Florida Baptists find different ways to tackle sports ministries

Baptist churches throughout Florida use a variety of approaches for sports ministries.Many Florida Baptist churches have implemented sports ministries as a way to reach out to the sports-crazed communities they serve. But for churches not playing in this space, it can be difficult to get a grip on what they can offer with the resources they have available.

To see how churches tackle the task of making decisions about sports and recreation ministries, we talked to congregations of various sizes to find out what the process of starting and running a sports ministry looks like.

Hardeetown Baptist Church in Chiefland, a church of about 150, has no official recreation ministry. But Noah Raulerson, associate pastor and youth director at the church, knows the value of using games to attract students.

With a church full of student athletes, former athletes and coaches—not to mention a healthy spirit of competition—Raulerson gives his students the opportunity to play games like gaga ball and spike ball, which are a little more obscure but prove to be big draws for students who don’t already attend church somewhere.

Raulerson said some students who regularly attend Wednesday night worship would never have ventured onto campus if it wasn’t for gaga ball.

“It’s simple, but it works. And they’re exposed to the Gospel,” he said.

Another smaller church, Oak Park Baptist Church in Gainesville, has found value in having a clearly defined recreation ministry. The church has had periods of time with and without an organized sports ministry, and Senior Pastor Danny Austin said when they are without it both the church and the surrounding community feel the loss.

For 10 years, Oak Park Baptist Church—where average attendance is right at 100—participated in a sports outreach program called Pray then Play.

Austin said the church successfully ran basketball and football and cheer programs for about a decade before deeding a piece of their land, which served as one of their sports fields, to a neighboring housing development. For the last three years, Oak Park has been unable to offer Pray then Play. But with a recently reconfigured and resodded field, Austin hopes to get back in the swing of sports ministry this spring.

Like Upward Sports, the success of Pray then Play largely depends on the volunteer force running it. The program works at a smaller church like Oak Park because multiple churches come together to participate. Austin said they have had as many as 20 churches partnering together to create successful leagues.

Another church with a long history of organized sports ministry is Celebration in Tallahassee. Tommy Hendricks, family pastor at Celebration, said they have been doing Upward basketball and cheer at the church for the last 10 years and recently added flag football to the sports menu they offer. For his community, the Upward program fulfills the desire parents have for a safe, “equal play” system for their kids to participate in.

With average attendance of around 800 and a lot of young families, Hendricks said the impact that Celebration’s sports ministry has on the community is huge.

“When you do [Upward] for 10 years, you can’t go anywhere in Tallahassee and not see someone who has played on your church campus,” Hendricks said. “And not even a quarter of them go to our church.”

Hendricks said church leaders will evaluate the effectiveness of their foray into football to see if they will offer it again next year.

While Celebration has a history of successful outreach, just a bit further west along I-10, in Chipley, First Baptist has completed its first season of Upward football to rave reviews.

Leadership at FBC Chipley, which is similar in size to Celebration, realized that no churches in its area were doing Upward Sports and there was great opportunity to make new connections with unchurched people through the ministry.

Matt Sawyer, student pastor at FBC Chipley, said of the more than 40 first-time football players who came out almost half of them were unchurched.

Sawyer said there was no staff involvement, just a gifted leader in the church with a desire to spearhead the effort.

Now that they’ve seen the success and tasted the first fruits of recreation ministry, Sawyer said there’s no going back. There was enough excitement generated with this initial offering that church leaders are considering expanding into basketball.

Sawyer said it’s a ministry area that has room to grow.

“If done the right way, Upward is tapping into what people are doing already,” he said.

It’s the opportunities for Gospel impact that keep Austin and Oak Park Baptist in the sports ministry arena.

“It seemed like a place where God is at work and we could join Him,” Austin said of sports and recreation ministry. “But if we don’t present the Gospel, there’s no point in having a league.”

Nicole Kalil is the Jacksonville-based reporter for the Florida Baptist Witness, the official news source of the Florida Baptist State Convention. She can be reached at 904-596-3169, or via email at Nicole.Kalil@gofbw.com

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