The Karate Church

Everybody was Kung-Fu fightin’ (sort of) in these two kickin’ congregations

Some ministers preach in robes, some in fine three-piece suits. Pastor Rod Brayfindley prefers karate clothes, and that’s just fine with his parishioners at Church of the Joyful Healer in McKinleyville, Calif.

What began as a way for Brayfindley to lose weight and lower his blood pressure has turned into an opportunity to reach a large portion of Northern California with a conventional message in an unconventional format.

Brayfindley got the idea when he met with two church planters for the United Methodist Church. Finding a common thread from which to weave a church wasn’t particularly easy in McKinleyville, a city of about 14,000 people who come from about as many religious backgrounds. Northern California towns are notorious for being refuges for people who don’t see themselves as fitting in.

For Brayfindley, karate was a good way to provide such residents with a nonthreatening introduction to the church and its teachings. It worked. The church membership has grown to more than 200 since opening in 1998.

Yet the dichotomy of basing a church that preaches peace on a sport often perceived as violent isn’t lost on Brayfindley. His background in the sport is based in karate more as a source of physical joy. The subject is debated not only in California, but also across the United States.

Mark McGee, who heads Grace Martial Arts Fellowship in Tampa, Fla., said the Eastern religious nature of some martial arts practices also poses some conflicts.

“I came to see how well they work together as I studied the martial nature of Israel in the Old Testament and saw that God had purposed for them to fight, win and conquer countries and civilizations,” McGee said. “The message of the New Testament is about escaping and overcoming, which is another fundamental concept of martial arts.”

Christians often tell McGee that the church has no business teaching people how to practice self-defense, but he believes differently: “God wants us to defend our families from danger and teach our children how to defend themselves from danger.”

Despite the apparent differences between martial arts and Christianity, McGee is quick to point out that both are made up of similar basics and fundamentals. The fundamentals of martial arts protect us from physical danger; the fundamentals of faith protect us from spiritual danger, McGee said.

Both McGee and Brayfindley use these commonalities as a vehicle for outreach. The health and physical strength aspects of karate appeal to the health-conscious and often New Age residents of communities like McKinleyville. Yet the sport is also ripe with parallels to the Christian walk. For instance, one Sunday Brayfindley told a group of 15 students to drop and give him 10 push-ups in the middle of a sermon as a way to illustrate obedience.

Although karate illustrations are part of his presentations, he’s just as likely to use comedy: “I have an intellectual interest in why people laugh.”

Most of all, the karate program brings Brayfindley and the congregation a sense of credibility and connection in the community.

“If they come here for the karate and happen to discover the church, that’s fantastic,” Brayfindley said. “If they never do begin attending the church, that’s OK, too."

Paul Wahl has been a journalist for more than 30 years and lives in Eden Prairie, Minn.

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