By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

When David Redding and his friend Tim Whitmire started a men’s discussion group at Christ Church in Charlotte, N.C., they never imagined it would lead to 1,850 more men’s groups. These new groups use something very different — physical fitness — to prepare men for virtuous leadership in their communities.

That’s what happened as F3 — which stands for fitness, fellowship, and faith — grew from inception in 2011 to become a men’s leadership movement in 30 states. Redding had taken part in workout groups before, but Christ Church helped him come to faith in Christ and envision how men’s fitness groups might lead to something more than bodily conditioning.

“You can take the Book of Common Prayer and find, particularly in the catechism, the roots for how a Christian man should conduct himself,” said Redding, a 55-year-old litigator and retired U.S. Army captain and Green Beret. “It’s all there. All you need to do is follow it.”

Redding, who now attends a Presbyterian church, and Whitmire launched the first F3 group in Charlotte with a few core principles in mind. It would be open to all men. Participation would be free. Leadership in each workout group would be by volunteers; participants take turns at the helm and become more confident leaders. Workouts would always be outdoors, even in extreme heat and cold. And each workout would end with a circle of trust in which men say their F3 nicknames (each person receives one), their ages, and concerns they have.

It is not uncommon for a circle of trust to result in a “ball of man,” as F3 calls it when men huddle, sometimes to lay hands on someone in prayer.

“The circle of trust is this time we spend together and get a little vulnerable,” said Frank Schwartz (nickname: Dark Helmet), an F3 leader who helps promote the movement nationally. “You’ve been through this tough thing together, so they’re guys you can trust. They’ve demonstrated that they’re trustworthy.”

With no staff to pay and no properties to maintain, F3 brings an eclectic approach to its mission to “plant, grow and serve small workout groups for the invigoration of male community leadership.” It borrows from Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, in expecting participants to acknowledge the existence of a higher force or power, though not necessarily God. Military influences are hard to miss: the workout leader, or “Q” in F3 lingo, uses a simplified form of counting cadence like in the U.S. Army.

The F3 workout atmosphere, which routinely begins before dawn, is like a combination of high school football practice and drill sessions at Parris Island. Yelling can be loud enough that guys need to find remote areas, far from congested neighborhoods, for workouts. Training means using whatever’s around, which leads to lots of running and calisthenics. Guys will sometimes bring cinderblocks or sandbags for lifting. Or they might be more resourceful.

“You’ll find big rocks in certain places, and you’ll lift the rocks,” said Schwartz, who says he’s dropped 37 pounds and five inches around his waist since joining F3 three years ago. “It sounds silly to say it out loud, but it’s good in that way. They expect intensity. A lot of guys aren’t able to keep their breakfast down at the first one they come to.”

Perhaps the strongest influence on F3 is that of Muscular Christianity. A movement begun in 1840s Britain, Muscular Christianity sought to help men carry out overseas missions in harsh environments. The solution at the time was to condition them to be strong in body, with an expectation that newfound habits of bodily control would lead to virtuous character.

When F3 advances Muscular Christianity’s ideals, Redding said, it helps fill a virtue void in society. F3 aims to address, via fitness and fellowship, problems that came to light at the men’s group at Christ Church, where Redding saw the benefit of meeting in a single-sex environment.

“Men could talk about the kind of things that are affecting men in general in our society and our community: loneliness, thoughts of suicide, lack of confidence … not knowing how to balance their work and family life,” Redding said. “If there were women in the room, then we wouldn’t be honest. We just wouldn’t.”

F3 seems to be riding on a wave of fitness popularity. Trends include people finding community in programs such as CrossFit, in which a leader barks at participants to step it up and afterward they can commiserate about what they suffered together.

F3 “probably attracts somebody looking for something,” said Andrew Meyer, assistant professor in sport foundations at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and an expert on Muscular Christianity.

“What people used to look to was their faith,” Meyer said. “But we see declining numbers in churches all across the country, except for maybe here in the South. What we see are increases in people joining groups like this looking for meaning in their lives.”

Meyer said he regards F3 as the clearest expression of Muscular Christianity that he has seen emerge in recent years on the American landscape. F3 “is a little different because of its reintegration or expressed concern for the community.”

Though explicit references to Muscular Christianity were fading by the 1930s, its conception of physical activity as a tool to develop noble character became thoroughly mainstream and never disappeared. It motivated the revival of the Olympic games in 1896, Meyer said. The idea saturated American culture through institutions such as the YMCA, church bowling leagues, marathons, or charitable tournaments.

F3’s influence is not documented by hard research, but organizers say anecdotal evidence indicates a pattern. Typically, Redding said, a man loses weight, makes friends, gains confidence as a leader, and seeks new ways to contribute in his community, often by inspiring volunteers for a cause. Sometimes Christians in F3 will travel together on a mission trip and nonbelievers from F3 will come along.

“It’s a disciple machine,” Redding said. “I spent all this time and energy before F3 doing what I felt God was calling me to do in discipling men, and I was 0 for 100. I never made any headway because I didn’t have any relationships with anybody. … But if you sweat with them and you’re out there with them and you’re there for a man when he needs you, he will adopt it. It’s really not that hard.”

While the dynamics in F3 can be channeled to do a lot of good, in Meyer’s view, he also cautions that local groups could be co-opted by propagandists. He cites an example from Chechnya, where the government has paid for young men to be trained in mixed martial arts. It has become a militaristic training program wildly popular among thousands of white nationalists.

Though the cultural context in America is very different from Chechnya, Meyer said that F3’s adaptability to local settings could make it vulnerable to similar dynamics in one or another locale.

For propagandists, “you and a bunch of your buddies could start recruiting people and meeting people and they don’t have to pay a thing,” Meyer said. “You’re going after people who are already looking for something. You find somebody who’s addicted to opioids or is listless and has no purpose. You and your friends have a certain ideology, you bring people to this meeting of F3, and you start indoctrinating it in that sort of way.”

Redding said F3 has not had a problem with white supremacists or other ideologues trying to infiltrate or take over a workout group. Instead, he said, a healthy diversity manifests from one region to the next. In the Pacific Northwest, groups tend to be more secular-minded than in the Southeast, where it’s not uncommon for workouts to end with prayer.

Whatever the location, the goal remains to speed men’s development as leaders motivated and equipped to help their communities.

“If you really want to live a real life, and that means you’re willing to accelerate to get away from the status quo, … Any man who says he’s willing and wants it is in,” Redding said. “The bar for membership is pretty low. In fact, it’s non-existent. All you have to do is want.”

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