[Click HERE for part 1]
Current UFC Middleweight champion, Chris Weidman, is fairly open about his Christian faith. While not as outspoken about it as some other fighters (such as Weidman’s next opponent Vitor Belfort, BJJ champion Andre Galvao, or former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, to name just a few), Chris takes his faith seriously.
What makes it more interesting is the fact that one of Chris’s BJJ coaches and cornermen John Danaher does not at all share Chris’s faith (John has a Master’s degree in Philosophy and has written a number of blog posts from a skeptic/non-theistic position).
I’ve had the honor of being on the same mat as both Weidman and Danaher during my visits to Renzo Gracie Academy in Manhattan and can attest to the skill and knowledge of both men firsthand. Yet personality-wise, they could not be more opposite. Chris is friendly, outgoing, and self-deprecating. John is quiet, stoic and has an extremely dry sense of humor (as I found out during my 2nd trip up there a couple of years ago!). Yet they train together regularly and John is right there in Chris’ corner guiding him and cheering for him during each fight in the UFC.
This illustrates the first thing I believe the Church can learn from BJJ: the ability to create a real sense of true community and friendship with people from all walks of life.
Each week, I get to train with people with whom I’ve become great friends…despite many of them having COMPLETELY different beliefs, worldviews, interests or lifestyles than me. In fact, if we didn’t train together it’s unlikely that our paths would’ve naturally crossed in the course of our day to day lives.
But through a shared love of BJJ I’ve become genuine friends with atheists & agnostics, Muslims & Jews, Republicans & Democrats, vegans & paleo-dieters, and everything in between.
On paper, we would seem to have few things in common. But through our time on the mats, a natural comradery always develops and we find a lot more commonality than one might expect between, say, a Pentacostal preacher and an outspoken atheist (as two of my BJJ friends are, respectively). It really is a beautiful thing. But how does it happen? How do such friendships between disparate individuals come about?
I believe it is due to a shared love of grappling, as well as the trust that inevitably arises whenever you choose to put your well-being and physical safety into someone else’s hands (literally!). Walls of mistrust, cynicism or philosophical/political differences quickly give way to respect, humility and shared laughter more often than not. You’re all there seeking to expand your knowledge, skill and understanding of the art. Thus you become fellow traveling companions on this lifelong martial arts journey you’ve undertaken.
It’s is one of the reasons I love the grappling community. There is a solid sense of just that: COMMUNITY!
Something that is (sadly!) lacking in the lives of most people in our modern, individualistic culture.
And something that is (even more sadly!) lacking in many of our churches.
It’s not uncommon for people to go to church faithfully each week for years and yet never form a genuine close friendship with another person in the congregation. This is especially true in larger churches where it’s easy to come and go unnoticed amidst the crowd of worshippers (I know this firsthand, as a former Pastor of Discipleship at a large church myself). Helping people form or find their way into authentic community life is one of the biggest challenges large church leaders face.
But it’s also a problem in small churches…where community is already tight-knit (and has sometimes been that way for generations). Those who are new are seen as “outsiders”, and not always welcomed with warmth and openness until they’ve done whatever is required to fit in (either culturally, theologically or economically). Stories abound of unsuspecting visitors making the “mistake” of “sitting in so-and-so’s pew”, for instance!
This is in such stark contrast to most of the BJJ schools I’ve had the pleasure of training at around the country (from New York, to Virginia, to the Atlanta area to South Georgia to South Carolina to right here in North Carolina). Whenever I visit a quality BJJ school, even if I only know one or two people there, I’m almost always welcomed and treated with kindness, respect and genuine warmth by the VAST majority of people I get to roll with.
Likewise, when people step onto the mat here at our school for the first time, they are welcomed and treated as part of the family immediately. Why? Because they’ve chosen to take that first step on the BJJ pilgrimage we’re all on together. Or in the case of visiting students from another academy, they’re already on the same journey and we get to learn from and sharpen one another by sharing what we’ve experienced thus far along the way.
Isn’t this how the Christian Church should be as well?
I mean, if someone enters our church, shouldn’t they at least feel a similar sense of welcome, and excitement to have them there? And if they are already followers of Jesus, shouldn’t they be treated as fellow pilgrims whose experiences and insight we can learn from (and vice versa) as iron sharpens iron?
Or if they are not a follower of Jesus, shouldn’t the fact that they’ve taken that initial (and often intimidating!) step in exploring the Gospel by walking through the door be recognized, respected and encouraged in a way that shows a genuine love the church has for the Lord and for their fellow humans created in His image?
In other words, shouldn’t Jesus’ followers be at least as good at welcoming people into real community as a good Jiujitsu academy??
Of course I realize that many people start training BJJ and, for whatever reason, decide that it’s not worth it or it’s not for them. I’m always disappointed when I hear about such people because I realize just how great a journey they are turning their back on.
Likewise, many people check out the Church for a while and then, again for whatever reason, decide that it’s not worth it or not for them. Of course, this is far more disappointing to me than them choosing to stop training—because the stakes are literally eternal!
But all I can do is continue to welcome and encourage them (on the mats or in the pews) in hopes that they will one day see for themselves the beauty, wisdom and truth of that which I’ve come to experience for myself along with countless others throughout the centuries.
And if they do decide to join us on the journey (whether physical or spiritual!), then the cultural, ethnic, economic, or political differences quickly get eclipsed by that which we have in common–our lifelong pursuit of Truth (whether physical or spiritual…but preferably both!)
Stay tuned for part 3 where we’ll look more at the thing about BJJ that generates such community and comradery among those who train, and again, what it can teach the Church.
Blessings from the Dojo,
PS: For those wondering how martial arts, Jiu-Jitsu or MMA/UFC meshes with the Christian life, see the following posts I’ve written on the subject: