Fight the good fight!?

The New York Times reports that some pastors are taking Timothy 6:12 to a new level, using martial arts or boxing as part of their evangelism strategy.

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.

I’m not sure what to make of this. As a near-pacifist, I have trouble seeing this as a appropriately tied to the Christian message. On the other hand, especially after reading the quotes from some people in the programs, it’s hard to deny that it works. Let’s face it: for much of the world, the choice not to fight is an unattainable luxury.

My first introduction to this world was last week, when “Fighting Father Dave”, who ministers in Australia, linked to my blog. If you want a glimpse into a fascinating and singular ministry, go check out his website. Be warned that you’ll get a popup when you try to leave. I guess that’s taking the “magnetic church” to a new level for the web.

I understand the argument that boxing isn’t really fighting, but rather a sport. I’m not sure I buy it, but to the extent that point is stipulated, there is little objectionable here. Martial arts, while they may be used by fighters, are not inherently about violent attacks. And, as the article says, many churches make use of yoga and other “non-Christian” activities in their programs and evangelism.

What I’m saying, I suppose, is that while my first reaction was “how dare you!”, I quickly moved to seeing that this is a group of people doing just what St. Paul suggested –they are being all things to all people. As far as I can see, they are faithful to Christ’s message. They are simply acknowledging through actions what most people already know: this life is a constant struggle, sometimes a literal fight between good and evil. They are harnessing fighting to fight the good fight. While I’ve never wanted to attend a boxing match, I’d love to see one of these pastors and their flocks in action.

A couple of Sundays ago, I wore my cassock to preside at the annual meeting of the parish I serve. A little girl said to me, pointing to my cincture with its black fringe, “That’s a funny belt!” She added, “It looks like a karate belt.” Everyone around laughed, and I cracked a joke about being a “black belt priest — don’t mess with me.” Maybe we should start a karate ministry…

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12 Responses

  1. Bob Chapman says:,_Christian_Soldiers

    You may see a link to “Fight the Good Fight” floating by on Twitter. Watch, and keep alert.

  2. Ann says:

    Of course boxing is a prime source of head trauma and mental issues later – does not seem to promote well being.

  3. Scott Gunn says:

    Ann, you are right, of course. My assumption is that there is some way to prevent long-term injuries. If I’m wrong in that, then one could hardly promote boxing as a part of sozo (salvation, wholeness, health).

  4. Confession time here: I do watch a bit of that on late night/DVR tv myself: ultimate cage match boxing or whatever it’s called. In a world where “my kind” is referred to by an old slang term for kindling wood, I’m not as good as Scott at pacifism 🙂

    I’m not sure I’d wave the hands over “three rounds for Jesus” but I watched my first match with someone who is a sportsman, who spoke more of the rules, and governance, and fair play.

    As outwardly-violent as it may be (doesn’t seem as injurious to be as pro football) I was attracted to the orderliness of the sport: even if you knock the oppnent down, you will only “win” the match if you have done the right thing.

    Thanks again Scott: as usual you have really made me think!

  5. Matt says:

    If a person strikes your left cheek . . . . kick ’em upside the head so they won’t trouble you any more.

  6. Bob Chapman says:

    Fr. Scott, here is “Fight the Good Fight,” as sung by the Choir of Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto, Ontario.

    The confidence given a person through such a program may actually _stop_ a fight with others or a gang. Those who act afraid or less confident are more likely to be taken advantage of.

    The big issue with boxing or other pugilistic endeavors is the head trauma. They make helmets for ice hockey players, don’t they? Would such a helmet work for such pugilistic endeavors?

    (Do you know how rarely one gets to use the adjective “pugilistic”?)

  7. Bob Chapman says:

    While we are at it, those crazy choristers at Yorkminster Baptist in Toronto also sang this on their album _Bless Ye the Lord_, “Who would true valour see.” They sang the actual words from _Pilgrim’s Progress_, not what is in the Hymnal 1982. (Funny how the original avoids the male pronoun issue, doesn’t it.)

  8. Dee Tavolaro says:

    Scott, if you start martial arts over at Christ Church I am more than happy to lend you my black belt!

  9. Malcolm says:

    The only church boxing program I’ve ever heard of dates back to the 1930s in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. A young Baptist clergyman – and former Manitoba Golden Gloves champion – instituted a boxing program for teenaged boys in the parish.

    That young Baptist fellow eventually became a Member of the Canadian Parliament and later Premier of Saskatchewan – the first socialist head of government in North America. He’s known in Canada as the Father of Medicare and a CBC contest a few years ago named him as the Greatest Canadian in history.

    You may be more familiar with him as Keifer Sutherland’s grandfather, Tommy Douglas.

    Boxing – properly regulated – is simply a sport. Yes, a sport in which people can be injured – just like any other sport.

    I’ve seen church league basketball and church picnic baseball. I don’t see anything wrong (per se) with a church sponsored boxing program.

  10. Pastor Mack says:

    As a big MMA fan, I have to put in my two cents. There are a lot of streams in this that are colliding – you have the focus on the family angle about gender roles, which is problematic, along with the simplistic muscular Christianity stuff. But the juxtaposition of faith and fighting is not new. Watch just about any hispanic boxer, and he will be crossing himself before and after his fights. MMA fighters, sometimes, do the same thing. Many churches have had martial arts has part of their ministry for quite some time, but MMA is the new kid on the block. It’s only recently getting legitimacy in the eyes of the public. But as an outreach – it’s not much different than skateboarding, or basketball, or softball. It’s one of the fastest growing sports, especially for young men (nobody watches boxing anymore). So while these churches have some bad theology, the sport itself is fairly neutral. I can see why it seems egregiously violent – but the truth this, there are far fewer serious injuries in MMA than in more accepted sports like football, boxing, hockey, etc. If nothing else, it is a better outlet than fighting in the street, doing drugs, having drinking contests, or sitting behind a computer for 8 hours a day.

    As for the ‘head trauma’ questions – generally in training and in real fights you don’t wear head protection. There is a reason for this that seems counter-intuitive. Over the long term, taking a lot of padded punches is harder on the brain than a few power shots. The course of an average fight, a boxer will take many, many more shots to the head than an MMA fighter, because of how padded they are. If an MMA fighter gets hit with a solid shot, there will likely the a flash knockout and the fight is over. In boxing, they have 10 seconds to stand up, etc, in addition to the fact that they are spending upwards of 10 rounds literally getting their brain knocked around inside their skulls. MMA looks more violent outwardly, but in reality it is much safer than boxing and many other contact sports.

    Thank you for your reasoned consideration of this. Many people have viewed this simplistically because of their own aversion to violence, rather than as you put it, an opportunity for outreach.

  11. Jim DeLa says:

    You should check out Father Dave from Australia ( His bio from his web site:
    Rev. David B. Smith
    (the ‘Fighting Father’)

    Parish priest, community worker,
    martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three.

  12. Scott Gunn says:

    Jim, he’s mentioned & linked in the post.

    Dee, if we start a martial arts ministry, we’ll put you on staff to run it. 🙂

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