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...
...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.
The "power teams" that were ubiquitous in charismaniac churches in the early 1990s seem like wimps compared to these guys. While I agree with their criticism of the feminization of evangelicalism ( The Church Impotent (1999) by Leon Podles is a good book on the subject), I think these men take it too far the other way. The fighting that Christians are commanded to do is to "earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). I don’t see that kind of fighting going on in "Christian" MMA (or, for that matter, in much of evangelicalism generally). And if you look closely at the photos that accompany the Times article, you'll notice the tattoo on the pastor's arm; everything about this "ministry" appears pagan, yet we're supposed to accept it as "Christian."
It’s yet another indication of the decline of evangelicalism that an activity that a few years ago was regarded by the world--never mind the church--as just a step above cockfighting and dogfighting is now considered to be a legitimate "outreach." R.M. Schneiderman, the author of the article, goes on to point out:
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...
...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.
It was considered to be a mark of progress when the Marquis of Queensberry rules (including the use of gloves) were introduced into boxing in the early 1890s. Prior to this, bareknuckle boxing was held in the same level of esteem as mixed martial arts was until a decade or so ago. For instance, on May 30, 1889, Gentleman Jim Corbett fought Joe Choynski in Fairfax, California. The result was ruled a "no contest" when police stopped the bout in the 4th round. Six days later, the two men fought a rematch, but because the local authorities refused to permit the fight to take place in Fairfax, the bout took place on a barge anchored off Dillon's Point, opposite Benicia Harbor, in the Carquinez Straits (Mr. Corbett won by knockout in the 27th round). Yet here comes early 21st Century evangelicalism--as always, a few years behind the world--hailing glorified street brawling as an "outreach."
While athletic analogies are used several times in the New Testament (e.g., I Corinthians 9:24-27; Hebrews 12:1), I don’t think the analogies fit with the kind of "sport" represented by mixed martial arts. The early Christians were opposed to the blood sports of their day, and of course, Christians became many of the victims in the arenas. The disappearance of blood sports has always been regarded as a mark of social progress, but here come the "evangelicals," encouraging a return to barbarism.
As far as it being an outreach, Pastor Eugene Cho is correct, as quoted in the article: "What you attract people to Christ with is also what you need to get people to stay." If violent "sport" is what’s drawing them to Jesus Christ (and I see no evidence that they are truly coming to Christ), then you’ll have to keep on presenting violent "sport" in order to keep them coming back. And the way the law of diminishing returns works, more frequent doses of increasing violence will be required. As for Ryan Dobson’s support of MMA, I find it difficult to take the divorced-and-remarried Mr. Dobson seriously on anything.
It’s interesting that black churches are reluctant to participate in "Christian" MMA. I suspect that’s because they have enough dismal experience with violence among fatherless young black men that they don’t want to encourage more of the same.
Another thing: I’m sick and tired of all this promotion of "extreme" this, "ultimate" that, and "maximum" the other thing, especially for Christians. What's wrong with being ordinary? Most of us are. As Pastor Bob DeWaay says, just to be an ordinary Christian is an extraordinary thing. As for my own manhood, I prefer to let God govern and instruct me in that, rather than the increasingly decadent and Christ-rejecting world.
HT: Albert Mohler