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The New York Times has an interesting article about the increasing popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA) among evangelical Christians as an outreach event and means of getting Christian men back into church. The article opens by profiling Pastor John Renken of Xtreme Ministries, “a small church near Nashville that doubles as a mixed martial arts academy.” From the story:

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 article’s author, R.M. Schneiderman, recognizes that embracing popular culture in the name of “outreach” is nothing new for evangelicals—and that MMA ministries are not without critics:

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.”

And, again, showing his knowledge of nineteenth century evangelicalism, Schneiderman puts this latest version of “muscular Christianity” in historical context:

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.

So what do you think? Should evangelicals embrace MMA as a means of outreach? And assuming the statistics are right and men are leaving the church in droves, is this a good way to get them back?

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