‘Where Feet, Fists, and Faith Collide’

Behold, the latest pitch to attract more men to church

In the back room of a theater on Beale Street, John Renken, 42, 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!” 

Renken is the founder of Xtreme Ministries, a church-slash-mixed-martial-arts academy outside of Nashville. The New York Times article calls it one of a “small but growing number” of evangelical churches to combine MMA with church services in an attempt to reach out to young men.

“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.”

This isn’t a new concept, of course: Churches have tried all sorts of things to get young people in the doors, and we’ve had long conversations here about the need today for more manly expressions of faith. So is this idea on the right track, or is it overcorrecting for all that “compassion and love stuff”? I expect our MMA fans out there might have a thing or two to say about this, too…

Margaret Cabaniss


Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at SlowMama.com.

  • Joshua

    I’m not a fan of MMA, but one former pastor (Fr. Pat Egan) leads the University of Michigan men’s boxing club and another (Fr. Ed Fride) taught me a bit of Tae Kwon Do. I suspect that both of these priests’ demonstration of manliness helped Fr. Jonathan Morris and some others be more open to the call of priesthood. Jon was very competitive athletically growing up and I doubt he would have gone for a profession composed of girly men.

  • Zoe Romanowsky

    I’m not sure how anyone takes away from Scripture that “Jesus was a fighter.” About the only example we have in Scripture of Jesus being at all physically aggressive was when he turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. Otherwise his “fighting” was spiritual.

    It seems that physically aggressive/ violent sports have been with us in one form or another for a very long time and they provide an outlet for many men. Certainly, there is strategy, skill and discipline involved, but there’s also bravado, toughness, ego, and power, too.

    Especially when human beings are no longer using their physical bodies much, no longer spending their days hunting and fishing and building and farming, maybe sports is the channel for some of this unspent energy or need to wrestle something.

    I’ve always been very critical of any violent/aggressive sport, and still am, but I’m trying to see it from different angles to understand it better, rather than simply judge it.

  • Michael

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with studying martial arts (boxing, judo, tae kwon do, wrestling, fencing) in a controlled environment. It teaches discipline, self-control, and self-confidence. People pounding the hell out of each other in a fight club type setting is something completely different. I hope that’s not what this is.

  • I am not Spartacus

    MMA is an opportunistic infection in the Body of Liberalism.

    I think there are a number of women who are questioning, at least in part, the error of egalitarian education which has resulted in the creation and popularity of MMA.

    In America’s schools, young males are being systematically destroyed (morally, physically,intellectually) if not intentionally (that’d be easier to correct because it is easier identifiable),then as a by-product of a malign ideology.

    If right reason and Christian realism is to be restored women will have to lead the way in the area of education.

    If America keeps heading down this path of Liberalism, we can expect even more extreme and violent sports to be created.

    I think Laura Wood has a better idea: http://tinyurl.com/yhyyyaz of what needs to be done so as to address the problem at its source.

    The ideology of egalitarianism is increasing the level of violence in society, the exact opposite of one of its intentions.

  • Commander Craig

    There has been an evangelical pro wrestling show in recent memory, but since pro wrestling is a “work” (i.e., a performance), it probably passes muster as a depiction of spiritual warfare.

    While there is a certain amount of art and skill in the “shoot” bouts of MMA, their main allure is in seeing guys like Brock Lesnar and Kimbo Slice turn the faces of their opponents into ground beef. For real.

    While these folks have the proper end in mind, I think their means are misguided.

  • georgie-ann

    sounds more Roman than Christian,…”blows to the head” not only damage externally, but can lead to severe brain damage,…this would NOT be considered good stewardship of the body God gave us,…it sounds more like “tempting God” to heal the damage, virtually self-inflicted by participating, and more just plain stupid and self-deceived than intelligent,…where the “spiritual” justification for all this lies, is lost on me,…

  • Chrissy G

    Is it another name for Ultimate Fighting? If not, my guess would be that it falls somewhere between the no-rules ultimate fighting and a structured, rule-based match like boxing or traditional martial arts sparring. I would say that something which is low on rules and high on adrenaline and injuries is not a representation of God for anyone- beating someone to a pulp for the sake of the thrill of a challenge and a boost to one’s ego is just not Christlike. But a more sportsmanlike competition that pursues human greatness in physical matters seems like a valid application of “do all things for the greater glory of God”.

  • greenman

    We know that Paul buffeted his body as an act of penance. We also know that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. I’m still not completely reconciled to boxing. Extreme sports cause extreme damage with the only reward being total submission of the opponent. I have great difficulty in this regard.

  • Godfrey Saint

    I agree with some of the comments. The MMA is probably a step too far for it to find Christian validity. Violence for its own sake is perverse. However, St Paul used athletic analogies and the Old Testament includes substantial amounts of information of the Israelites as an army of God, as well as a nation. Men can and should fight for just, Godly causes. The Church should not send men a message that they must be weak and pathetic victims to be good Christians. No man wants to be that.

    I recently finished David Murrow’s book “”Why Men Hate Going To Church.” I strongly recommend it to any Catholic who is concerned by male disinterest in mainline Christianity, including Catholicism. This is not an attack on the saintly women of the Church. It more explains what can be done to make Church more relevant to men, from a guy’s perspective. I loved that book.

    Would be interested in hearing what others think.


  • georgie-ann

    ….leads to permanent, progressive, and irreversible brain damage,…

    i think training, discipline and skills development trump beating the tar out of someone else, and there really are many classic avenues for doing that,…it seems with the low common denominator that we already have to deal with these days, that you’d also want to try to be a bit more intentionally uplifting, as long as you’re going to put that much effort into something,…

    come to think of it,…the male parent of the male that i married (i was told), used to encourage this son to beat the “tar” out of other kids when he was growing up,…in fact, he would pay him to do so,…

    well now, i surely have concluded long ago that this was a bummer child-rearing technique, as this same son that i married very quickly started beating up on me,…and would you believe?,…even with AA and all kinds of other “help” group things,…and zillions of years,…he has never once been able, or motivated, to personally express sincere regret for ANY of his violent explosions toward a victim,…

    he’s still blaming (by rationalizing) everyone and everything else,…now, that’s what i would call a very regrettable “life sentence,”…and a pretty sad waste,…

    i feel that induced post traumatic stress syndrome is part of his profile and problem,…and he was definitely on the way to spreading this problem to others in his near vicinity–those “under” him in his felt “pecking order,”…the only thing to do was to keep a distance,…

    when inflicting excessive physical violence on another, how does anyone know what is happening on the “inside” of either person?,…are we using the commonsense that God gave us?,…