Most Christians familiar with the New Testament Greek word “koinonia” think of it only in terms of fellowship and communion.
But it also can mean “shared gifts,” and that’s how Pastor Matt Richard views the karate classes he teaches two nights a week in the gymnasium of First Baptist Church Llano, Texas.
Richard uses his giftedness in the martial arts to connect with his community and teach character-building lessons, particularly — but not exclusively — to children.
“There’s not any preaching or Bible study,” Richard explained, but he does see biblical applications to the discipline he is teaching.
“Students learn self-control, and that’s a fruit of the Spirit. It’s not hard to make the spiritual connections,” he said.
Richard began studying karate as a preschooler in Nederland. Born prematurely at only 2 lbs., his parents wanted to involve him in an activity that would help him overcome early developmental issues with physical coordination.
Instructor Mike Maxwell bent the rules a bit to allow 3-year-old Matt to begin lessons in the 5-and-under class at the Fight Dragons Karate School. At age 11, Matt earned his black belt in karate.
“I was obsessed with it for a while,” Richard acknowledged, frequently taking part in competitive breaking tournaments.
After he became a Christian at age 15, he began to wonder how he might merge his martial arts skills and his newfound commitment to Christ.
“I thought I might be able to do something evangelistically, but I never did,” he said.
Richard continued to keep his karate skills sharp as a student at East Texas Baptist University. When he pursued studies at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, he regularly sparred with another student in the recreation center at Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco.
‘Keep it accessible and affordable’
After First Baptist Church in Llano called him as pastor three years ago, he learned there were no martial arts classes available in town.
“Llano is the county seat, but it’s still kind of isolated here,” Richard said.
He wanted to offer a karate class for his own son, and he saw an opportunity for outreach and community ministry.
The church’s missions committee agreed to provide up to $1,000 to launch the Koinonia Karate program, charging students a relatively minimal fee.
“We try to keep it accessible and affordable,” Richard explained. “It’s a ministry of the church. It’s not about making money.”
Richard limits lessons to two nights a week to preserve evenings at home with wife Michelle and their 11-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
“I’m looking for balance and making time for my family,” he said.
Unlike some martial arts schools that require students or their parents to enter into a long-term contract, Koinonia Karate takes a more relaxed approach.
“There’s no pressure. I tell students, ‘Try it out and see if it’s a good fit for you,’” Richard said. In fact, his own son did not choose to continue taking karate and decided to pursue other interests.
Teaching Christian principles
Koinonia Karate classes open to children age 6 and older have proven popular, and Richard also teaches a few teenaged and adult students who participate in a second class he offers.
Richard recognizes some Christians view the martial arts with suspicion, either because of connections to Eastern religions or because they are seen as promoting violence.
In terms of the Buddhist and Taoist influence on karate, Richard teaches only those principles consistent with Christianity, such as respect, humility, perseverance and self-control.
“Koinonia Karate is based on my own ethos” as a follower of Christ, not ancient roots in a non-Christian religion, he noted.
“It’s about coordinating the body and mind. It can be a Christian concept if you choose to make it that,” he said.
As he teaches karate techniques, Richard emphasizes to students the importance of avoiding physical conflict — never initiating violence or using martials arts to get revenge.
“Karate is all about self-defense. The goal is to never hurt anybody. It’s only to protect yourself or someone else, and it should only be used as a last measure,” he said.
The classes attract “a healthy mix” of church members and non-members, but the majority of students are from families who are who are not already part of the church, Richard noted.
Students in the Koinonia Karate classes and their parents are notified about children’s activities at First Baptist Church such as Vacation Bible School and a fall festival, and they are invited to participate.
“So far, one family has connected to the church through this ministry,” he said.
The karate classes represent just one way Richard seeks to connect to his community. He writes a column for the local newspaper, leads the town’s ministerial alliance and also has been involved with a children’s soccer league.
“That’s an advantage to being in a place like Llano,” he said. “You’re not just pastor of the church. In time, you get to pastor a community.”