God’s foolproof marketing campaign for getting the word out about his plan for the world is to give every believer a head-turning set of “before” and “after” photos from their lives. This is the greatest argument a follower of Jesus can make for the validity of the gospel. This is who I was before Jesus started influencing my life. This is who I am now after being under his influence for the last 5, 10, or 15 years.
When our neighbors see the difference Jesus has made in us, they’ll want to know more. They’ll come to us asking for our secret. Our transformation stories give us repeated opportunities to put in a good for Jesus and invite others to follow him with us.
At least that’s the way the sermon goes in most churches. It’s an old sermon, you can find versions of it in the New Testament where the early Christians were encouraged to be ready to talk about the difference Jesus was making in their lives. It worked. The early church grew exponentially because of the distinctive quality of life displayed by Christ-followers.
Today, most preachers continue to preach this sermon, but with less and less effect. Our neighbors aren’t bombarding us with questions about what makes us different. Our churches are not full of newcomers curious to know more. It’s not because we’ve saturated the market and made everyone a Christian. Nor is it because our neighbors have hard hearts, hate God, and can’t stand to hear the name of Jesus. It’s because they are not seeing anything compelling in the lives of those who claim to follow him. They notice no real difference between our way of life and theirs. They’re not opposed to the gospel. They’re not threatened by it. They’re ignoring it for lack of buzz in the neighborhood. The good news is neither good nor news.
Actually, its worse than that. Many of us who have been following Jesus are growing uneasy with the lack of impact the gospel is making in our own homes. We go to church. We attend small groups. We’re involved in ministries and service projects. Too often, all of this feels more like life-crushing busyness than life-giving transformation. John Wooden said, “Don’t confuse activity with achievement.” We have have calendars littered with church activities; but are we really achieving anything? Our doubts are bolstered by the evidence from our so-called Christian lifestyles. We’re just as materialistic, depressed, over-scheduled, afraid, and anxious as our neighbors.
I am most disappointed in the lack of transformation I see in myself. I grew up going to church and Jesus has always been important to me. I was baptized at twelve, started preaching the gospel to others when I was 18, and I’ve had a leadership role in churches for the past 14 years. I’ve preached hundreds of sermons, spent countless hours studying the Bible, prayed thousands of prayers, read hundreds of books, confessed my sins repeatedly, sought wisdom from Christ-like people, and I’ve tried to do the right thing no matter how much it has hurt. And yet I don’t feel like I’ve got much of a story to tell about the difference Christ has made in my life. I still struggle with the same sins. I’m still prone to the same selfish behaviors.
I’ve spent a lot of energy trying to change the church when the sad reality is that I can’t even change myself. So when it comes down to it, my biggest frustration with the church is that it isn’t living up to my expectations for what the gospel can do in the lives of those who follow Christ, especially–and most embarrassingly–mine. I’m afraid I don’t have a very compelling set of “before” and “after” pictures. It’s hard to believe that God is changing the world when he doesn’t seem to be changing me.
When I got involved with CrossFit, I saw the very thing I thought was impossible happening every day. Life change. Transformation. Bad habits broken. New habits formed. A community built on acceptance and support. Testimonial after testimonial. Incredible “before” and “after” pictures.
After one year of CrossFit, I saw more life change happen there than I had seen in over a decade as a professional minister. What I saw in CrossFit didn’t cause me to lose faith in the gospel or completely walk away from the church. Instead, I took it as a rebuke, like God was saying to me through CrossFit, “See! This is what church can be like!”
I see this kind of rebuke as being similar to the one provided by the 12-step movement. All twelve steps are biblical and rooted in the gospel, yet groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have done a better job of using them to create an open, accepting, life-changing environment than have most churches. So much so in fact, that many churches have embraced the twelve steps as a ministry framework with outstanding success.
My hunch is that the problem with most churches is more sociological in nature than theological. By that I mean that the lack of compelling spiritual “before” and “after” photos has more to do with the environment in which we expect the gospel to do its work than with the gospel itself. We’re asking the gospel to change lives in an environment that doesn’t support lasting life-change. We talk about changing lives but we don’t have the structures in place to support what we’re talking about. In some cases our current structures sabotage the very thing we spend so much time talking about. This makes about as much sense as serving glazed donuts during the break of a low-carb nutrition seminar.
The gospel is still the most powerful force in the world, but it works best in combination with certain principles that instigate, facilitate, and support long term change. These are principles the church once practiced instinctively but seems to have forgotten over time. In the past three years, I’ve been given the opportunity to participate in a community that is changing lives by incorporating principles that will strike many Christians as vaguely familiar.
The fundamental question I’m asking in this book is: What can churches learn from CrossFit gyms about creating an environment that encourages and supports drastic and lasting life change? In future chapters I’ll use my experience as both a pastor and CrossFitter to provide a few answers and point to some intriguing possibilities.
You can read more about the connections between CrossFit and spiritual fitness in Train For Something Greater, available in Kindle format.