On a late Friday night recently at the Pure Country Bar in Paducah, Ky., a brawl is about to break out. It's not a drunk fist fight -- it's a team of "warriors for Christ" gearing up for a fight in the name of the Lord.
"Father, we just thank you for the opportunity to go out tonight and to train and compete," coach John Renken says. "Lord, we just pray that you protect our fighters, as well as the other guys. We pray that we will be a representation of you."
Renken, the leader of the group of unorthodox fighters, is also an evangelical pastor who brings a new meaning to the term "bible beater."
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"I was fighting as a brand new Christian. I was fighting all the way through bible college...This is just a part of who I am," he says. "Look at what Jesus endured for our sake. He goes down the walk that is roughly about a mile long with the Roman soldiers beating him bloody. He faced his own cage in life."
The sport is mixed martial arts -- a combination of wrestling, kickboxing and other martial arts where competitors can do almost anything to knock out their opponents. Popularized by cable TV's "Ultimate Fighting Championship," the sport is so brutal it's been banned in seven states.
Pummeling opponents, Renken's team doesn't quite believe in turning the other cheek. He says fighting has its roots in the Bible. "Jacob wrestles with God in Genesis...Exodus 15.3 [it] says that the Lord your God is a warrior. So, there is a part of God that I believe is a warrior, that is a master of battle," he says.
"When I go into the ring... I'm going in there to fight, but I'm also going in there for the reasons that we've been talking about, which is that I want to reach people with the gospel," Renken says.
Renken's ministry is one of a growing number of evangelical churches that have looked to mixed martial arts as way to appeal to men, who have largely been absent from traditional congregations.
"We believe that Jesus loves lost people and whatever avenue that we can find to reach those lost people ... we're going to do," Renken says.
Xtreme Ministries: Not Your Typical Sunday Morning
Renken founded Xtreme Ministries, a church and gym located in a strip mall in Clarksville, Tenn., squeezed between a Goodwill store and the local beauty school. While you don't have to be a Christian to train, come Sunday morning, it becomes a full-on place of worship.
For these Xtreme congregants, wearing their Sunday best is a far cry from the traditional flowery dresses and starched collars -- you'll see fatigues, tattoos and battle wounds from the previous night's fight in the crowd.
The small talk is also not exactly holy. "I landed a head kick on him," a congregant says about fight night. "And when I hit him, I saw his eyes flutter."
The sermons are tough. On a recent Sunday, it included a narrative of David and Goliath -- the battle between the future king of Israel and the biblical warrior.
"David was a simple guy who was a shepherd who had faith in Jesus that he would protect him," pastor Jordan Fulton says. "And he stepped out there in faith, God totally backed him up, he killed him, bam, but then it gave permission for him and all his followers and all of these other guys to kill their own giants in their own way."
Fulton, a soldier and mixed martial arts enthusiast, recently took over the pulpit from Renken, and admits the church has its own unique style.
"A good portion of our people are military or prior military...and with that comes ... a more aggressive rough type of person that maybe your typical Sunday, sing Kumbaya," Fulton says. "This is a church where they feel like they can be who they are and be totally comfortable with that...God doesn't want us to be a cookie cutter mold."
Catering to their clientele, upcoming events advertised on the church's Web site include a "Passion of the Christ" viewing party and football Easter egg hunt.
Fighting or Finding God?
When Mike Thompson, 32, showed up at Xtreme Ministries a decade ago, finding God was the last thing on his mind.
"I first came in and I said, 'Hey, I'm a bad dude.' I said. 'I'm tough.' I said, 'I'll fight anybody, I don't care -- any weight, anytime, anywhere; I'll fight, I don't care,'" Thompson recalls. "And all the guys who were here, who were trained fighters, they snickered at me, a lot."
Thompson's parents separated and his mother became involved with a violent man, Marvin Waye Eddy, who abused alcohol and drugs.
"It was 1984, and me and my brother, of course, we're dirt poor… [Eddy] decided that it would be a good idea to go to one of his buddy's trailers and rob it of all the alcohol and drugs that were in there," Thompson says. "And he decided to bring me and my brother as pack-mules and help him carry more alcohol back."
'I Declared War on God'
Thompson was 8 years old and his brother Jesse was just 5 when they headed out in the middle of the night. When Jesse would not stop crying, Eddy decided to shut him up.
"He started hitting him and hitting him, and of course that made him cry more. And he kept beating him and eventually he picked him up by his legs and swung him up against a tree until he quit crying," Thompson says.
Jesse never woke up from a coma and died three days later. The event made Thompson renounce his belief in God.
"For a lack of a better term, [I] declared war on God. I could not wrap my mind around how he could let that happen to my brother, let that happen to me," Thompson says. "I decided to take my anger and frustration out on anyone that I could get a chance to."
Thompson trained with Renken for years, but refused to set foot in a Sunday service. Three years ago, Renken's other message finally got through.
"He said, 'God loves you.' And he said, 'And I'm going to show you.' And he asked me to come to church and at least hear him out. And I started coming to church and the message got through," Thompson says.
Thompson has been going to church for three years. Putting his violent past behind him, he's now married with a 7-month-old girl.
"He enjoys [fighting]. It gives him an outlet for any frustrations that have been building up," Thompson's wife Joy says. "He's growing with the guys, and that's a really big thing."
Thompson, who weighs in at 203 pounds, has an impressive track record: 19 wins, 17 by knockout. Renken considers him a success story.
"We take people, regardless of their life, regardless of what's happened with them, and we're going to give them a channel in which to focus those energies and that aggression and that hurt and that pain in a positive way," Renken says. "Not only is it changing the way they function in life, but now they have a greater meaning to their life because we've introduced them to Jesus."