Churches are finding ways to use pickleball’s growing popularity to share the gospel, build community

Some find the constant pop of the wiffle ball batted about by oversized ping pong paddles annoying. Others see a sport encouraging exercise, multigenerational competition, and camaraderie. 

Regardless, pickleball is here to stay.

It’s called the fastest-growing recreational sport in the U.S., although it has been around since 1965, invented as a family diversion at Bainbridge Island, Wash.

With short 11-point games, mostly played by doubles teams, people of varying abilities can occupy the same court space. Open play allows for multiple combinations of players, while leagues may be geared to established teams or rotating partners.

Churches—among them, First Baptist Dallas—have discovered how to tap into this phenomenon for ministry purposes.

Kay Seamayer, the "Granny Globetrotter" and her partner, Jim Lockhart, won the First Dallas fall 2023 league championship. SUBMITTED PHOTO

A big city league of its own

First Dallas runs seasonal pickleball leagues in its Wicker gym.

Brent McFadden, the church’s sports and recreation minister, said he first heard about pickleball in a staff meeting a few years ago when a colleague suggested the sport be offered at the church.

“We all laughed,” McFadden recalled. “We asked, ‘What is this thing called pickleball?’” They taped lines on the Wicker gym floor and hosted a league in 2018. The response was “all right,” McFadden said. Then COVID hit and interest dwindled.

That was soon to change.

When his brother-in-law, a sports statistician, was isolated in the NBA’s competition “bubble” during the 2020 COVID season, the sport reappeared on McFadden’s radar.

“My brother-in-law got into it with the referees and statisticians playing pickleball every day during that isolation,” he said. “He told me that the sport was taking off.” 

By 2022, McFadden and team installed permanent pickleball lines at the church gym and leagues resumed, joining the list of adult and youth recreational activities such as volleyball, youth basketball, cheerleading, golf, and soccer camps offered at the church. 

Brownwood’s Coggin Baptist group often meets outside to play on sunny days. Here, ladies show the traditional paddle tap pickleballers use at the end of a game to show sportsmanship. JANE RODGERS PHOTO

A higher purpose

McFadden, a former college baseball player who once worked in the front office of the Oakland A’s Double-A affiliate, didn’t originally intend to work in sports ministry. But he found community outreach events required of his position with the A’s compelling, and he began to see a higher purpose.

A mentor told him, “If you run a sports ministry just to play sports, without it being Christ-centered, what’s the good in that?”

“I truly want [participants] to get more out the experiences [at the church] than just to play sports,” McFadden said, adding that pickleball offers unique opportunities for socialization and ministry. So, he provides weekly video devotionals with Scripture and applications for league teams to watch.

“I don’t want to provide a way for people just to connect physically, but also to connect with Jesus spiritually,” he added.

“A lot of people want to play,” he said. First Dallas offers three seasonal leagues per year. Players sign up in teams of two and the church helps prospective players find partners if needed.

Men’s and mixed doubles league play occurs during the church’s Sunday afternoon Discipleship University time. Women’s play hasn’t proved as popular, McFadden said, but may be added in the future.

Some 80 players of mixed ages participated in the fall 2023 league; 36 teams signed up for the winter 2024 league. 

The fall mixed league winner was Kay Seamayer, an 83-year-old senior women’s basketball champion known as “Granny Globetrotter.” She teamed with Jim Lockhart, in his 60s, to win the league, illustrating one of pickleball’s distinctives: an octogenarian can take down millennials with well-placed dinks, drives, lobs, and placement over power.

But the spiritual possibilities far outweigh all other benefits.

“Sports ministry is so crucial … an opportunity to bring people into your church who likely have not heard of Christ or heard very little. His ways are always better. That is the exciting part to me,” McFadden said.

“Pickleball lends itself to conversation. It’s all about fellowship. Why not include Bible study in that?”

Small city pickleball vibes

Pickleball is relatively inexpensive and easy to learn. An average church gym with a full-sized basketball court has room for three pickleball courts, which are about one-fourth the size of tennis courts. Sturdy, good-quality portable nets cost less than $200.

This accessibility is one of the reasons Jerry Don Gleaton started offering pickleball at Brownwood’s Coggin Avenue Baptist Church about four years ago. The former Major League Baseball player and Coggin’s activities director said members recommended the sport.

Gleaton initially started opening the gym for pickleball on Monday nights, then added daytime playtimes, some in conjunction with the newly formed Brownwood Pickleball Club. The church made the initial investment in portable nets, which the club replaces as needed.

“We see people getting invited to play pickleball and then getting invited to church,” Gleaton said.

One indoor play date per week is reserved for Coggin members and guests, an effort spearheaded by church member Sandy Joyner, who also sets up separate playtimes at the city’s public courts.

“It’s a great ministry,” Joyner said. “Pickleball has brought community to so many.”

Joyner said her prayer is that “God will touch people’s hearts and connect those who desperately need community and ultimately, Jesus!” 

Another Coggin member, Jina Joss, used pickleball to invite women to a home Bible study on prayer, posting the details on the Brownwood Pickleball Club’s Facebook page. About 15 women signed up for the six-week study, and whoever feels like it after each session hangs around to play on nearby private courts. 

“We all play pickleball. We have community in that, so I thought pickleball would be a good segue into Bible study,” Joss said.

“Pickleball lends itself to conversation,” she added. “It’s all about fellowship. Why not include Bible study in that? Why not fellowship with Jesus?”

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