April 27th, 2014
07:46 AM ET
Opinion by Paul Burress, Special to CNN
(CNN)– As I sat backstage, I could hear the sound of thousands cheering as they waited for me to enter the ring.
“Lord put your covering over me,” I prayed in a whisper. “Use me as a witness. Use me to be a billboard for you."
I’m a pastor by trade, and the next morning I was set to preach the Easter sermon.
But on that night, I was preparing for something else entirely. This wasn’t the normal, churchgoing crowd.
I was about to enter the cage and compete in a mixed martial arts bout.
When I tell people I’m a pastor and a mixed martial arts fighter, I usually get some puzzled looks.
“How can you preach the Word of God participate in such brutal activity?” people ask. “Didn’t Jesus teach us to love one another?”
People are right to ask these questions, but wrong to assume that the sport of mixed martial arts isn’t compatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Quite the contrary.
Like many competitive sports, mixed martial arts can be considered violent, but it’s not hateful or destructive. It teaches us how to contain and control our most violent impulses through strength, discipline and perseverance—none of which are at odds with Christianity.
When I step into the cage, I do so to compete, not to kill; there is not an ounce of spite or ill will in my heart.
More importantly, my job as a pastor is to help lead people to Jesus, to set them on a better path. To do so, my ministry needs to be relevant, to speak to people on their own terms and in their own language.
As the Bible says: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:21-22)
God has put me on this earth to fight and to save. And though on the surface those two missions—spreading a message of peace and teaching people how to throw hard right cross—seem to stand opposed, they can work hand in hand.
Growing up, I wrestled and did martial arts with my father who was also a pastor. When I went to college, I connected with a man named Glenn Cozzens who was running a fight school at the time in the basement of a church.
We trained like beasts back then, traveling from gym to gym, fight school to fight school, fighting anyone and everyone to share our knowledge of the art and learn from theirs.
This was long before MMA was cool or even close to acceptable, but we were Christians and quickly saw the opportunity to minister to men and women about Jesus and the Bible.
Some of the people we met would otherwise never have learned about faith. They were drug addicts and gang members, and generally a rough crowd.
We shared the simple word of the Bible: That we are all messed up and flawed as human beings, but that God doesn’t care where we’ve been - what’s important to him is where we’re going, that we’re headed towards Jesus.
Our ministry was really able to point people in the right direction—not just towards loving Christ, but also towards loving their fellow human beings.
Mixed martial arts gave these young people a place to focus their energies, let out frustration and build real, lasting relationships with people who would help them grow.
More importantly it gave these them a chance to establish a life-long relationship with Jesus.
I went on to become a chaplain with Good News Jail and Prison Ministry, where I also taught members of law enforcement how to defend themselves.
Today, I am the pastor at Victory Church, where we have an MMA gym actually in the church.
That might seems strange to some, but Victory isn’t just a place where people go to train, it is a family, united by God.
We reach out to people seeking to find their way in life without passing judgment, we strive to foster an atmosphere where everyone can feel comfortable and everyone can relate to one another. I believe this is real love in action.
I’m forever in awe of the incredible things God does through our church. I’ve seen men who were street brawlers now living structured, loving lives. And I’ve seen drug addicts overcome their addictions.
All of this is because of mixed martial arts—and Jesus—working in tandem. There is no conflict in their combination.
Faith and fighting saved my life and those of many others in my ministry, and whatever preconceived notions some people may have, the results speak for themselves.
I am not a phenomenal fighter nor am I a phenomenal preacher. I’m just a regular guy trying to do the best I can with what God has given me—both from the cage and from the pulpit.
Editor’s Note: Paul Burress is the pastor of Victory Church, in Rochester, New York, and is featured in the new documentary Fight Church. The film was directed by Bryan Storkel and Daniel Junge. The views expressed in this column belong to Burress.
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