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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 ...