The Babylon Bee’s headline declared, “‘Drinking is a Sin’ Says Morbidly Obese Pastor.’”
This reflects the church experience of many Christians. We have become accustomed to this kind of irony where pastors or congregational members do not practice what they preach, especially when it comes to modeling and encouraging physical health and well-being.
Jokes aside, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data is sobering:
- 42.8% of U.S. adults are obese — 70.9% of this total are either overweight or obese; 9.2% are severely obese.
- 18.5% of U.S. children aged 2-19 years old are obese; 20.6% of those aged 12-19 are obese.
As ministers get behind the pulpit each week, one glance at the congregation will likely confirm these statistics. Ministers and church leaders need to ensure they do not neglect addressing physical health as they administer pastoral care.
As image bearers of God, we are comprised of body, mind and spirit. The way we care for body impacts the mind and spirit just as what we feed our spirit affects our mind and body. Yet, our culture more often than not divorces these categories.
In pursuit of vanity, many people are wholly devoted to their physical health and fitness yet remain spiritually atrophied. Conversely, I have encountered a lot of people in churches, Bible studies and seminary who demonstrate spiritual maturity but continue to neglect their physical health.
Health and nutrition are part and parcel of spiritual formation. If our bodies are not cared for and we lack self-discipline, we are kidding ourselves to think it will not have spiritual and mental health consequences.
If God is cultivating within us self-control as one of the fruits of the Spirit, this ought to manifest in our eating, sleeping and exercising habits. It is no wonder that Paul uses athletic terminology when addressing the self-indulgent church at Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 9:25-27).
Paul warns that our preaching of the gospel is disqualified if we do not “embody” the message. This means that our lives should be disciplined physically just as much as they are spiritually.
Being a chaplain candidate with the Army Reserves has forced me to make physical and nutritional fitness as much of a priority as my spiritual exercises. I hope that more congregations will incorporate nutrition and exercise into the spiritual formation of their congregations.
Here are five practices for congregations to consider adopting
- Practice what you preach.
If you are a minster or church leader, make sure you are modeling health and fitness in your life so that “after proclaiming to others” you yourself “should not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
- Incorporate nutrition and fitness into small groups.
Our lifelong journey of spiritual formation is not a solo gig; neither is building healthy habits. If your church is accustomed to small groups, think of incorporating ones related to exercise and nutrition.
Accountability and camaraderie are natural outgrowths of communal activities like these. Just look at the unbridled success of the CrossFit movement.
- Consider investing in gym equipment at your church.
Does your congregation already have a gymnasium? Why not maximize the space and create further ministry opportunities by adding fitness equipment?
Churches that have invested in fitness equipment and started their own gym programs are able to engage their community in ways other churches cannot. When my wife and I lived in Las Vegas, the co-lead female pastor of the church ran a CrossFit program out of their church gym, which offered a unique outreach opportunity.
- Enact a FAN program.
This fitness resource focuses on Faith, Activity and Nutrition (FAN), helping congregations find ways to make room for more physical activity and healthy eating opportunities. Churches can share physical activity and healthy eating messages while encouraging ministers to model more healthy lifestyles.
- Make fasting a regular priority.
The Eastern Orthodox Church consistently practices the spiritual discipline of fasting. Aside from their seasonal fasting periods throughout the year, they also fast biweekly on Wednesdays and Fridays.
More churches need to incorporate fasting into their Christian living. Jesus said, “And when you fast” (Matthew 6:16), not “if you fast.” Fasting is a commandment, not a suggestion.
My prayer is that church leaders will pursue and develop more well-rounded approaches to pastoral care and spiritual formation. We are embodied souls. What we do with our bodies has spiritual and therefore eternal ramifications.
Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit their article for consideration to firstname.lastname@example.org.