Meeting the Needs of Your Community through Sports

As a child growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina, Kyle Oakley regularly organized sports games in his front yard with the other neighborhood kids. Now, as an adult, Kyle leads a sports ministry in that same neighborhood, serving kids from across Greensboro. Kyle still believes what he learned as a child: that sports have an incredible power to connect people.

As Lebanon Baptist Church’s Recreational & Adult Discipleship Director, Kyle runs the church’s Upward basketball/cheerleading, soccer, and volleyball leagues—with a baseball and softball league coming soon.

Kyle believes there’s no better way to reach the people in his community with the love of Jesus than through sports ministry.

“Our community loves sports,” Kyle says, “and they play sports somewhere every season. So why not be able to offer them the chance to play here? Then we also get to share the gospel with them at the same time.”

Filling the Gap

Sports ministry is an opportunity for churches to fill a gap in the community as recreational youth sports leagues decline in favor of more intensive club and travel teams. In Greensboro, the two large sports organizations that served the community while Kyle was growing up no longer exist. Through their Upward leagues, Lebanon gives kids the opportunity to still play quality recreational sports.

Kyle says, “People I went to high school with are bringing their kids to play sports in the same area that we grew up in playing sports.”

Lebanon takes this opportunity seriously. They want their programs to stand out from other youth sports leagues.

“We want to be different,” Kyle says. “We want to set aside ourselves from that worldly view of sports and how it’s taken shape right now with the culture of ‘me, me, me.’ We want to turn it into a culture where it’s all about the team and it’s all about sharing Jesus Christ and Christian principles.”

“Families see it as different than other sports organizations where it’s all about winning and winning as big as you possibly can. They see that we don’t focus just on that one thing. We focus on a fully-rounded experience of developing socially, intellectually, and spiritually . . . I really think that’s where parents see the value in it.”

Listening to the Community

Lebanon has served their community through Upward basketball for fourteen years. After Kyle began volunteering in the league, he suggested they add other sports to make it a year-round ministry. The church kicked off their Upward soccer league four years ago and will start their second season of volleyball soon. Kyle himself has been in his role on staff at the church for four years now. He and Lebanon’s leadership team are always looking out for the needs in their community and for how they can make the Upward experience even better for families.

Kyle says, “We’ve been so successful because of our willingness to really reach out into our community and find out what they need and what they’re looking for in a sports program, and then be able to provide it.”

Building Relationships

Spiritual emphasis is key to sports ministry. Practice and halftime devotions allow Lebanon’s volunteers the opportunity to teach the young athletes about Jesus. Strong relationships with players and their families make room for evangelism and discipleship to flourish.

Through Lebanon’s Pray for a Player initiative, church members adopt families in their Upward programs to pray for, encourage, and get to know. They’ll come and sit beside parents at games and build connections with them.

“Those things really help to build those relationships,” Kyle says. “And relationships are what’s important about making a successful program. We could let everybody show up and play basketball every Saturday, but if it’s not well-organized and spiritually connected and built on loving relationships, it’s going to be like everywhere else.”

Kyle says he measures the success of their ministry by the families who come back and continue to play sports at Lebanon season after season. When people return, it shows that what Lebanon is doing is making an impact.

“Ultimately, our goal is to plant the seed of the gospel of Jesus,” Kyle says. “And if they’re continuing to come back to play season after season, we’re planting that seed for them.”

Embracing Opportunity

Lebanon partners with Upward Sports because the resources allow Kyle and his volunteers to focus on relationships, spiritual connections, and providing a great sports experience.

“The things that we get from Upward are far more valuable than the money we would make if we went out on our own,” says Kyle. “Name recognition, registration, uniforms, communication tools, resources. The ease of being able to use the Upward system. The spiritual element of having devotions already prepared for you . . . You can trust that things are done right. You don’t have to spend time doing those things; you can spend time focusing on relationships and making sure the operational side of things is done well.”

Kyle strongly encourages churches to take a chance on sports ministry.

“I say to any church that has a gym facility or a spare piece of grass, why are you not already doing something? . . . Even if you don’t have those things, is there a local school nearby that would allow you to use their facility? Most communities are dying for a sports program just to be able to offer their kids a place to go play sports that doesn’t break the bank, that doesn’t require a year-round commitment, and that doesn’t require four or five practices in a week and a whole weekend of traveling.”

Sports ministry is a huge opportunity for churches to meet needs of their communities and help people connect to Jesus. As for Kyle, the guy who used to organize games in his front yard still wants to get people playing sports—but now for a greater purpose.

“Sports ministry is our biggest outreach ministry that we have,” Kyle says. “Because our community speaks that language of sports, it gives us a natural connection with them. And I think that’s probably true of most communities around the country.”

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