The Fitness-Driven Church
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.