Sports and Christian devotion are combined in church-based Upward youth leagues
By Lois K. Solomon | South Florida Sun-Sentinel
January 5, 2009
Imagine a soccer, flag football or basketball league in which the coaches don't yell at the kids and the parents don't scream at the coach.
Each team is equally divided according to players' abilities, in pursuit of a perfect mix of strong and weak players. Every kid gets an award at the end of each game, including one for "most Christ-like." And at some games, no scores are kept, to take the emphasis off winning.
This scenario would be tough in many city recreation leagues. But for churches participating in Upward sports, strict rules about team make-up, score keeping and Christian devotion are parts of the game.
"It's a spectacular program to introduce young people to sports," said Sea Ranch Lakes resident Jerry McFarland, a father of twin 8-year-old boys.
"For many, it's also an introduction to Christianity," said McFarland, who coaches Upward teams at Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale as well as in city leagues.
Participation in Upward leagues, for children in kindergarten through sixth grade, has almost doubled in Broward and Palm Beach counties over the past five years, from 1,219 kids in the 2003-04 season to 2,353 now. There were five leagues five years ago; now there are eight, with teams playing basketball, flag football, soccer and cheering.
Whether they attend church or not, families appear to be connecting with the philosophy of Upward, which is based in Spartanburg, S.C. Across the country, programs have grown from seven churches in 1996 to 2,200 today.
Upward attributes the growing popularity to a combination of factors: equal playing time for all children, ensuring no one sits on the bench for most of the game; an emphasis on learning the basics instead of getting to the next level; and engaging affiliated and unaffiliated Christians in a popular place — a ball field.
"We've developed a fun experience so they want to come back," said communications director Maria Maddin. "If they don't come back, we won't have a chance to share Christ."
Another part of the appeal is the way Upward uses biblical lessons to connect the children to sports, to coaches and to each other, said John Daniels, a Boynton Beach parent who coaches Upward teams at Boynton Beach Community Church. His wife coaches an Upward cheerleading team.
Before each practice and game, students discuss a Christian theme.
"Taking time to go through the devotions allows me to connect with the kids," said Daniels, a father of two. "The responsibility is on my shoulders, and it's become one of the most enjoyable parts."
At Boynton Beach Community Church, only 20 percent of the players' families belong to the church. Joining the league, which costs $80, provides the children with a religious foundation they likely would not get otherwise, Daniels said.
Christ Church's program fills up each season with 300 children, most of whom do not attend the church.
Lauren Buschmann, minister to children and families, said she marvels at the manpower needed to run the basketball program, including 72 volunteer coaches and two staffers.
"It's a great recruitment tool. These people who don't belong to a church are coming on your campus twice a week," Buschmann said. "It's like a church's dream come true."
Lois Solomon can be reached at lsolomon@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6536.
Upward Unlimited is a non-profit organization that partners with local evangelical churches to provide resources and training for conducting kids sports leagues and camps. Upward Basketball, Upward Cheerleading, Upward Soccer, and Upward Flag Football are all ministry programs of Upward Unlimited.