'Fight Church' Documentary Studies Mixed Martial Arts In Christian Ministry

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The new documentary 'Fight Church' tells the story of Christian ministers who use mixed martial arts, the style of cage fighting popularized by the professional league the UFC, as a way to spread the word of God. Preston Hocker is a pastor and a MMA fighter in Norfolk, Va. In the film his father Rick. who's also a pastor, explains why he has accepted his son's style of ministry.

"I didn't see a discrepancy when he began to move towards fighting because I knew whatever he did he would use it to bring glory and honor to the Lord Jesus. When Preston came up with the idea of having a fight club in the church, it was an easy thing to say yes to. Tough guys need Jesus, too."

'Fight Church' was directed by Academy Award winner Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel. Only A Game's Doug Tribou sat down with the filmmakers.

DT: Bryan, in the film you note there are an estimated 700 churches that have mixed-martial arts programs. Can you describe how these fight church ministers are using MMA?

[sidebar title="Is MMA Killing Karate?" width="330" align="right"]The popularity of mixed martial arts has forced traditional martial arts institutions to reassess how they attract new students.[/sidebar]BS: So, for instance Paul Burress, whose church is in Rochester, N.Y., he has a main church building where they hold their Sunday church services and then he has another building on the side that's a huge gym.

And during the week they have all sorts of fight classes there. They also have other Zumba classes and basketball things and stuff like that. It's a way to have programs outside of the Sunday service. Any given night there's some sort of fight training going on or other things. Occasionally, they'll actually hold a fight at the church in that building you know and invite outside people to come in and you know bring in a few hundred people and actually do a fight there at the church.

DT: Daniel, the central theme of the film is this effort to reconcile basic Christian values like "love your neighbor as yourself" with the goal of MMA which is forcing your opponent into submission through physical force. Can those really be resolved?

DJ: Well, ideally we want to leave it up to the viewer, but I would say that the arguments of the subjects in the film is that first and foremost everyone agrees to a point: nowhere in the Bible is this prohibited. And as we know the bible is a very interpretable document. All of them can justify this through scripture, but then certainly there are opponents to the film who say, "Absolutely not. This does not jive with what is considered Christianity."

DT: Part of Fight Church is set against the backdrop of the battle in New York State over whether to legalize MMA. It's the last state with a ban. [Former] State Assemblyman Bob Reilly who's opposed to mixed martial arts had this to say:

"I don't think you can tell a kid: Don't bully in school. Be civil to your classmates and then take them to a fight where you have two men, two women, in a cage kneeing each other in the head or slamming their fists into someone lying in the ground." 

Football has incredibly violent moments within the rules. Hockey does, too, and also has fighting that's semi-condoned in the NHL and other leagues. But you'd never hear someone say, 'You can't be a Christian and play hockey or football.' What do you think makes MMA different for the people who oppose it like Assemblyman Reilly?

I believe the call of the gospel is [for] me to be where lost people are and lost people are watching MMA. So I think that's where we should be."

John Renken, Xtreme Ministries founder and former MMA fighter

There is an argument made by some of the subjects that this is not violence. That this sport is not violent and they're sort of splitting hairs on the definition of that term. I think it's a pretty violent sport.

DT: At one point in the film, Pastor Paul Burress, a retired fighter who leads a church in Rochester, N.Y., is talking about how much he wants to fight again. He’s in his mid-30s and he’s had 10 concussions, but you can see that it’s killing him to just watch. In that moment it seems like his motivation is much more about his love of fighting than his love of God, doesn’t it?

BS: I think there is this whole idea of like, everything that they need to do as pastors needs to be for this one purpose of bringing people in and reaching people for Christ. But honestly, I kind of wish at some points that they would just admit that they like fighting 'cause that what it comes to, right? You enjoy this sport. That's what you want to do. So why not combine the two things?

DJ: It also completely is in line with their world view. And they all talk about needing a church and needing a society in our culture now that has more of a warrior ethos.

DT: John Renken, one of the pastors in the film, is a former pro mixed martial arts fighter with 70 pro bouts to his credit. Here's how he describes his view of how MMA and Christianity are linked for him: 

"I was already a born-again Christian when I started fighting and I didn't have to rationalize anything. It had never even occurred to me that this would be a dilemma for anybody. I believe the call of the gospel is [for] me to be where lost people are and lost people are watching MMA. So I think that's where we should be."

Later in the film you show us that Renken is an avid gun enthusiast even wearing a weapon in his waistband in church. How did that aspect of his life seem relevant to the MMA part of his ministry?

BS: We've done some test screenings. Half the people said, "You have to take this out of the film." And the other half said, "You need to leave this in. This is amazing, like this needs to be in there." I think for us it was just, he was going to take his kids, his 5-year-old and his 7-year-old, to a gun range and shoot. And in the edit, it seemed to work with the things he was saying in talking about raising your young boys to be men and the lack of a masculine or a warrior ethos mentality in the church and in society in general.

DT: There are many scenes in churches in the film and the pastors are often talking about their own fights or others' fights from the pulpit. Some of the congregation, at least in the panoramic shots, don't seem that excited during those moments. So how big of a role does MMA play in those ministries and do you have a sense of how much support they get for it in the congregation?

[sidebar title="The State Of Boxing" width="330" align="right"]It's been 50 years since Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay first met in the ring. We look back at the title bout and examine the state of boxing today.[/sidebar]DJ: I feel like the congregations were very supportive. There's a church on many corners in this country and if you don't like what your pastor is professing you can move along. But the seats were filled and for the most part I feel people were engaged.

DT: A final question for both of you. Were you religious before you worked on the film and were you into MMA? And have your views on either one of those things changed since the film?

DJ: That's a great question. Bryan and I come from completely different perspectives. I'm a very much a lapsed Catholic. Bryan is an active church-goer and I think honestly that kept us on the straight and narrow going down the middle on this and not taking a particular side.

BS: And also bringing in the third aspect, our producer Eben Kostbar is a huge MMA fan and he's made another MMA film called 'The Hammer.' And Dan and myself are not MMA fans. So we had this great balance where we had one MMA fan, one Christian, and one — what are you Dan? [laughing]

DJ: I'll reserve comment. [laughs]

BS: So it did create a great balance.

This segment aired on April 26, 2014.

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Doug Tribou Reporter/Producer
Doug Tribou was formerly a reporter and producer at WBUR and for WBUR's Only A Game.



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