Half-naked professional wrestlers in skintight briefs breathe heavily as they lunge and grasp at their opponents in a wrestling ring -- at a church.

The unorthodox scene is part of the new frontier in faith-based fundraising, as a growing number of churches turn to hosting professional wrestling matches and other out-of-the-ordinary events to raise money for ministry and mission work.

"People are super-fired-up for it because it's progressive, it's new and it's a way to get young people in your building [church] or families who might never come in your building," said Chris Jordan, who helped organize a recent wrestling match at Elim Lutheran Church in Robbinsdale. "It's wholesome entertainment. No one is actually getting hurt."

Struggling financially and searching for innovative ways to raise money and attract new followers, churches nationwide are holding such nontraditional fundraisers in an effort to set themselves apart from the many other nonprofits also vying for charitable giving in these rough economic times.

Churches that hold nontraditional fundraising events tend to have an edge over the more conventional car washes, bake sales, spaghetti dinners and the like, said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University.

"Churches have always done [fundraisers] to raise money but also to stimulate fellowship and get folks in the door," Zech said. "Churches today are being hit by the economy. The reluctance to lay off workers or cut back on programs ... they're looking elsewhere.

But wrestling? "I think it's one that's probably attracting more popularity as churches look for different ways of doing things," he added. "They may have tapped out all the things that are obvious and are now looking for the not-so-obvious."

Wrestling supports ministry

In recent years, Holy Nativity Lutheran Church in New Hope has held wrestling matches to raise money for its youth group, said Jordan, a church member and a wrestler himself. The events had grown so popular that church leaders asked nearby Elim Lutheran Church if they could use Elim's bigger gym to hold the matches. The two churches teamed up to host a March 3 event that attracted around 250 people.

Winona Brueggemann, youth ministry director at Elim, said the event raised close to $3,000, which will help pay for the church youth group's trip to Kansas City this summer to work with the homeless. Holy Nativity will use its portion of the money for a different mission trip this year.

Brueggemann said it's been one of the more successful fundraisers, attracting people who might not otherwise come to the church.

"We are seeing more churches doing really unique fundraisers," she said. "There's more need for fundraisers ... because you can only tap your church members so many times for money."

John Cordova, a pastor at Grace Fellowship Church in Brooklyn Park, said the church has held two wrestling matches in recent years, raising thousands of dollars for youth ministries. The matches had some congregants wondering whether the nontraditional fundraisers reflected Christian ideals.

"It was totally different because you don't ever hear of wrestling at a church," Cordova said. But "we had someone speak on values [at the matches]. It wasn't pushing the wrong kind of behavior."

Long-distance races

Besides hosting wrestling matches, more and more Twin Cities-area church members are entering long-distance races to raise money for projects to help improve nutrition and water quality in African countries.

Last August, eight members of Immanuel Church in Forest Lake ran in a half-marathon to raise money for a project to improve water quality in Rwanda.

Running her first half-marathon, Vicki Coughlin, 62, believes the uniqueness of the event helped her get sponsors.

"I had more than one person say to me, 'What do you think you're doing?' And I said, 'Oh, I can do this,'" Coughlin said. "I thought this is good because it makes you hurt a little bit. They hurt all the time [in Africa]. It's good for me to hurt for water."

She was part of a team organized by World Vision, one of the world's largest Christian-based humanitarian organizations. Since Team World Vision was formed in 2006, about 8,000 church members and other groups nationwide have raised a total of $6 million. About 25 Minnesota churches are participating this year, said Bradley Hofbauer, the program's coordinator for the Twin Cities.

"I think individuals are looking for a unique experience," Hofbauer said. "These unique fundraising events ... they want to give people an experience."

Scott McConnell, director of Lifeway Research, a Christian firm that tracks church trends nationwide, said churches holding nontraditional fundraisers may also see their membership rolls increase.

"We have increasing numbers of Americans who have had very little exposure to church," McConnell said. "The church is realizing we can't invite them to something they can't identify with. So let's invite them to something they can identify with. A wrestling match ... a concert ... a three-on-three basketball tournament. They're tapping into people's interests as an outreach method."

Rose French • 612-673-4352