American churches are building first-class gyms to get followers in shape and attract new members to the flock. Critics see lucrative businesses masked as ministries, but the programs are a spirited defense against our obesity epidemic.
The pilates class starts with a prayer. “I just pray, Father… to be strong and to be healthy, and just have the right focus… in Jesus’s name, amen.”
“Amen,” whisper 11 women over low-volume praise music and the hum of 9 a.m. traffic on Houston’s 10-to-610 interchange. Then instructor Debbie Brown, a spunky 56-year-old with a halo of bright red hair, gets to it. Flanked by two wooden crosses, her amplified voice sounding like a holy directive, she leads us through 45 minutes of stretches and strengthening exercises that’ll leave me face-flat on my Houston First Baptist Church–branded yoga mat.
This is my first time doing pilates. And my first workout in a church gym. I spend the top half of class worrying that my triathlon shorts are flashing too much thigh in a sea of calf-length black yoga pants. I spend the rest of the time wondering if I’ll be sent to hell because I thought it was funny when the band on the stereo sang “We press into you, God!” while we were all doing bridges.
I’m here because health-minded Christian pundits have hailed First Baptist as a shining example of what’s possible when religion and fitness unite. In late 2009, the church invested a quarter of a million dollars to renovate its existing 25,000-square-foot rec center, making it a viable alternative to the city’s upscale health clubs. Besides the Group X room—a full-size basketball court where 14 instructors teach pilates, TRX, high-intensity interval training, “Godspeed Spin,” and other classes throughout the week—the facility has two weight rooms with HFB-branded Cybex machines, a cardio room, an indoor track, sprawling locker rooms, a hydromassage bed, and, for good measure, six bowling lanes.
The walls throughout are adorned with snippets of health-related scripture: God gives power and strength to his people (Psalm 68:35, in the weight room); For in Him, we live and move and exist (Acts 17:28, in the Group X space); Strength and honor are her clothing (Proverbs 31:25, in the women’s locker room). The place gives new meaning to the mantra “The gym is my church.”
“God wants us to be healthy and strong and to shine out his light for others to see,” Brown said as she took me on a tour before class. She’s First Baptist’s fitness-ministry associate, as well as its most popular pilates instructor. “We should be the fittest people on the planet!”
Athletics and the Christian faith have not always been mutually exclusive. In the mid-1880s, the Muscular Christianity movement arose in the UK, preaching that participation in sports could help develop morality and manly character. And since 1963, Oral Roberts University, funded by the famed evangelist, has espoused “whole-person education.” At its strictest, this meant that obese students could be suspended until they lost weight. That policy is no longer enforced, but in January the university announced that all freshmen in the class of 2019 would be required to wear Fitbits monitored by professors.
Still, in the U.S. organized religion has largely focused on developing followers’ minds and spirits, leaving the body to team sports and athletic clubs. Now that’s changing. American churches are getting into the workout biz, and the effort is blowing up. The American Council on Exercise named faith-based fitness one of the top trends of 2016. There’s a magazine dedicated entirely to the cause (Faith & Fitness) and a website that helps churches set up their own exercise ministries (ChurchFitness.com). Last year, Health Fitness Revolution, a nonprofit best known for producing health-related listicles, ranked top 50 fitness-minded American megachurches (number one: Lakewood Church in Houston)—and that only covered congregations with more than 2,000 people attending weekly services.
Make no mistake: in an era of declining church membership, one of the main reasons faith-based gyms exist is to draw people to the gospel, whether they’re parishioners or not. “We want people to come,” says First Baptist fitness minister Dave Bundrick. It’s the exact opposite M.O. of big-box gyms that base their business models on people not showing up. Church fitness centers do charge fees, but they measure their success not in dollars but in what Bundrick calls ministry opportunities—interactions in which there’s a chance to “positively impact a person’s perception of our ministry, church, and ultimately, our God.”
Academics see another explanation for the trend. “It’s a response to the social and cultural problems of the age we’re in,” says Nick J. Watson, senior lecturer in sports, culture, and religion at York St. John University in the UK, whose research focuses on the role of the church in public health. That’s a nice way of saying we’re fat. In August, he is gathering some of the world’s top Christian academics to meet with politicians, clergy, and athletes at the inaugural Global Congress on Sports and Christianity. The event’s goal is to encourage collaboration and improve public health through multidisciplinary research on effective interventions.
Watson, along with a growing number of other observers, is buoyed by the belief that church exercise programs could be a powerful weapon in America’s flailing battle against obesity. Ironically, the greatest challenge to the rising movement is coming from the mainstream fitness industry, which is doing everything it can to contain what it views as an existential threat.
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