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Upward Basketball teaches winning in the game of life

OWENSBORO, Ky. (BP)–“This is a basketball town, and we’re supposed to know what to do with a basketball,” Jacqui Eckdahl reflected. “But we’ve learned if you let the Lord get hold of a basketball, he will show you what to do with it.”

Eckdahl, recreation and family ministry director at Bellevue Baptist Church, Owensboro, Ky., recalls the lives reached through basketball in her city when the goal changed from winning games to winning souls.

Last season more than 100 children said they became Christians during an evangelistic presentation at the end of the Owensboro Upward Basketball season.

Three years ago Eckdahl attended Rec Lab at Lake Yale, Fla., where she heard a presentation about the sports program with a goal of intentional outreach. She said she was convinced she wanted to try the program in Owensboro “when I heard what Upward offered from an evangelistic perspective, how kids play an equal amount of time and all kids get an award.

“I thought, ‘Look where God is already working.’ This offers real growth and development for the average child who just wants to play.”

Participation has increased from 230 children for the winter season in 1997 to nearly 900 children this year. Of this year’s group, approximately 10 percent indicated on registration forms that they have no church affiliation.

While children in many churches across the United States have been exposed to the gospel and a positive sports experience by Upward in recent years, the Owensboro Upward program appears to be among the first to emerge as a cooperative effort among several churches and the local YMCA.

Brian Crall, chief executive officer for YMCA, Owensboro, said while the Y had conducted a basketball program for many years, he observed “as this [Upward] program emerged, ours became smaller. When I saw what Jacqui was doing with Upward, I decided to join up with what I saw as a movement of God.”

Crall said he was impressed with the approach of Upward in reaching children “at the point of felt need and then exposing them to the real need in the person of Jesus Christ.”

In choosing to merge the Y program into Upward, Crall said “there was a larger issue — getting churches to work together. There was no reason for us to have segregated programs. With Upward, there is nothing sectarian. It’s about basketball and Jesus.”

Since Upward’s first official season in 1996 with 1,300 participants, enrollment has increased at a rapid pace. In 1997, 13,000 children signed up. Last year 28,500 children played Upward Basketball and this year the total is expected to reach 50,000. Projections for next year are for 100,000 children.

Upward Basketball is jointly sponsored by Upward Unlimited of Spartanburg, S.C., and the church recreation program of LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville, Tenn.

In Owensboro, joining Bellevue Baptist and the Y this year are First Baptist Church and Settle Memorial United Methodist Church. While the two Baptist churches and the United Methodist church each conduct leagues for specific age groups, the Owensboro Christian Church also participates, donating the use of facilities, the services of their children’s minister for devotionals and providing many volunteer coaches. With the four church locations and the use of the Y-operated armory, practices in five locations are from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, providing each child one hour each week for practice. Some games are played on Friday nights, and the gymnasiums are booked with games on Saturdays.

In all, 180 coaches from 25 different churches work with children in Owensboro Upward this season. Coaches are not only from Baptist, United Methodist and Christian congregations. They also come from the Catholic church. Since printed devotionals are included in the Upward Basketball Handbook, published by LifeWay, straying from the materials or addressing denominational differences has not been an issue, Eckdahl said.

“Coaches are shown the materials and asked if they have any problem using them and giving their personal testimonies,” she said.

After assessing the gifts of each coach, volunteers are paired, teaming coaches who have strong basketball knowledge with coaches who are most comfortable presenting the devotional and praying aloud.

Bob Farmer, minister of activities and senior adults at First Baptist Church, said he has found Upward’s foundation to be “very spiritual. You have prayer partners developed in each participating church, so we know this year we have more than 300 persons praying for the program, which is pretty remarkable.

“The kids have a great time. They come from all skill levels,” he observed, “including some who have never picked up a basketball until this year. They will be richer for it, because they’ll have a foundation about who God is in their lives. Competition is not the focal point of the league. For the elementary-age child, it is important to feel a sense of accomplishment to improve their game and to understand about life as a whole.

“The program has developed a strong community-based approach. We get the brochures [advertising Upward] into the school system.”

Scholarships are provided so that the $40 fee does not become a barrier for some who want to participate but do not have the money to do so.

“There is a lot of ministry going on,” said Mark Dickenson, associate minister at Settle Memorial Methodist. “We get past the denominational things and just reach kids for Christ. We don’t turn a child away for financial reasons. Sunday school classes and other groups provide scholarship money. For some, this is a way to be a part of the ministry.”

Dickenson said the impact on the Owensboro community has impressed him. Stories related to families, he said, make the effort worthwhile.

“A person recently told a co-worker that their child was involved in Upward. The child kept telling the parent how neat the devotions were. The family had never been in the church and didn’t own a Bible,” Dickenson said. “As a result of the child’s comments, the parent bought the family their first Bible.

“Upward will be a memory-maker for a lot of kids,” he continued. “They’ll develop a lot of self-esteem and will accomplish more later in life, because Upward is developing and stretching them.”

John Garner, church recreation program director at LifeWay, said, “… the traditional winter basketball season is not the only time to employ Upward Basketball to reach children and their families. Community calendars, other sporting event schedules and local climate may lead churches to use another time to gain the greatest participation.”

Resources, including player jerseys, awards, coach’s shirts and training videos and manuals, are available from Upward Unlimited at 1-800-585-4721.

    About the Author

  • Charles Willis