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Pastor gives his congregation a workout for body and soul

Aug. 26, 2013 at 3:06 PM ET

Pastor Chris Townshend has been on a mission to help his congregation get fit.
Lilo Harms / TODAY
Pastor Chris Townshend has been on a mission to help his congregation get fit.

Some attend church for a spiritual workout, but one congregation's Sunday service has been getting a whole lot more physical. 

Pastor Chris Townshend has been whipping his congregants into shape at the Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Lodi, Calif., pairing his sermons with workouts like cycling and treadmill walking as part of his Get Fit for Life series.

"I had a very poor lifestyle, especially when it came to eating," Townshend told TODAY.com. "I began to change my lifestyle, and that was inspiring other people's lifestyles at the church."

Townshend, who has lost about 35 pounds in 16 months, leads a multigenerational congregation of around 210 outside Sacramento.  

He started the series on August 4th, pairing his sermon with a speed walk. "The focus was on building our spiritual muscle, and the way to do that was to gain energy in our physical life," he said. "That was the week I walked on the treadmill for the entire sermon." 

The sign in front of Chris Townshend's church.
Lilo Harms / TODAY

In the sermon, Townshend spoke about his own journey towards fitness, and quoted Apostle Paul in First Corinthians, who argued that the human body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. He also talked about the basics of a beginner's workout. "Our physical core has to be built up for better posture, so we function better in life," Townshend said. "And if our core spiritual muscle is built up, it helps us function better in life ourselves."

Townshend was turned on to weight loss by workshops and books by Don Nava, a life fitness coach who preaches about combining spiritual and physical fitness. 

"I was inspired to write a sermon series based on working your physical and spiritual muscle," he said. "If you want to get fit for life, you have to begin by building your spiritual muscle. I believe our spiritual muscle is the muscle of our life."

Since that first sermon, he's done everything from riding a two-wheel road bike and a recumbent bike, to using an exercise ball and kettle-bell weights in front of his congregation. Sunday marked the last sermon in the series, and though it's come to an end, Townshend hopes the message will persevere.

"It has inspired hope within our congregation to begin living healthier," he said, noting that congregants have started bringing healthy treats for a post-sermon snack in lieu of doughnuts. "That has inspired people to eat healthier, eat good things and eat healthy." 

He recalled one family in which both the husband and wife have started losing weight already, in hopes of keeping their two young girls, ages 13 and 9, healthy. "In my first sermon, I spoke about how important it was for parents to live a healthy lifestyle physically and spiritually, so they could be good models for their children," Townshend said. "That family has really taken to heart that message."

As for Townshend, he plans to keep this healthy lifestyle going for the long run. "This movement in my life has lasted about 16 months so far, and that I pray will last until I go to heaven," he said. "I pray it'll last til the end of my life here on Earth."

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