A Better Experience Together

South of the Ohio River sits the city of Russell, Kentucky. With a population of over 3,700, the city is a part of the Huntington-Ashland metropolitan area, encompassing seven counties in three states, including Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia. Known locally as the “Tri-State” area, this metropolitan area flourishes through a shared economy and culture. In Russell, Kentucky, two churches have watched their Upward Sports Ministry flourish through a common goal.  

Bridges Christian Church and First Baptist Church Russell are located less than a mile from one another and, at one time, ran independent Upward Basketball leagues. Their close proximity meant that the two churches reached participants from the same community at the same time of year. While each church could offer its own sports experience, partnering together just made sense as the churches realized they could offer a better experience together.

Two Churches Working Together with the Same Goal

The church partnership for the Upward Sports ministry came together years ago, but now Joey Lewis of Bridges Christian Church and Brett Nance of First Baptist Church Russell run the leagues together. The partnership has worked well for both churches in many different aspects. Rather than competing for participants and trying to find enough volunteers, the churches can collectively reach out to the community, pull volunteers from both churches, split the financial cost, and serve in a ministry together.

“On this ministry, we are one church really. We make all of our decisions together, we make all of our moves together, we talk everything out before either church does anything really, just making it, on this point, we are one church together,” Joey Lewis says.

They are very transparent about the partnership between the two churches. While each church promotes the Upward Sports Ministry leagues on their respective websites, the partnership allows for one Facebook page promoting the Upward Sports League in Russell, Kentucky. On the social media page, the location for the league is listed as both churches, allowing those who visit the page to see the partnership at work. Not only that, but the partnership is one of the first things mentioned at the start of each Upward season during halftime devotions and announcements.

“It’s an outreach; it’s an opportunity to not only share the gospel and make connections with families, but we invite you to both our churches. If you don’t have a church home, we are very open to reminding them it is two churches working together with the same goal, which is the gospel,” Brett explains.

Two Churches, Three Sports

Another benefit of partnering with an area church is the ability to run multiple sports leagues. In addition to basketball, the church partnership allows for Bridges Christian Church and First Baptist Church Russell to also offer soccer in the spring and flag football in the fall. While the leagues fall under both churches, game days occur at a particular location, depending on the season. First Baptist Church Russell hosts basketball, while Bridges Christian Church owns the soccer and flag football field. By offering more than one sport, both churches have additional opportunities to reach community members.

Joey recognizes that offering just one sport can be a lot of work and admits, “Doing three leagues would be impossible if we didn’t have the partnership that we have. It’s really worth it,” adding, “We couldn’t do what we do alone. And we wouldn’t want to do it less than what we’re doing now.”

Partnership Outside of Sports Ministry

While the partnership between these two churches started with sports ministry, it has flourished into more than that over the years. In the fall, the churches came together to host an outdoor carnival for the community. This allowed them to share information, not only about their Upward Sports Leagues but also about other events going on at each church. They also utilize their social media page to share events at each church. In addition to reaching out to the community, the churches help one another with other ministries when the opportunities arise. During the Thanksgiving season, First Baptist Church Russell held a food outreach, and Bridges Christian Church helped.

Partnering Together – “It Just Makes Sense”

For churches that may be considering partnering together to offer sports ministry, both Joey and Brett encourage the idea.

“It just makes sense,” Brett says, noting that a partnership helps get participants and volunteers and is beneficial to both churches involved, explaining that every season, both churches see new visitors. “We both get visitors to our church that have never come to our church before, every season, because of what they experienced at Upward, whether it’s going to the soccer field or coming into one of our churches for practice or games. It’s all the basic things that are Upward goals, and they work for us.”

Joey further explained the impact of sharing the gospel with those at practices or games.

“Saturdays, people are hearing the gospel presentation, they are hearing about Jesus, the life of Joshua and how that could impact them, so they are hearing a great message. We have people who come up to us all the time and say, ‘Hey, I have this going on, could you pray for this.’”

The MyUpward system is helpful for two churches partnering together for a league. The system allows directors to set up practices and games at different facilities. Joey notes that the Myupward system is “conducive to a partnership.”

While running a league is hard work, it is undoubtedly meaningful and allows churches like Bridges Christian Church and First Baptist Church Russell to impact their community. The churches’ reach on the unchurched isn’t unnoticed, either. Brett and Joey estimate that 70-75% of their participants don’t have a church home, a significant increase from years past. Both have been a part of their Upward Sports ministry for so long that they have had the opportunity to connect with families who return year after year.

Brett explained, “It’s really one of the most ministry things I get to do. As far as sharing the gospel with people who are unchurched, it’s the biggest way that I get to do that.”

Joey says, “It really is an honor to use simple things like soccer and basketball to introduce people to Jesus.”

Written by Corrina Ramirez.

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