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."
Churches' interest in physical health, though, seems to have new energy. "I've seen more and more interest. In the last year alone we've had triple the number of churches contacting us about some kind of fitness ministry," says Brad Bloom, publisher of Faith & Fitness Magazine and a partner of ChurchFitness.com, which helps churches open fitness facilities. "Churches are realizing that fitness and lifestyle ministries are one of the most effective ways to strengthen members and reach their community." Rita Hancock, a Christian physician and author of The Eden Diet, says it makes sense to take a faith-based approach to wellness. "I think [people] have tried everything else but God, and out of desperation, why not try this since nothing else is working? It's working because faith is woven into our beings."
The Heavy Holy
Not to dampen enthusiasm, but in truth, another reason such programs are taking off is sheer need: On a national scale, we churchgoers weigh in as among the heaviest. A 2006 Purdue University study first broke the news that religious people tended to be heavier than nonreligious, with "fundamental Christians" weighing in as the heaviest of all religious groups. Lead researcher Ken Ferraro minced no words: "America is becoming a nation of gluttony and obesity, and churches are a feeding ground for this problem."
An 18-year Northwestern University study released in 2011 found those who attended youth group as teenagers were 50 percent more likely to be obese by the time they were 50 than those who didn't. Pastors' health has likewise declined in the past decade, so much so that a number of denominations have formed their own pastor health programs. In 2007, Duke Divinity School began the Duke Clergy Health Initiative, a $12-million project aimed at improving the health of United Methodist clergy as well as the "broader health of the congregations and communities they serve." Last year the Lilly Foundation committed $45 million to clergy health and renewal.
Grainger Browning knows the stats personally. A fellow pastor's sudden death of a heart attack 15 years ago "shook me to the core," says the pastor of Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Maryland. He began to take his own health and his congregation's more seriously. But he wonders if he's making a difference: Leading a men's retreat recently, he realized that "75 percent of the men at the meeting were on medications. I see people who are literally digging their own grave with their teeth."
We do a lot of that "digging" at church, of course. On any given Sunday in all of the churches I have attended, I could reward myself for coming to Sunday school with a sprinkled donut. Between services, I can pick up a latte and a muffin. On many potluck Sundays, the dessert table stretches way past the main-dish tables. My teenagers will nosh on pizza, potato chips, and brownies at youth group. What are we doing? We're having fun and fellowship, for sure, but shouldn't the gospel we hear preached every Sunday deliver good news for our bodies as well as our souls?
A resounding yes, says blogger and theologian Matthew Lee Anderson, in his 2011 release, Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to Our Faith. But for years, some say for centuries, we haven't known any good news about our bodies, other than the fact that we'll get new ones in heaven. Anderson calls it "something of a scandal" that contemporary Christians have not yet formed "a holistic theological understanding of the body."
"We've been teaching very little about 'body care,' and when we do, it's primarily negative: don't get drunk, don't smoke or take drugs, and don't have sex outside of marriage," Gary Thomas, author of Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul, tells me. "Until recently, we've not known where to go from there."
The "scandal" is lessening, not just among theologians but thanks to the church Zumba dancers, the Daniel Plan-ners, the Losing to Live participants, and the many thousands of believers involved in church-based health care—all of whom are helping Christians think more biblically about the body and fully living the faithful Christian life.
For all their diverse methodologies, the faith-based health manuals and routines share a simple, biblical belief: God made our bodies, so we should care for them. PraiseMoves cites 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 as its foundational verses: "Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies." The Daniel Plan, whose motto is "faith, friends, food, fitness," includes a Bible study emphasizing that God asks us to manage our bodies—and that one day we'll be held accountable for what we did with them. That message connected with Chiquita Seals of Saddleback, who lost 140 pounds in the churchwide initiative. "That was a big motivation. God gave me this body, and I feel like I really dropped the ball with it, not taking care of it," she says.
Many in the faith and wellness movement cite the apostle Paul: "Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God." Though they offer differing strategies to accomplish this—everything from yoga-like exercise to power walking to boot-camp aerobics to low-fat, vegan, and/or low-carb diets to simple moderation—all teach that God can be glorified by what and how we eat. Hope Egan's Holy Cow! Does God Care About What We Eat? cites Old Testament dietary laws to show that in fact he does. Hancock's The Eden Diet instructs readers to eat as Jesus did, as "an act of worship and reverence." Many say they find freedom in knowing God cares about their whole person, and are working to bring their daily habits under the lordship of Christ. An anonymous WholyFit participant writes, "Before I gave my life to Christ, exercising was only for me. This program allows me to redeem fitness and health for God's glory."
All this may hardly sound revolutionary, but outside the church, it challenges the prevailing notion that our bodies belong to us alone—either as machines to be hacked and fueled, or as "plastic" to be reshaped, starved, pierced, and used for pleasure or vanity. And inside the church, it challenges the dualistic worldview that God cares only about "spiritual" matters. It was that dualism that led Gary Thomas to leave his bestselling Sacred series to pen Every Body Matters.
Historically speaking, the church has not overlooked the body entirely, of course. It's just tended to care more for the bodies of others than for our own. Jesus provided the model for his followers to care for the physical needs of others. Throughout the centuries the church has founded hospitals, cared for plague victims, and attended the dying. We understand all this as our spiritual service to God, the enacting of "loving our neighbor as ourselves." But we've not recognized, until recently, that we ourselves are sick. Pastors also consistently choose the welfare of their flock over their own wellness. Gwen Wagstrom Halaas, a family physician and wife of a Lutheran minister, wrote The Right Road: Life Choices for Clergy in part to sound the alarm on clergy health. "They think that taking care of themselves is selfish, and that serving God means never saying no," says Halaas. It's not easy to change this mindset. One pastor told me that if his parishioners see him playing tennis, they ask him, "Why aren't you out visiting and sharing the gospel?"
At the heart of these beliefs and practices—stewarding our God-made bodies and glorifying him in everything—is a growing understanding of the unity and integrity of the human self. It's an essential stake in the wellness revival tent: that body, mind, and spirit are inextricable, and that true health and true spirituality will address all three. These efforts may help lead the church toward re-membering a dis-membered faith that separates our beliefs from what we do with our bodies.
But some of these efforts are clumsy at best and contradictory at worst. And here the workout music stops. The health movement is indeed contributing a lot to our understanding and practice of wellness. But the tent is often so lumpy and sprawling, with loose theological stakes, that its very integrity is at risk.
Beyond Health and Wealth
First, what makes diet and exercise "Christian"? One author assures me in an interview that his weight-loss book is "completely biblical," because it includes a Bible verse on every page. For many of the exercise programs, the key is beginning and ending in prayer and moving to ccm rather than secular music. Prayfit, a book, dvd, and "online community" calling itself "the fastest growing faith-and-fitness brand on the market," promises to provide "all the tools needed for increased faith and fitness."
How is this accomplished? Literally—participants memorize Scripture while working out. Prayer Walking organizes group praying-while-walking sessions. None of this is harmful or wrong, but do we really need prayer, Scripture memorization, and Christian music to sanctify exercise? Such programs raise the question of whether the church health movement is just baptizing broader health-and-fitness culture in Jesus-y marketing language.
Sadly, the loose stakes and flapping corners have let in more than the usual share of hucksters and cure-alls. One diet book claims that "every part of you will know and experience the optimal health we were all meant to have." Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down program, all the rage in the late 1990s and still going today, promises "permanent weight loss and the solution to all addictions." The best-selling What Would Jesus Eat? prescribes the diet that Christ apparently ate, but without considering that he ate whatever he was served, meaning he ate exactly what everyone else in first-century Israel ate. Another promises to "eliminate sickness" through eating "God's way," which means a return to the Old Testament dietary laws. Jordan S. Rubin, author of The Maker's Diet, is one of several who have created their own line of food and supplements with extravagant health claims and prices. His Garden of Life products have repeatedly been censored or shut down by the Food and Drug Administration for unsubstantiated claims. All of these seem to suggest that God's plan is full health for all and that a return to "biblical living" will end all ills.
"A lot of this is part of the health and wealth gospel," says Peter Walters, professor of applied health science at Wheaton College in Illinois. "I feel like we're doing a disservice to the kingdom by representing Christianity in that fashion."
Margaret Mohrmann, a medical doctor and professor of pediatrics and education at the University of Virginia, is also concerned. "Good health is not to be an end in itself," she cautions in Medicine as Ministry: Reflections on Suffering, Ethics, and Hope. "Health can never be anything other than a secondary good."
Even when we aspire to better health to better serve God and others—a noble goal, to be sure—it's crucial to remember that God does not require us to be healthy to accomplish his mission on earth. Exercise and healthy eating will not guarantee a more fruitful ministry. Indeed, God chose not to heal Paul of his "thorn in the flesh," electing to use Paul's very weakness to display his own strength. Nor did Paul's many imprisonments impede his songs of worship or his injunctions to "rejoice, and again I say, rejoice!"
There are indeed sicknesses we bring upon ourselves by our own choices. We must take our self-inflicted sickness seriously. But others come to us unbidden, as the consequence of genetics, aging, viruses—all realities of a decaying world groaning under bondage. When we overemphasize the "good" of good health, we may stumble into the mindset of the Jews in Jesus' day who equated disability and disease with sin. Such a perspective can reel out a new measuring tape for godliness and spirituality: the strictness of your diet, the size of your jeans, the rigor of your workout, the amount of energy you possess.
True and complete health comes when we are restored to the Healer, whom we cannot know apart from our bodies. Even when we profess belief in Christ, it is not enough to "believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead," we must also "confess with our lips." What does real health look like, then? The psalmist gives us a beautiful portrait in Psalm 103, where he enjoins us to "Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits." His benefits to us are vast and generous. This is the God who "forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's."
Health comes as the overflow of loving God and submitting every realm of our lives to him, including loving and tending the God-made bodies he has given us as gifts—our neighbors' bodies and our own. The church has come a long way in this direction, says Walters, moving away from a negative, escapist theology toward valuing the body. But there's yet a long way to go. "I don't think we have a complete theology of the body and health yet."
I believe that theology will continue to be worked out by theologians, pastors, Zumba dancers, prayer walkers, and people like James Tate of First Baptist Church in Glenarden, Maryland, who lost 200 pounds through an eating and exercise program at his church. He no longer has to sit in the handicap seats in the sanctuary to accommodate a 415-pound frame. He teaches other men in his congregation about "taking care of our bodies" and helps them to develop a closer relationship with God.
Meanwhile, Michelle Reed would like her team to win the Losing to Win competition, but win or lose, she's gained something incalculable. "It's been so eye-opening that God cares about our whole selves. I want to honor him now in all the choices I make."
Leslie Leyland Fields is contributing editor and former columnist for Christianity Today. She has taught creative nonfiction in Seattle Pacific University's Master of Fine Arts program. Her memoir is titled Surviving the Island of Grace: Life on the Wild Edge of America (Epicenter Press).