At our church, Battlefield Baptist, in Warrenton, VA right before Halloween, the horror starts.
Not scary movies, not the ever-present peanut allergy debate about our candy selections for our church-based trunk-or-treat community outreach event.
Not even the theological debate of whether the church should be doing anything to “promote” that pagan extravaganza of free candy and costumes.
No, what starts is worse.
The dread, the talk, the nervous jokes, the adamant declarations of “Never again,” “I’ve served my time,” “I can’t do that,” and those famous last words, “Nope, not this year.”
Because for our church staff, leaders, members and volunteers, late October is the beginning of the most dreaded and also the most loved season of all. It’s Upward Basketball Season.
Well, actually, it’s just the start of the athlete evaluations. More than 400 basketball players, cheerleaders, parents, coaches, church staff and volunteers jammed into a modest-sized gym over two action-packed nights.
The real season won’t start until January. But the evaluations are the first indications that “Winter is Coming,” and with it the start of coaches’ meetings, parent meetings, eight to ten weeks of practices, a steady barrage of emails, scheduling battles, parent snack schedules, lost equipment, gym maintenance and cleaning, and of course the actual games.
It is truly, for those of us who both coach, and are on staff or volunteer in other aspects of the league; like snack bar duty, refereeing, the mid game devotionals, scheduling, and in my case announcing and keeping the clock; a tiring, aggravating, all-encompassing, “never-again” kind of activity.
This is my third year.
And Battlefield Baptist Church has been hosting Upward Basketball for 20 years. Many of the original coaches, referees and volunteers have been involved every single one of those years.
Because despite everything else that it is, Upward Basketball also happens to be one of the most rewarding, exciting, and productive ministries we do.
Sure, it takes a lot of time. During the season I coach one night a week, run the clocks for practices at least one other night, if not two, I spend most Friday nights writing up a game plan, deciding on the line ups and learning my post-game devotion for Saturday’s game. I also make sure I have all of the Bible verses up to that point memorized.
Because, in addition to rewarding stars to the players after each game for effort, sportsmanship, offense, defense and Christlikeness; we also give special green stars to the players any time during the season they can recite Bible verses we have given them to learn.
Saturdays for me start around 7 a.m. when we arrive at church to get the food cooking, get the gym lights on, the heat running, get the sound board, clocks and lighting set up, and start memorizing players’ names for introductions.
The gym I work in has two games going on at the same time all day. From 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Every week each team is introduced just like “the big leagues” with player names, and sometimes nicknames I’ve given them throughout the season. The kids love it. And though my voice is usually ready for a break by the end of the day, I love it too.
Prior to each games’ start there is a meeting of all teams’ coaches and referees to go over rules and do a pre-game prayer.
One note, this is not a Baptist league. It is a Christian league, where all children who wish to participate are welcome. We have Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans, non-denominational, and Mormons. Of most note though, we have a lot of unchurched kids participate.
Upward is a sports program dedicated to both teaching the fundamentals of the game and also to promote the discovery of Jesus through sports. Since 1995 millions of young athletes across the US have participated in Upward programs just like the one I am describing here.
At Battlefield, this past season alone we had 478 kids participate as players, cheerleaders and even assistant coaches.
That means for us, six teams practicing at a time, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., twice a week. Each team gets 45 minutes of practice, and 15 minutes of “locker room time” which is where we do a devotion, give them a Bible verse to learn, and use lessons from practice, games and life to teach them about Jesus.
Toward the end of the season, we hold “joint locker rooms.” That is where all the teams come together for their locker room time in one place where our Youth Director (and referee commissioner) presents the gospel and does a call to salvation.
This year we had 110 people accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. I say people, and not children, for good reason; we had not only children but also parents, and even grandparents accept Christ.
Upward is an amazing program that brings together people of different backgrounds, different races, and different denominations, to learn about love, hope and Jesus Christ. And it helps us to respond to our calling in the Great Commission, and reach people we might never reach in other ways.
And, though it is time-consuming, and I know this October we will all proclaim loudly that we are done, we aren’t going to volunteer another year, and we’ve served our time; we will be there on that first game day bright and early.
Please take a look at a quick video we put together from this last season by clicking here: