Millennials are willing to spend roughly $1400 per year on fitness-related costs1, use hours of their valuable time, and get up at 5 AM or skip their lunch break to make sure they get in the work-outs they want. The Catholic members of this group also frequently drop the lines, “I don’t have enough time to go to Mass” or “I don’t think I can commit to helping with *parish activity* because I have too much going on.” Or these folks have given up going to Mass period. What gives?
Fitness gives measurable, tangible results to effort and sacrifice. Effort exerted, results gained. It’s such an awesome equation for the type A++ personalities that our results-driven, achievement-fed, and award-seeking 18-40 year olds desire. Fitness is communally accepted as a method of gaining and maintaining your own self-image, meeting people, extending your lifespan, and creating time for you to think, relieve stress, and………pray?
The same people who are obsessed (or even generally interested) in fitness are primed and ready for an encounter with Jesus. People who work out are seeking sacrifice to better themselves, which is clearly a doorway to the Christian life. Of course, the Church provides the ultimate answers to your self image, the community you’ve been searching for, extending your lifespan (eternally), and giving you the number one outlet to think and relieve stress: by giving it all to Jesus. So how do we close this gap?
As can be seen by the names of popular workout routines (examples: Insanity, Power 90, Body Beast etc.), people aren’t looking for something wishy-washy and dumbed down. Millennials are seeking authenticity, challenge, and meaningful sacrifice for something that they believe will make them (and others) better.
The world around us is telling us to create our own identity through the contortions of our own bodies, our sexuality, the manipulation of our identity through social media, and the reduction of personal opinions to 280-character tweets. In our hearts, we know this is not right; it is not who we are. As Pope Benedict XVI famously proclaimed, we are made for greatness. We, the Church in the US, do not do a great job letting the world know that our authentic identity can only be found in Jesus, in meaningful sacrifice and journeying to holiness. Millennials, thus, often seek their authentic identity in other places-like marathon running or Spartan events-that show they really are made for greatness. Although the public image of the Church can be distorted to lose the core message of the Gospel, it doesn’t mean that people need to miss Jesus.
But there is good news: authentic encounters of Jesus almost never occur via the public perception of the Church. Authentic encounter with Jesus happens when people meet you and me in unexpected (but EXPECTED!) places and experience Jesus through us. We need to be using the platform of fitness as a means for evangelization. We need to convey to people that real and actual greatness comes through something way beyond a workout routine.
Do you go to the gym? This can be an avenue for you to show others that your faith is compatible with many of the same things they are seeking by working out. Or, you can offer your workout for those around you or pray for those you see at the gym while working out. If you run on a treadmill, don’t let that torturous suffering you’re putting yourself through go to waste! Offer that up for someone!
We can also be more intentional by creating fitness groups that aim to evangelize. As we know, successful evangelization rarely begins with inviting someone to Mass or Adoration. That’s way down the line. Successful evangelization begins with some soft entry point … like the soccer team you formed with some of your Catholic friends with the intention of inviting some of your fallen-away Catholic friends on the team, or training for a marathon with some non-Catholic friends. The faith topic will eventually come up if you run 2-5 hours with this person every single weekend. Opportunities here are endless- pick your sport, pick your activity, pick your fitness track…..and figure out how to get your non-Catholic friends there with you. Jesus will use all these opportunities to bring these people to himself.
I’ve been blessed to see the incredible fruits of what I’m going to term “fitness-based evangelization.” I organize a charity team to raise support for our work with the poor on the west side of Chicago at Mission of Our Lady of the Angels. We have approximately 150 people run the Bank of America Chicago Marathon and the Shamrock Shuffle to raise support for our work each year.).
Getting an entry to the Chicago Marathon is super hard because of the high demand. Because I’m a charity, however, I have guaranteed entries into the race. This leads to me getting all kind of people to join the team because they want to get into the race. And, then, guess what? They have just signed up to have a nun send them e-mails they need to read every week for the next 8 months.
Through the experience on the charity team we’ve seen people come back to the Church, go back to Mass after a LONG time away, feel connected to the Church again for the first time since they were a kid, and have an opportunity to spread their faith, which empowers some to get more involved with the Church after the race. My favorite example is Doug.
Doug was asked to join our charity team by a friend. Doug’s goal was to lose 60-80 lbs. in the process of prepping for the marathon (which, incredibly, he did!). Doug had also fallen away from his faith when he was a young adult. The day before the marathon he got a letter from us letting him know that we’d been praying for him during the marathon training process. Doug approached me weeping, saying that he knows that nobody has prayed for him since his mom died (10 years ago). He was so grateful that he had been able to pair his weight loss journey with running for a charity. He said it had brought him so much hope and knowledge that there was more to his life than he ever thought possible.
Doug had encountered Jesus, whether he could articulate it or not at this time, on his marathon training journey. We hope we can accompany him as he continues to run with Jesus into the future. We’re already praying for next year’s “Doug.”
By using fitness for evangelization, we can show the world that we really are made for true greatness through Jesus. Let’s recognize that millennials desire this greatness, want to sacrifice to transform the world around them, and want to do it for the good of themselves and others. Let’s harness this energy, witness, and zeal for Jesus and His Church.