CHURCH AND SPORTS: Done well, adult church league bearing fruit

This isn’t your father’s church league.

That might be a good thing.

Most who ever witnessed an adult church basketball league remember the episode when the flesh won out over the Spirit: the flustered deacon who cursed a blue streak at the ref, the beloved RA leader whose left hook connected like a Zell Miller speech. Anecdotal testimony is compelling: sports and church can make a toxic brew.

But for regenerate sports lovers, hope abounds.

Fellowship Church in Grapevine is proof of it.

In 2001, it had 3,500 people participating in at least one organized weekly sports endeavor through the church, but increased aggression and ugliness was triumphing over sportsmanship and ministry, said Athletics Pastor Barry Ford.

After the 2001 flag football season, when 32 people required medical treatment for injuries, Ford and Pastor Ed Young decided it was time for a sports ministry makeover.

The next year, participation plummeted?to about 1,700 people.

Many people not interested in the spiritual focus of the new approach went elsewhere. Yet the result has been one of the most successful purpose-driven sports ministries in existence. Participation is back up?to around 2,500 participants a week.

“As we allowed (our leagues) to grow without a strong leadership purpose, people were basically using the sports leagues as an outlet for every sports frustration they’d ever had,” Ford recalled.

Of the 32 doctor visits from flag football players, two were emergency room injuries. Young and Ford decided that growing the sports ministry might best be done by growing smaller.

“We completely cut the knees out, gutted it and started over,” Ford said.

The next year, new standards were implemented. Post-game devotionals with clear gospel presentations became mandatory. “Team captains” approved by Ford were required to complete in-depth player profile cards of every participant describing his or her spiritual beliefs and personal interests.

The focus became outreach and evangelism so that every participant heard a clear gospel message and were approached individually about where he or she stood with Christ.

In the revamped “FC Sports,” as it’s termed, after the fourth game of every league “season,” team captains share their conversion testimony with teammates, telling “(a) what made you realize you needed Christ in your life, (b) what you did to ask him into your life (i.e., what you said, where you said it and to whom), (c) what you did in response to that decision (i.e., baptized by immersion), and (d) what your life has been like since you made Christ the center of your life.”

Devotionals, which last 10-20 minutes and include group discussion using a curriculum mostly developed by Ford called “Huddle Talk,” are mandatory with few exceptions. If a player must miss the post-game devotional, he departs 10 minutes before the game is over. If a player skips three devotionals, he is suspended for the season with no refund.

Ford said players know the requirements. Though some former players have chosen more garden-variety rec leagues, participation has risen to about 2,500 athletes.

Last year, 18 people were baptized directly resulting from sports-related outreach; one of the eight devotional topics is about believer’s baptism. Hundreds of others who have been converted or followed in baptism have had sports ministry contact as an entry point into the church. Fellowship baptized 2,285 people in 2003?a record in the Southern Baptist Convention.

With multiple weekend services drawing as many as 18,000 people, facilities don’t allow for traditional Sunday school. Home Teams?small group Bible studies?carry a heavy evangelism and discipleship burden instead.

Ford said the pastoral staff considers weekend services a “front door” entry into Fellowship Church and Home Teams and sports ministry the “back door” entry point. In fact, Home Teams play an integral role in the sports ministry.

Team captains must demonstrate active participation in Home Teams before Ford considers them, and the sports ministry is itself modeled after much of what Home Teams do?outreach, evangelism, discipleship and fellowship. The Home Teams feed peaker for the awards ceremony, which includes a video highlighting the kids playing throughout the season. “You get a lot of people to come to the ceremony. The gym was wall-to-wall people last year.”

Dewayne Yates, recreation minister at First Baptist of Henderson, said his church’s program runs about 260 to 280 children, of which about half are from outside the congregation. “Every year we see 20 to 30 decisions that we follow up on,” Yates said, adding, “We have also had families who have joined our church because of the program.”

Despite the success, when the Upward program first started, there were some questions on whether it would work and if the parents or children would come just for the basketball and balk at the devotional and spiritual elements. Those fears have proven to not be true.

“It’s Christ first,” Yates said. “Every year we tell them (the players and the leaders) in the first week’s devotional that our main goal is teach boys and girls about Jesus Christ. We always have the devotionals at every halftime and at the end of the season we have between 800 and 1,000 people in attendance at the closing ceremonies.”

Considering that the church’s entire Sunday School program runs just about that many, Yates feels like the program is a great success.

In addition to the regular eight-week season, Henderson also offers a one-week camp, which works especially well for the younger players to learn the basics. It too has a Bible emphasis and goes from 8 a.m. to noon.

Damon Berry, sports and recreation minister at Cottonwood Creek Baptist Church in Allen, also agreed that its two-year involvement with Upward has been very successful. He said that about 75 children have received Christ through the program, which has had 500 participants in the basketball and cheerleading events.

Also, Berry said that some families searched the Internet looking for a church that had an Upward program and ended up joining the church.

“Next year, we plan on adding Upward Soccer to the schedule,” Berry said. Soccer is the latest addition to the Upward sports family.

Tom Grubbs, minister of singles and recreation at First Baptist Church, Corinth, said Upward has reached their expectations of teaching children basketball skills and also reaching people outside the church. While difficult to nail down exactly how many people have been saved through the program, Grubbs said more than 100 people who have been baptized have been a part of the Upward program.

The Corinth program runs 250-plus children and Grubbs said more than 800 came to its awards night. Grubbs said he has 212 volunteers involved with Upward.

Despite the big response and the number of volunteers needed, all of those interviewed said the Upward program is well planned, and that it is an easy program to administer.

Thorn said the Upward national organization does a lot of the administration, but “you’ve got to do a lot of it too.”

The Upward organization provides the training materials, practice drills and even the suggested devotionals for the coaches to teach spiritual truths and fundamentals of basketball. For the younger children, score is not kept and care is made to make sure every player plays and competition is handled properly.

“The kids learn basketball skills, but the emphasis is not winning?it is really for the kids to enjoy the sport in a Christian environment. We give them a Bible, learn memory verses, and year after year you have an opportunity to minister to the family,” Thorn said.

Children get awards immediately following the game, inclu

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