After taking a few aerobics classes as a teenager, Alisa Keeton knew she needed one of those pink leotards. She begged her mother to outfit her newfound passion and never looked back. Physical fitness became his life’s work and his ministry.
Keeton, 46, founded Revelation Wellness a decade ago in Phoenix, just as CrossFit and other high-intensity exercise programs were taking off across the country. But Keeton and his instructors understood that physical activity could go beyond weight loss or strength training. They argue that holistic health centered on God, not self, enables God’s people to serve Him better.
The ministry uses fitness as a pathway to freedom, encouraging participants to let go of what weighs them down physically and spiritually. Prayers and pumps go hand in hand. The scriptures are preached as the repetitions are counted. Together, healing happens. For the Keeton team, fitness isn’t the end goal – it’s simply a tool for proclaiming Christ.
The landscape of group fitness classes is very different from the shiny Spandex that filled Keeton’s first aerobics class in the 1980s. She’s spent the past 25 years working as a fitness professional, watching the culture of training simultaneously becoming more intense (think “extreme” fitness challenges and runs) and mainstream (Zumba at the YMCA and P90X videos at home).
Keeton’s launch of Revelation Wellness matches a growing interest in faith-based wellness nationwide.
Pastors have led their congregations to collectively lose thousands of pounds, and leaders such as Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, pioneered programs incorporating the Bible, exercise and diet. In 2015, the American Council on Predicted Exercise an “increase in faith-based fitness programs”.
Health-conscious believers have many choices when it comes to reducing their size while strengthening their faith. Books, DVDs, and instructors talk about exercise and diet while quoting scripture, and explicitly faith-based options like Holy Yoga, PraiseMoves, and Christian CrossFit gyms teach in-person classes. Many of these products and programs are aimed specifically at women, said Brad Bloom, the publisher of Faith & Fitness Magazine.
“Faith and fitness is not a trend,” Bloom said, noting that the combination of physical and spiritual health issues dates back to at least the late 1800s. holistic health and vibrant Christian ministry.”
This rise in faith-based options reflects the industry as a whole, as consumers (especially millennials) choose to sweat it out in fitness studios and group classes, seeking the the community and specialized experience they offer.
Prior to beginning his ministry, Keeton began to see a desire among his clients for personal training and group fitness that went beyond toning up and losing weight. Even when his clients achieved their goals, they weren’t satisfied.
The constant fads of his industry highlighted the discontent. Something new always promised that ever elusive transformation. Nothing has ever been enough.
“My clients really wanted Jesus,” she said. “They wanted the gospel. They wanted to know they belonged more than they wanted six-pack abs. And it really destroyed me.
When a friend suggested Keeton start a Christian aerobics class, she backed off. She knew how corny that sounded. But after a conference, the call became clearer and she began to put pen to paper. The program she wrote eventually became a book she published earlier this year: Wellness Revelation: Lose Your Weight So You Can Love God, Yourself, and Others (Tyndale Momentum)
She already knew how to motivate people to pursue physical change. Now God was asking her to take what she had learned to lead people to spiritual change.
Fitness Instructor, Gospel Preacher
Revelation Wellness has spread far beyond Phoenix, with approximately 1,000 certified instructors nationwide – they call them “fitness teachers, gospel preachers.”
Their nine-week training includes a study of the Book of Nehemiah and Revelation wellness program and culminates in an intensive retreat in northern Arizona. Instructors don’t learn a specific style of group fitness, and much of what they study comes from the American Council on Exercise manual, said Keeton, who is certified by that organization.
Finding a place where instructors can teach once certified has proven a challenge, with churches and gymnasiums reluctant to open their doors.
“We’re too worldly for the church and too religious for the world,” Keeton said.
While secular gyms don’t welcome the faith element of a Revelation Wellness class, churches have their own doubts.
Bloom said he’s seen churches resist fitness classes for reasons ranging from uncertainties about insurance coverage to questions about “how to regulate the client.”
They ask, “What are we going to allow them to wear?” How are we going to discipline them if they use profanity? ” he said. “Instead, the church must view every human behavior as an opportunity for ministry.”
Keeton spoke of having to push back against the idea that “it’s wasted energy trying to focus on anything physical when spiritual development…is of the utmost importance”.
Revelation Wellness also takes its ministry on the road, hosting two-day conferences across the country and a hike in the Grand Canyon. Those unable to attend a live event can pay a monthly fee to access an archive of pre-recorded workouts.
“For most people, [working out] is either a punishment or a chore,” said Heather Johnson, a teacher and director of culture at the ministry. “Some people really like working out, but for most people it’s not something they realize they can do for the Lord. It’s not a punishment for having eaten badly the night before. It’s about making sure our bodies are healthy and whole so we can serve Him well and love Him.
Johnson said the Revelation Wellness training seeks to reset the way participants understand their bodies — they are designed by God, to be offered as worship. The fusion of faith and fitness establishes a mindset that focuses on the health of a whole person, encompassing mind, body and soul.
The slogan of Revelation Wellness sums up the appeal of Christian fitness for many believers: “Love God. Regain health. Be whole. Love others. From this perspective, fitness is not egocentric.
Johnson has experienced this type of holistic transformation firsthand. She said God delivered her from anorexia and body dysmorphia and that the workout was an idol to be controlled and manipulated.
Most women experience some degree of longing for their bodies, from the gripping psychology of an eating disorder to the relentless quest to lose five more pounds.
“The image of an angular, skinny woman has become the feminine ideal, seen every time we stand in a queue, turn on the television, go to the movies, or walk past an Abercrombie and Fitch,” wrote Halee Gray Scott for CT. On Instagram, hashtags such as #fitspiration and #fitnessmotivation show off kicked-up booties, chiseled abs and defined arms.
Keeton thinks these are all cultural definitions of beauty and not worth pursuing. That’s why she doesn’t look for a particular body type or shape when hiring her instructors.
“My encouragement to women is that the judgment is pronounced: you are loved. You belong,” she said. “And there is sickness inside of you. Go to the feet of Jesus and ask him to remove it, then move your body in response to the goodness of his love.
In a blog post urging women to take a break before embarking on the next diet, Keeton asked, “Is that desire [to diet] pushed by God or nourishing my flesh? She encouraged the reader to wonder if her mental diet had been Instagram or Bible truth. Keeton wrote:
Be realistic with your expectations. We live in a time that puts beauty and youth at the top of our culture’s most wanted list. … Yes, take care of your body. It is the best tool you have to live a life of joy, peace and love! A few extra folds of skin that occur with age are not a crime against humanity, my friends. … Older women, younger women won’t know what freedom from the constraints of the world is like unless someone shows them. End the war of trying to find or preserve your younger self and embrace the woman of freedom and grace that you already are.
Keeton herself knows what it’s like to succumb to these outside pressures and use her body for attention and affirmation, like when she opted for breast implants about 17 years ago. “I bought into a cultural lie,” she said. “I bought the lie, and I have to say that even when I had them, I don’t know. I don’t remember thinking, ‘Yes! This is amazing!'”
A few years ago, God caused her to literally lift a burden from her chest. The whisper had always been there – “I wonder what it would be like to be the original myself.” She preached fitness, freedom and faith to others, inviting people to live fully as themselves. Now, God had the same invitation for her.
“God wasn’t going to love me any less for keeping them, but where he wanted me to go, I could only go without the enemy accusing me of being a fraud,” she said.
Keeton wants others to experience the healing she found in drawing closer to the Lord and letting that relationship change everything about how she viewed and treated her body.
“When people say, ‘I want to lose weight,’ I say, ‘Okay, but be prepared. This is going to cost you your comfort. You can’t keep doing the same thing. You can’t keep having the same thoughts,” she said, noting that the work of sanctification and healing requires sacrifice. “It’s a bigger message that you just want to lose weight. Everyone wants freedom, but no one wants to pay.
But for her, the cost was worth it.
“There is disease in all of us,” she said. “And God, through loss, through discomfort, through fire, heals us. This is how it goes beyond physical fitness.
Johanna Willett is a journalist in Tucson. Follow her on Twitter @JohannaWillett.