These Minnesotans combine faith and fitness in surprising ways

Is it a church? Fitness? This place in Hastings is actually both.

When Chad Kirchhoff was hired to be the new pastor of Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church a few years ago, he convinced his congregation to make some big changes.

The basement kitchen and adjacent Sunday school rooms made way for an open space that now houses more than a dozen cardio machines and weight machines and a weight-lifting area with mirrored walls. It’s a shiny, well-maintained fitness center, down to that familiar smell of sweat mixed with disinfectant spray.

You wouldn’t know that just above there is a simple church with stained glass windows, rows of pews and a small sanctuary.

The sign out front explains, “ReDo Fitness: Church of Muscle.”

Kirchhoff had to work hard to make the concept not “seem strange” or make people wonder if they would be “thrown into the baptismal water”.

“Once it started growing, the mission was to reach beyond the walls and barriers that people have and inspire holistic wellness, mental wellness, spiritual wellness, whatever it is in physical fitness,” Kirchhoff said.

As unique as the location may seem, Shepherd of the Valley’s move to combine faith and fitness is one that’s happening elsewhere in Minnesota and across the country.

A conservative Catholic workout called SoulCore involves building core muscles while praying the rosary. In California, a rabbi leads a combined prayer and exercise class—alternating between singing psalms and doing planks and lunges. And in Cloquet, Minn., Body & Soul instructor Judy Swedberg teaches Dance Blast and other fitness classes filled with contemporary Christian music.

“I love it because it brings together the body, soul, mind and strength that Deuteronomy 6:5 tells us to ‘love God with all our heart,'” said Swedberg, who trained to be a fitness instructor at the international nonprofit program that works to spread the “Gospel of Jesus Christ through fitness classes”.

“It covers everything on our checklist,” Svedberg said. “You get your physical training, you get your spiritual time, you get your fellowship, you get your socialization, you get your music that encourages your heart and soul. And you will laugh. So people just love that they go for an hour and they can check off all those things that just help them do better in life.”

Religion scholar Cody Musselman, a postdoctoral fellow at the John S. Danforth Center for Religion and Politics at the University of Washington, said today there are “many outlets” for combining faith and fitness.

“With some traditional religious leaders worried about declining attendance numbers, fitness is a way to try to win back congregants or show that church or synagogue can be relevant to your daily life,” she said, adding that seminaries now often include training to start a “fitness ministry” or “health and wellness ministry.”

For many religious leaders, it’s about “how can you shepherd your congregation not only to a better spiritual life, but also to a better physical life?” Musselman said.

Long history

While current secular fitness shops like SoulCycle seek to provide a spiritual connection and community in a way that many people find church-like, the faith-fitness connection is actually very old, Musselman said. The YMCA began in a 19th-century movement called “muscular Christianity,” which sought to make the faith more attractive to young men.

Kirchhoff, who was one of the founders of the Snap Fitness franchise. secured seed funding from the Lutheran Church Expansion Fund and opened the gym to everyone, not just their congregation. It is free to use, but donations are welcome.

He decided that his church’s gym should not display crosses or scriptures on the walls. He wanted it to be a welcoming place of training for non-Christians as well.

By the fountain, however, there is a bible and a corner where prayer requests are taped to the wall. On Monday evenings, he hosts a wide-ranging philosophical discussion group downstairs as weights clang and elliptical machines circle around him.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the space was packed with high school boys lifting weights while a few adults did cardio. Leo Brabeck, 15, usually comes to ReDo Fitness after school to maintain a push/pull routine, he said.

He wasn’t sure about hanging out at church when a friend first told him about it, but he became a regular gym goer. “As time went on, I said to myself, this is a nice place to walk. There are a lot of good people here,” he said.

The gym brought in some new faces Sunday, but “not as many as I would have liked,” Kirchhoff said.

The hardest part was asking for help. It needs to maintain enough donation revenue to keep things going.

He recently began collecting scrap metal donations in the church parking lot, found community volunteers to help with cleaning, snow removal and other tasks around the church, and asked gym regulars to donate $15 a month if they could.

He is hopeful for the future.

“Sometimes I wonder, ‘Is this real?'” he said. “It’s 1,300 square feet, but it feels a lot bigger,” he said. “This community is growing.”

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