Sports program teaches children to serve
By Woody Woodrick
While much of the country is gearing up for college basketball’s "March madness," many parents and children are wrapping up leagues that seem to bring some sanity to youth sports.
Founded in 1986 in South Carolina, Upward is a youth sports organization that is drawing rave reviews from parents, coaches and churches involved in the program. Upward offers basketball, cheerleading, soccer and flag football.
Many factors make Upward unique, but possibly the most important is its stated mission: To introduce children to Jesus Christ by creating opportunities to serve through sports.
“Obviously the ministry side of what we do makes us unique,” said Bob Sanders, Upward regional director for Mississippi. “It’s an evangelical outreach; a different way for churches to go out and reach children for Christ.”
Sanders estimates that 25 to 30 percent of families involved in Upward programs are unchurched. “If a family is unchurched, if they do take their kids to church, they often just drop them off. If the kids are in a sports ministry, the parents stick around,” Sanders said.
Upward is currently offered in 2,000 churches in 44 states. In Mississippi, the program is offered in about 80 churches, including 11 United Methodist churches.
Madison United Methodist Church has been involved with Upward for about five years, said Butch Harms, league director. Harms and Tim Wise, who was then helping with leisure ministries at Jackson Christ UMC, went to workshops about Upward and decided they would try it. The churches worked together on the program initially until the number of participants reached a point where they needed to separate.
Both programs have continued to grow. Madison UMC has about 400-450 people involved in its basketball program, including coaches and other volunteers. Christ UMC had 233 children participate in basketball this season.
At Booneville First UMC, where Marvin and Debbie Ozbirn direct the league, approximately 270 children from the community participate. That includes 32 basketball teams and three cheerleading squads.
Harms said Upward offers an attractive alternative to traditional city league and select-league sports.
“It’s a church-based program for one thing,” he said. “They have a devotional at each practice and game. The coaches have a devotional guide. How we treat referees and other players is taught through the guidelines. Everybody gets to play a certain number of minutes and is matched against someone of equal ability.”
Each member of a team plays for half the game, which consists of 18-minute halves and an eight-minute halftime. The halves are divided into six-minute segments, and substitutions are made at the breaks.
The program is designed for grades 1-6. In the first- and second-grade leagues, no score is kept.
Another unique aspect is the team “stars.” They’re not people, they’re cloth. After each practice and game, players are awarded stars by their coaches for Christlikeness, best effort, best sportsmanship, best offense, best defense and scripture learning. The players are encouraged to add the stars to their uniforms each week.
League rules allow just one practice per week, and games are played on Saturdays.
At Booneville First UMC, Sunday school classes along with local eateries furnish breakfast, fruit and lunch for the referees’ lounge. First UMC members as well as other local churches’ members prepare the devotionals presented during games.
Harms said all this works together to create a league that’s focused on fun and spiritual growth. He said young children get to learn a little about sports and discover if they like playing without being in a competitive environment.
Parents like it, too, said Betty Lynn Freeman, who directs the league at Christ.
“Most parents seem to have a smile on their faces each Saturday, so that says a lot,” she said, “Parents typically seem grateful for dedicated coaches who are giving of their time to coach their children while helping them grow closer to Christ in a fun, non-threatening way.
“Oddly enough, the kids never seem to worry about the score of the games. Sometimes the parents’ competitiveness comes out, but the kids are fine once they have had a snack, win or lose. The kids always have the right perspective.”
John David Box, who coached his daughter’s team at Christ UMC, said he liked that the league wasn’t all about winning. “It’s part about the jersey, part about seeing their friends and part about having fun,” said Box. “It can get a little competitive sometimes, but we try not to let it get that way. Watching them progress was a lot of fun.”
Mitch Lott, who also coached a team at Christ, said competitiveness sometimes creeps into the games. “Even though it is a biblically based league, it is competitive. When kids are involved in sports, they’re going to be competitive,” he said. “I love that the main thing the program is about is to let all the kids know they are all winners, winners in God’s eyes.”
Lott said he, like Box, enjoyed seeing young players improve over the course of the season. “It’s a lot of fun to see who progresses over the course of a year and how the girls bond. A lot of that had do to with where the program comes from. We’re God’s children, and we can play sports competitively but also have fun.”
League participation is not limited to members of the host church.
“Upward Basketball brings the entire community together – young and old. It is a wonderful opportunity for children to develop their skills and learn about God at the same time,” said Carolyn Jackson, a member of the Booneville First United Methodist Church.
Harms said the popularity of the league has helped foster cooperation among churches of different denominations. Madison UMC works with First Baptist and Ridgecrest Baptist of Madison. When Christ had to drop its upper-level leagues due to lack of practice space, players were referred to Jackson’s First Baptist Church.
Running any sports league takes organization and time, but Upward provides many tools to make the job easier. It offers “kits” for sponsoring churches, coaches and families about how to operate the league. The coach’s kit includes a devotional guide and forms for making sure players get the proper playing time. Family kits include jerseys and other materials. The flag football coach’s kit even has a playbook.
“As long as you get volunteers, it’s pretty much a turnkey ministry. Everything is provided,” said Sanders of Upward. “You also have support from the regional reps and staff in the South Carolina offices.”
While many youth sports programs deal with negative images, Upward has gained nothing but praise. “From a Christian standpoint, it’s great to be able to have a basketball program, play it at church, share with each other a little bit and have somebody organize it,” said Box of Christ UMC.
The Rev. Phillip Box of Booneville First UMC (no relation to John David Box) says the program offers his church an opportunity for evangelism.
“It is a Christian ministry to our own young people as well as to all the young people in the area,” he said. “It allows our church to be the center of a real ‘upward’ ministry. And with that ministry, we follow the path of the greater United Methodist theme – open hearts, open minds, open doors.”
Laura Cartwright of Booneville contributed to this story.