Lynnwood pastor uses martial arts to reach athletes and parishioners
Groups of men and a handful of women in their 20s and early 30s arrive to watch the live, televised feed of a professional mixed martial arts bout between big-time headliners Antonio Minotauro Nogeira and Cain Velasquez.
Inside the church's auditorium, a sound system thumps a rhythmic bass beat as colored lights swirl. Two flat-screen TVs hang from the ceiling and a high-definition projection screen occupies a central spot at the rear of the 280-seat auditorium's stage.
Nogeira and Velasquez approach the ring as the Rolling Stones' “Sympathy for the Devil” booms over loudspeakers.
“It's actually a pretty small turnout tonight,” says youth pastor Travis Kerwin, 28.
Suddenly, lead pastor Brandon Beals leaps to the stage, holding a microphone.
“We have T-shirts to give away, more T-shirts to give away,” Beals tells the 150 people who paid $10 for a seat.
A church might seem to be a strange place to show mixed martial arts, a full contact sport involving a mix of kickboxing, boxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
For Beals, it's the fulfillment of a dream: combining his passion for the sport with his devotion to establishing an evangelical church close to his hometown of Mill Creek.
At this church, Beals sprinkles Ultimate Fighting Championship stories into sermons, pastors travel to bouts to pray for fighters, and Beals maintains a blog.
His involvement with the mixed martial arts community through a ministry he's organized called “Fight Church” has attracted widespread media attention, including a story in The New York Times, which profiled what it cited as a new trend: churches that reach out to those in the mixed martial arts community.
“There's a misconception that we're a beer-drinkin,' cussing congregation,” he says. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I'm about as clean-cut as they come.”
The way Beals and other young leaders of his church see it, Christianity has lost its focus on what matters — reaching out to people on their terms, in language they can relate to.
They see Jesus not as someone who engaged in fistfights, but as a man who refused to give up. Posters inside the church repeat the theme: Never give up.
A graduate of Northwest University in Kirkland, where Beals met his wife, Di, he began his religious work as senior associate and youth pastor at Bethany Christian Assembly in North Everett.
The couple moved to California, where Beals served as a youth pastor in Modesto while working on his master's degree in theology. His thesis was titled “How to Start a Church.”
“Through that process,” he says, “I felt like God was telling me to put up or shut up. I wanted to create a church that I'd be comfortable going to.”
Canyon Creek Church started in early 2004 in a small rented space in Mill Creek. As word spread, the church outgrew its space. Two years ago, Beals and his associates purchased a building just off 164th Street SW on Ash Way in unincorporated Lynnwood that they quickly remodeled.
Beals and fellow pastor Christian Lindebeck now lead a congregation that has grown from a couple of dozen to more than 700 with a staff of 17.
The church will soon be expanding to a 16-acre site on Highway 9 at Cathcart to build an 85,000-square-foot facility, complete with sports fields and a gymnasium available to the community.
The fight church is just one part of the mission, Beals says. It stems from his long interest in mixed martial arts, which led him to start blogging about it.
Beals' passion for the sport has led to a ministry in which he and Kerwin fly to mixed martial arts events and minister to competitors. To help fund fight church, he recently started a related business called Fight Pastor. T-shirts designed by a church member are sold at the Saturday night fights.
“It doesn't really make any money,” he says. “I already have a job. We just want to be self-supporting.”
Instead, he says his goal is to reach out to fighters, men he says have generally been viewed stereotypically outside the fan base as violence-prone lug heads at best and thugs at worst. Some states have banned the sport, though through the popular Ultimate Fighting Challenge — sort of the NFL of mixed martial arts — its popularity has entered the mainstream.
“I consider myself an ambassador for Christ to the mixed martial arts community,” Beals says.
Professional fighter Demico Rogers of Bothell is one of the two fighters whom Beals and Kerwin regularly minister to before bouts.
“We both have the same common goals for MMA,” Rogers says, “to not have it looked at so negatively.”
Rogers, 28, is a married family man who wants to have children someday.
“We're normal people,” he says. “We just happen to punch people in the face.”
Oscar Halpert: 425-339, firstname.lastname@example.org
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