MEMPHIS — In the back room of a theater on Beale Street, John Renken, 37, a pastor, recently led a group of young men in prayer.
“Father, we thank you for tonight,” he said. “We pray that we will be a representation of you.”
An hour later, a member of his flock who had bowed his head was now unleashing a torrent of blows on an opponent, and Mr. Renken was offering guidance that was not exactly prayerful.
“Hard punches!” he shouted from the sidelines of a martial arts event called Cage Assault. “Finish the fight! To the head! To the head!”
The young man was a member of a fight team at Xtreme Ministries, a small church near Nashville that doubles as a mixed martial arts academy. Mr. Renken, who founded the church and academy, doubles as the team’s coach. The school’s motto is “Where Feet, Fist and Faith Collide.”
Mr. Renken’s ministry is one of a small but growing number of evangelical churches that have embraced mixed martial arts — a sport with a reputation for violence and blood that combines kickboxing, wrestling and other fighting styles — to reach and convert young men, whose church attendance has been persistently low. Mixed martial arts events have drawn millions of television viewers, and one was the top pay-per-view event in 2009.
Recruitment efforts at the churches, which are predominantly white, involve fight night television viewing parties and lecture series that use ultimate fighting to explain how Christ fought for what he believed in. Other ministers go further, hosting or participating in live events.
The goal, these pastors say, is to inject some machismo into their ministries — and into the image of Jesus — in the hope of making Christianity more appealing. “Compassion and love — we agree with all that stuff, too,” said Brandon Beals, 37, the lead pastor at Canyon Creek Church outside of Seattle. “But what led me to find Christ was that Jesus was a fighter.”
The outreach is part of a larger and more longstanding effort on the part of some ministers who fear that their churches have become too feminized, promoting kindness and compassion at the expense of strength and responsibility.
“The man should be the overall leader of the household,” said Ryan Dobson, 39, a pastor and fan of mixed martial arts who is the son of James C. Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, a prominent evangelical group. “We’ve raised a generation of little boys.”
These pastors say the marriage of faith and fighting is intended to promote Christian values, quoting verses like “fight the good fight of faith” from Timothy 6:12. Several put the number of churches taking up mixed martial arts at roughly 700 of an estimated 115,000 white evangelical churches in America. The sport is seen as a legitimate outreach tool by the youth ministry affiliate of the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents more than 45,000 churches.
“You have a lot of troubled young men who grew up without fathers, and they’re wandering and they’re hopeless and they’re lousy dads themselves and they’re just lost,” said Paul Robie, 54, a pastor at South Mountain Community Church in Draper, Utah.
Fighting as a metaphor has resonated with some young men.
“I’m fighting to provide a better quality of life for my family and provide them with things that I didn’t have growing up,” said Mike Thompson, 32, a former gang member and student of Mr. Renken’s who until recently had struggled with unemployment and who fights under the nickname the Fury. “Once I accepted Christ in my life,” Mr. Thompson said, “I realized that a person can fight for good.”
Nondenominational evangelical churches have a long history of using popular culture — rock music, skateboarding and even yoga — to reach new followers. Yet even among more experimental sects, mixed martial arts has critics.
“What you attract people to Christ with is also what you need to get people to stay,” said Eugene Cho, 39, a pastor at Quest Church, an evangelical congregation in Seattle. “I don’t live for the Jesus who eats red meat, drinks beer and beats on other men.”
Robert Brady, 49, the executive vice president of a conservative evangelical group, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, agreed, saying that the mixed martial arts motif of evangelism “so easily takes away from the real focus of the church, which is the Gospel.” Many black churches have chosen not to participate.
Almost a decade ago, mixed martial arts was seen as a blood sport without rules or regulation. It was banned in nearly every state and denounced by politicians like Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona.
Over the past five years, however, because of shrewd marketing by the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the sport’s premier brand, mixed martial arts has become mainstream. Today the sport is legal and regulated in 42 states.
Its proponents point to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine showing that mixed martial arts participants suffer a lower rate of knockouts than boxers.
Over the past year and a half, a subculture has evolved, with Christian mixed martial arts clothing brands like Jesus Didn’t Tap (in the sport, “tap” means to give up) and Christian social networking Web sites like Anointedfighter.com.
Roughly 100 young men, many sporting shaved heads and tattoos, attend fight parties at Canyon Creek near Seattle, watching bouts on the church’s four big-screen televisions. Vendors hustle hot dogs and “Predestined to Fight” T-shirts. About half are not church members but heard about the parties through friends, said Mr. Beals, who is known as the Fight Pastor.
Men ages 18 to 34 are absent from churches, some pastors said, because churches have become more amenable to women and children. “We grew up in a church that had pastel pews,” said Tom Skiles, 37, the pastor of Spirit of St. Louis Church in Arnold, Mo. “The men fell asleep.”
In focusing on the toughness of Christ, evangelical leaders are harking back to a similar movement in the early 1900s, historians say, when women began entering the work force. Proponents of this so-called muscular Christianity advocated weight lifting as a way for Christians to express their masculinity.
“This whole generation is raised on the idea that they’re in a culture war for the heart and soul of America,” said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University.
Paul Burress, 35, a chaplain and fight coach at Victory Baptist Church in Rochester, said mixed martial arts had given his students a chance to work on body, soul and spirit. “Win or lose, we represent Jesus,” he said. “And we win most of the time.”
But on that cold night in Memphis, Mr. Renken, the pastor from Xtreme Ministries, watched as two of his three fighters were beaten, one emerging with a broken ankle.
Another, Jesse Johnson, 20, a potential convert, was subdued in a chokehold and decided not to return home with the other church members after his bout. He stayed in Memphis, drinking and carousing with friends along Beale Street, this city’s raucous, neon-lighted strip of bars.
By R. M. Schneiderman
New York Times