In the back room of a theater on Beale Street, John Renken, 42, 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.The "predominantly white" churches' recruitment strategy combines "fight night television viewing parties" with lectures that equate ultimate fighting to Jesus Christ fighting "for what he believed in," which calls to mind one of my favorite sermons, the Grapple on the Mount.
"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 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."Et cetera. Man good, woman bad. Fight good, empathy bad. Compassion and love yadda yadda, but it's time to kick ass for the Lord! You get the drift.
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."
This version of Christianity is not merely one of the most aesthetically objectionable I can imagine from a social justice standpoint, it's also incredibly dangerous. The toxic mix of a religion inextricably linked with physical aggression, war rhetoric, white male supremacy, a masculinity defined in contradistinction to anything viewed as feminine, and everything summarily dismissed as feminine that is remotely associated with compromise and tolerance—that is the stuff of fascism; that is the stuff of crusades.