The Fitness-Driven Church
It's Monday night at New Hope Community Church in Flora, Indiana, and 40 churchgoers donning T-shirts and sweats are gathering in teams for their weekly weigh-in. There's no camera to capture their reactions when their numbers are announced, and no one will be booted out of the church. But make no mistake, this is a weight-loss competition. And Michelle Reed is in it to win.
"I've lost 16 pounds in a few weeks. It's a lot easier when you hear what God says about it," says Reed. In January 2013, the church started using Losing to Live, a 12-week program that includes a fitness assessment, group aerobics, and counseling created by "antifat pastor" Steve Reynolds. After losing 120 pounds himself in 2007—and then leading 250 members of Capital Baptist Church in northern Virginia to lose 12,000 pounds—Reynolds developed that curriculum followed by Get Off the Couch: 6 Motivators to Help You Lose Weight and Start Living. Like most weight-loss programs, Reynolds's promotes healthy eating and regular exercise. But then it adds one of the Ten Commandments: You shall have no other gods before me. "We've made food an idol," says Reynolds.
Twenty years ago, I did my part to resist that idol. I'd lace up my sneakers and run to church to work out in a Sunday school classroom, dancing awkwardly and sweating to Amy Grant. Our group, unofficially dubbed the "Not-So-Firm Believers," felt slightly subversive—dancing and sweating in church? We always made sure the doors were closed.
As it turns out, those of us in that Sunday school classroom were ahead of a curve that has found its way to some of the largest churches in America, including Saddleback. In 2011, pastor Rick Warren threw out a challenge: "Okay guys, I've only gained like three pounds a year, but I've been your pastor for 30 years. So I've got a lot of weight to lose. Does anybody want to join me?" He expected a few hundred to straggle to the first meeting. Twelve thousand showed up. Shortly after, 15,000 from 190 countries signed up online to follow a diet, exercise, and Bible study program named "The Daniel Plan," after the Old Testament prophet's refusal to eat the Babylonian king's rich food. Two years after it began, Saddleback congregants have lost more than 270,000 pounds. A major publisher is set to launch the Daniel Plan as a book-plus-media package in 2014.
Losing to Live and the Daniel Plan join a host of faith-based wellness programs launched within the past decade: Firm Believer, Bod4God, WholyFit, Body Temple Wellness, and Body Gospel, to name a few. Faith-based diet and nutrition books, all claiming to shrink believers' waistlines while expanding their faith, continue to make the bestseller lists. Local churches are building gyms and beginning neighborhood health ministries. Brainerd Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee, opened an exercise facility in 2006 with 200 members. Now its church-run BX (Brainerd Crossroads) Center has grown to 54,000 square feet and 3,000 members.
The Christian wellness trend has unfolded amid national debates about health care, childhood obesity, government-banned large sugary drinks, and who or what is to blame in a country where about 1 of every 3 adults (35.7 percent) is clinically obese. By 2030, nearly 1 out of 2 are expected to be obese, according to a 2012 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. But it's not an entirely new interest for the body of Christ. The YMCA, founded in 1844, was dedicated to the development of the whole person, "body, mind, and spirit," and Christian diet books go back at least to Charlie Shedd's 1957 bestseller Pray Your Weight Away, which taught that "if our bodies really are to be temples of the Holy Spirit, we had best get them down to the size God intended."