door for Sunday morning? What if we had ways beyond Sunday morning for people to feel connected to the church as a whole – some justice and service projects, some community fun gatherings, some worship? It’s not about fragmenting. It’s about recognizing a diversity of needs and discerning when we need to come together as one church and when more intimate, diverse sets of gatherings might serve us better individually and collectively.
- Collective vulnerability builds community.
We come to church because we have a spiritual longing or inkling, and stay because we find our people. Over time at Lyndale, we come to know each other through hardship, through vulnerable times, through trials too great to endure alone. And this creates an enduring bond.
Much the same is true of CrossFit. But it happens at a faster pace. As researchers at Harvard Divinity School have said, “People come [to CrossFit] because they want to lose weight or gain muscle strength, but they stay for the community. It’s really the relationships that keep them coming back. That need for community was something that was so strong in our research. People were longing for relationships that have meaning and the experience of belonging rather than just surface-level relationships. Going through an experience that tests you to your limits, especially if you’re doing partner or team-based fitness routines, there’s an inevitable bonding that comes from experiencing hardship together.”
I’m not saying we should start doing team-based fitness together. But I think we do need to ask ourselves how we intentionally strengthen those muscles of shared vulnerability and interdependence every time we gather. In particular, something I notice about CrossFit gyms is that it is nearly impossible to tell who are the long-timers and who has been there only a few months. Once you know the basics, it’s a level playing field. That’s because everyone is pushing themselves to their own next level and so everyone is visibly growing and needing each other’s help in that growth, from spotting a heavy lift to cheering each other on.
As we look at questions in this community about how we help newer and longer-time generations of Lyndale members know each other more deeply, I think about what we can learn from this. We often place the burden of integration and getting to know each other on the newer folks. But how can longer time members keep sharing what is their growing edge spiritually, keep pushing themselves to their next levels of spiritual growth visibly, keep talking about what we don’t know to level the playing field? How can newcomers feel their spiritual strength and be challenged by the vulnerability of others to keep chasing their own growing edge with loving support around them? I don’t have answers, but I am curious.
- Set the bar high and create an ethos of reaching for it.
There is so much bad press about Millennials and lack of civic participation and entitlement. And yet, we are some of the most active CrossFit members. CrossFit is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done physically, and costs enough that it requires a lifestyle re-prioritization for many. My point is that perhaps it is just this kind of raising of the bar that we as church need to do.
What if church was as spiritually challenging AND rewarding as my CrossFit workouts are physically? What if we expected a lifestyle change because of participation in our community – not necessarily financially, but in whatever way we each need reshaping to be our better selves? My generation is still hungry for God, for a prayer life, for belonging, for authentic relationships and community. In our desperation to be appealing as churches, we’ve made it too easy to just passively show up… or not.
Most CrossFit gyms require you to sign a binding contract to pay for your membership for 6 months to a year at a time. What if our contract wasn’t financially, but relational. What if when you join, you commit to be a part of one of many thriving small group ministries for 6 months (just go with me here in this fantasy). That small group might be studying their own ancestral history and considering how they might pay reparations in their personal lives as a part of their own spiritual healing in a country where Christianity has been deeply tied to white supremacy. Or they might be a spiritual practice group dedicated to vocational discernment, supporting each other to figure out where God is calling them to spend their time with participants ranging from those fresh out of college to those deciding when to retire. Or they might be a group of parents of young children who meet over brunch once a month just to share what is hard and what is glorious about parenting and offer each other prayers of affirmation and solidarity. Meanwhile our church elders care for their kiddos. I don’t know what kinds of groups we need, really. And if they come to exist, they will change as needs change. But no matter what, the bar is raised high because we know it is the only way transformation and genuine community and relationship with God form with any kind of authenticity and sustainability.
None of these ideas are going to happen overnight. And none of them, frankly, are unique or new. Church scholars and pastors and church entrepreneurs have been thinking about these kinds of ideas in corners of seminaries and movement spaces for many years now. But I hope I inspired you today to think differently about what church might become, what this church might hold in its future.
We are 400 years out from the last Reformation. I have no idea what church is going to look like 400 years from now. But I believe it will be just as different as we are from the majority of Catholic churches pre-Reformation. May we be brave enough to trust that we will all still be searching for and leaning on the God who is our refuge, the same God who was our ancestor’s refuge, no matter what comes. And may we be brave enough to embrace the changes that come our way as invitations from the Holy Spirit.