The Goal of Spiritual Fitness
Most churches have done an excellent job of describing the kind of the church they want to be: open, inviting, relaxed, contemporary, grace-filled, seeker-sensitive, diverse, and kid-friendly. But how many churches have taken the time to describe the kind of disciples they hope to form?
CrossFit is not so much about working out at a certain kind of gym as it is about becoming a certain kind of athlete. CrossFit is very clear about the kind of athlete it hopes to produce: one that is capable of taking on a variety of challenges in multiple fitness domains. It’s programming is geared at forming just such an athlete.
What if more churches were equally clear about the kind of disciples they are hoping to make, rather than being content to emphasize what kind of church they’re trying to be?
How many churches have taken the time to think through a clearly stated goal for those who are a part of their community? This is different than having a clearly stated goal for the entire church. Most churches have broad mission and purpose statements which usually include sharing Jesus with their neighbors or glorifying God with their worship or growing closer to each as a community or making a difference in the world around them. These are great goals for all churches to have.
What is missing is specificity. Most churches don’t have have a specific goal for the individuals who make up their community. This means that when church shoppers are thinking about becoming a part of a church, they’ll be told in great detail what kind of church they’re joining, but won’t necessarily hear the pastor say, “Here’s the kind of person we hope you become because of your involvement in this community.”
When churches do name such an outcome, it usually included the phrase “becoming more like Christ.”
Of course, Christ-likeness should be the goal for each and every Christian. I’ve preached plenty of sermons on the how and why of becoming more like Christ. But I’m beginning to wonder if this is really the most helpful way of stating our desired outcome.
First, becoming more like Christ seems unrealistic to most of us honest enough to admit it. I’m not sure who worries me more: the person who thinks Christ-likness is attainable (I’m almost there!) or the person who finds the notion too intimidating to take seriously (Why even bother?).
Second, it may be too broad a description to be genuinely helpful. What does the term Christ-likeness even mean? Is it really any different than saying, “I want to be a better person”? It’s a noble ambition, but what will it look like when it happens? More specificity is needed.
Let’s go back to the gym.
Most people who walk into a gym want to get in better shape. But what does that mean? What does “better shape” look like? Without a clear definition of fitness and an intentional program for getting there, it’s doubtful they’ll make any real progress toward such a broad, undefined goal.
Many Christians want to get in better spiritual shape (They’d like to be more like Christ), but don’t really know what spiritual fitness looks like or if what they’re doing is taking them in the right direction. Another name for this is “unintentional nondiscipleship.” Not only do we lack a clear vision of where we’re headed, but we have no plan in place to take us to our unknown destination.
What’s needed beyond the general goal of Spiritual Fitness (Christlikeness) is a clear vision of what what kind of people we hope to become by following Jesus. This vision need not be complex, just clear.
Let’s go back to the 10 fitness domains of CrossFit. While ten seems like about three too many to remember, each one can be measured with clarity.
- Speed measures how fast we can run.
- Endurance/Stamina measures how far we can run.
- Strength measures how much we can lift.
- Flexibility measures how far we can stretch.
What happens when we begin to talk about spiritual fitness in terms of imitating Christ across a broad pectrum of spiritual domains? One example would be to use the six time-tested spiritual traditions that Richard Foster describes so well.
We could say that spiritual fitness includes living a:
- Prayer-filled life (Contemplative Tradition)
- Virtuous life (Holiness Tradition)
- Spirit-empowered life (Charismatic Tradition)
- Compassionate life (Social Justice Tradition)
- Word-Centered life (Evangelical Tradition)
- Sacramental life (Incarnational Tradition)
Spiritual fitness isn’t is the ability to do well in just one or two of these domains. Rather, it’s developing capacities in all six. We all have our strengths and weakness, but in order to be ready for anything we can’t afford to ignore any of these traditions.
We can go deeper by listing specific exercises or practices under each of these categories that will allow us to regularly train in each of the six major domains:
The Word-Centered Life (Evangelical Tradition)
- I read my Bible everyday.
- I memorize my favorite passages of Scripture.
- I put in a good word for Jesus to my neighbors when given the opportunity.
The Spirit-Empowered Life (Charismatic Tradition)
- I know and use my primary spiritual gifts to bless others.
- I’m wait and listen for the leading of the Holy Spirit when making decisions.
- I meditate on the Fruit of the Spirit and look for ways to cultivate it in my life.
The Compassionate Life (Social Justice Tradition)
- I willingly help out with household chores.
- I’m involved in a ministry of service to others.
- I’m an advocate for a just cause.
The Virtuous Life (Holiness Tradition)
- I fast periodically.
- I avoid all forms of gossip.
- I’m a part of a group or friendship in which I can be honest about my struggles, temptations, and sins.
The Sacramental Life (Incarnational Tradition)
- I have a hobby that lets me exercise my creativity.
- I look for God in movies, songs, meals, and chance encounters.
- I see my job as an opportunity to earn a living while doing ministry.
The Prayer-Filled life (Contemplative Tradition)
- I pray daily.
- I set aside regular times for solitude and reflection.
- I practice Sabbath.
We could develop our own list of spiritual fitness domains and associated exercises. While we might come up with a few new items to add to Foster’s list, I doubt we’ll break much new ground.
CrossFit didn’t invent the fitness domains, but instead took what was already accepted in the fitness industry and found more effective ways to train athletes across all of the domains. There is no need to re-invent the wheel of spiritual training. We can take the classic, time-tested categories and exercises associated with becoming more like Christ and develop more effective ways of training for spiritual fitness.
My hunch is that the churches that spend more time thinking about what kind of disciples they want to form, rather than what kind of church they want to be, will be stronger, healthier churches because they are developing stronger, healthier disciples.
Churches that focus on what kind of church they want to be end up attracting people who want to attend a certain kind of church. Churches that focus on what kind of disciples they want to form attract people who want to become a certain kind of disciple.
The difference in this approach is more than just word play. It’s the difference between gathering a church of consumer Christians and forming a community of Christ-followers dedicated to imitating Christ for the good of the world.