American Ninja Warrior and spiritual formation

Chad Thornhill

I’ve developed a bit of an obsession in the last few years with American Ninja Warrior. It also happens to be one of my kids’ favorite family television traditions. The American version of what began as a Japanese program is now in its seventh season. The show takes contestants through a series of obstacle courses, presenting challenges requiring agility, quickness and upper body strength. Each stage gets progressively difficult; no American has yet completed all four stages.

The show’s contestants come from all walks of life: from gymnasts, Olympians and professional athletes to fire fighters, middle school teachers and Eagle scouts. While the individual stories are inspiring, the level of training and commitment required to succeed on the show is astounding. Having “auditioned” for this season myself (though I didn’t get a call back … there’s always next year!), I’ve spent some time in the last year training on mock obstacles and working toward goals I previously would not have even attempted. Since the show’s producers design the obstacles to have about an 80 percent failure rate, the capabilities of many of these “ninjas” can easily make an aspiring competitor feel inept.

Lately I’ve been struck by the parallels between the show and the Christian spiritual journey. Unlike most competitions, participants compete less against one another than they do against the course itself. Competitors have different levels of goals and expectations. They are intent on pushing themselves and maximizing their potential. Also unlike other competitions, the other participants cheer on each ninja running the course, wanting to see others succeed. While the course is intense, the competitors are genuinely rooting for one another.

Lately I’ve been struck by the parallels between the show and the Christian spiritual journey.

As John Bunyan demonstrated with The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Christian life can be seen as a journey filled with difficulties and challenges. Yet unlike “Christian’s” journey in Bunyan’s book, which mostly takes place alone, the Christian life must be lived in community. Lone travelers seldom progress on their journey without incredible difficulty. Like the ninjas who cheer on their fellow competitors, the community of faith exists to spur each member of the body on to greater obedience and faithfulness. Likewise, just as competitors strategize with one another and demonstrate the best way to tackle obstacles, the journey of faith is best undertaken when enriched by the wisdom of those more mature in their walk, as well as by considering the examples found in the lives of the saints, both ancient and contemporary.

While the producers behind American Ninja Warrior search for capable athletes and compelling backstories, there is a variety of ability represented in the show’s competitors. The rock climbers excel in the upper body obstacles, but are sometimes tripped up by obstacles requiring balance and agility. The parkour runners make quick work of the running and jumping obstacles, but often lack the grip strength necessary for some of the more advanced hanging obstacles. Different athletes come with different skill sets and different levels of preparation.

The Christian life likewise finds its participants with different strengths and weaknesses, often depending on where they are in their journey. It may be easy for an immature believer to become discouraged watching the mature among them navigate difficult situations with robust faith. That maturity, however, only comes with time, community, dependence on the Spirit and repeated cruciform practice. It takes time, effort and sacrifice to excel at the physical challenges represented on American Ninja Warrior; the same is required to faithfully follow after the risen Lord. As we watch these athletes compete and astound us with their abilities, may we likewise commit ourselves to intently facing the challenges that come with following Jesus.

Topics: TV, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure, Sports, Theology & The Church, Faith