CULTURE WATCH: Faith and Fitness (Part 1)

Is There an Obesity Epidemic in the Church?

By Wendell Cantrell

We have all experienced epiphany moments where the Spirit gets our attention through simple observation on our part and conviction on His part. Pastor Rick Warren recently had one of these moments. You probably remember that Pastor Warren became a household word after writing The Purpose Driven LifeOn a particular Baptism Sunday at Saddleback Church, Warren had one of those moments as he immersed 858 people. He said, “Along around 500, I thought this … We’re all fat.” Warren turned his realization to himself. “But I thought, I’m fat,” he said. “I’m a terrible model of this. I can’t expect our people to get in shape unless I do.” Warren told his congregation about his intentions to shape up. He stood before 20,000 people and told them, “I have gained 3 pounds a year during the 30 years I have pastored your church, so I need to lose about 90 pounds.”1

Warren, naturally gifted with a heavy frame, weighed about 295 pounds in January 2011. He lost 60 pounds last year and wants to drop another 30 this year. He comments, “I’ve always been a big guy. I played football in college. I don’t plan to be a skinny guy, but I certainly need to lose a lot of weight.”

Warren is on a diet-lifestyle program p90x3 , devised by experts at his church, called The Daniel Plan. The program’s name is based on the biblical story about Daniel. In Daniel 1 we see that Daniel and his friends, who are Israelites living in Babylon, refuse to consume the beyond diet. After an approved test diet of eating only vegetables and water, they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food (Daniel 1:15). Fifteen thousand people on this plan (members of the church plus others who have joined the program online) have lost a total of more than 250,000 pounds since January 2011. You can check it out on line if you haven’t heard of it. Warren believes that one of the key reasons for the program’s success is the personal support from home groups. Each group selects a health champion who is passionate about fitness to encourage those who want to lose weight. The purpose of this series is not to promote a particular diet plan, but to explore the issue on a larger scale.

I recently read an enlightening article called Lard have mercy: The Christian Obesity Epidemic2.  The article cites research revealing that there is a higher percentage of obese people in states with larger populations of folks claiming a religious affiliation. According to the author, God must love rotundity, because, according to research by Purdue University professor Ken Ferraro published in the June issue of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, He is cranking them out by the score, at least among his devoted worshipers in certain American Protestant denominations. Ferraro, studying correlations between religious behavior and body mass index, found in a 1998 study that those states with large numbers of persons professing a religious affiliation had higher than average numbers of obese people. In the new study, he breaks this down by specific creed, and reports that whereas one percent or less of those embracing the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or other non-Christian religions qualify as obese, the numbers of the markedly overweight rise dramatically the further one goes toward the Christian fundamentalist end of the spectrum: around 17 percent of Catholics, 18 percent of Methodists, 20 percent of Pentecostal and Assemblies of God parishioners, and a striking 27 percent of Baptists.

The article, though somewhat prejudiced against Christians, makes some striking points. First, the research notes that among congregations whose belief system preaches against such indulgences as alcohol, tobacco, and even dancing, overeating is the one “virtuous” excess left to the faithful. Secondly, the author concludes that while food-centrist traditions of evangelicals may be beneficial to the parishioners’ moral, spiritual and emotional well-being, they are unhealthy contributors to the overall increase in obesity. She fears this will be a great detriment to our struggling health care system, and to the long-term health of a great host of the God-fearing. Thirdly, there is puzzlement that denominations will eagerly embrace such social causes as environmentalism and inequality, but ignore the cause of personal health and fitness. This seems to be an alternative that will likely send all too many churchgoing Americans to meet their Maker sooner than need be.

The author noted that American churches are basically silent on excess body weight, despite the biblical dictate for moderation in all things. The key researcher, in her article noted, “In the book of Proverbs, gluttony is listed with drunkenness as a sign of moral weakness, but few religious groups have any proscriptions against overeating.”  She quoted Pastor Steve Willis, a Baptist pastor in West Virginia, “Why can we address all matters of sin in the church, but we don’t talk about the sin of not taking care of the temples that God has given us? It matters what Christians do with their bodies. Our bodies belong to God!” He encouraged his members to consider exercise and healthy eating as an act of worship.

Discussions of the failure to live out these disciplines concerning our diet and exercise is not a popular topic in most evangelical settings. My hope is that this article will start a dialogue that we need to have. Following articles will address Is Obesity a Sin?, Muscular Christianity, and Practical Matters.  Next month I will start referencing a book entitled Every Body Matters by Gary Thomas. If this topic intrigues you, I highly recommend this book.


Cathleen Falsani, Chicago Sun-Times

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