“Let the children come to Me” (Mark 10:14). What was it like to walk down a dusty road early in the cool morning sunlight with Jesus? Mark reminds us that kids were not only welcome to play at his feet, Jesus attracted them. What kind of Man was He? Did he play catch or tag? If Jesus wore the long robe of a Rabbi, did he allow the littlest one to hide in the folds of his garments while he watched them play hide and seek? I may never know the specifics, but the bible witness records that children enjoyed playing with Jesus.
An unnoticed lesson clamors loudly from this passage. Jesus intentionally attracted people, especially kids. He was available. He took the time to get involved with the kids while pursuing his responsibilities in the adult world. Bringing children into the kingdom is a huge part of building the Father’s kingdom. Today this message has been picked up by a local church which condenses their goal of evangelizing children into these words: “The Earlier, the Better.”
As the football season ends, and the NBA starts up again, Kentwood Community Church is busy organizing its sixth season of Upward Basketball. A ministry staffed by over 120 volunteers, Upward Basketball connects kids to a fun environment while pursuing three priorities: 1) to teach kids Christian values, 2) to open the door to connect the church with their families, and 3) offer all family members a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. The staff recruits a prayer team of close to 100 more volunteers who intercede for the season’s success while the organizers, coaches and staff trust God to bring in children and open their mom’s and dad’s hearts too.
One of the Kentwood Community Church Upward Basketball league’s directors, Don Lemmon put it this way. “Upward basketball is an open-handed outreach. Our motto is that everyone is valuable, and everyone is a winner. All the kids are treated fairly, and they are allowed to both learn and play basketball in a safe atmosphere. No criticism or intimidation is allowed. The program sets kids up to succeed. They compete on a level playing field based on their own skill levels. Rather than being pressured to perform, they’re encouraged to play the game and have a good time.”
This season’s Upward basketball league is comprised of 36 8-person teams, plus a coach and assistant coach for each. Three years ago, the church added cheer teams to the Upward experience and now six teams of six to eight students each, plus cheer coaches are also involved. On game day, the cheerleaders form a tunnel, and every player runs onto the floor while listening to his name over the loudspeakers. During the game, every player starts at least one quarter, and teams are paired up against those of similar age and skill. For eight Saturdays, the gymnasium at Kentwood Community Church is filled with screaming kids, parents, coaches and cheerleaders providing a basketball experience for kids who may otherwise never play on their school’s team. In other cases, some kids develop ball handling skills which translate into middle and high school competitive play.
Don described how Upward Basketball is also an opportunity for the church to connect with parents and families, which would otherwise never walk through into a church building. The Upward staff discloses from the outset that Upward is an athletic experience which includes a Christian point of view. The students are given Bible verses to memorize. While most of each practice focuses on basketball drills and skills, the coaches take a break, and all share their faith and what it means to become a follower of Jesus Christ every week. As a result, 10 to 20 students make a profession of faith and become involved with local churches each season.
When Jesus said “Let the little children come to me”, he didn’t give it a four-point sermon on ministering to kids. Yet Upward Basketball creates 360° of spiritual opportunity and spiritual growth. Hundreds of kids and their families hear the Gospel for the first time. Children are taught self-respect, and self-esteem by learning new skills, building friendships, and participating in a positive environment with friends and family. The Upward volunteers have opportunities to become spiritual leaders. Before the end of the season, the coaches often discover they have a congregation of 6 to 8 attentive young men and women who want to know more about Jesus. Through Upward, the church connects with unchurched families, builds relationships and plants seeds for the kingdom of God.
Recently, Kentwood Community Church added Upward Summer Sports Camps to the Upward Basketball season. These two-week summer events, featuring basketball, soccer, and cheer camps, have extended the outreach of Upward Sports year around. If your church would like more information about Upward Basketball, details are available at www.upward.org,