Community Hero Stories

Community Hero Stories

What is a Community Hero?

An individual who brings their community together with an innovative approach to sports ministry while serving selflessly and inspiring life long change on and off the court. We want to celebrate these difference makers who labor in the Gospel work of making Jesus known through the power of sports.

In The Game

What does a typical Upward Sports game day or practice night look like? To League Director Andy Barnette, “It looks like life on our campus.”

One morning, a few months into his role as the Family Ministries Pastor at Greenville First Church of the Nazarene (GFN) in Greenville, South Carolina, Andy was driving up to the church and started thinking that the campus was not being utilized to its full potential. Soon, he was having conversations about starting a sports ministry at GFN.

Less than two years later, Andy walked out to the first-ever practice night for the church’s new Upward soccer league to see the church’s normally empty field and parking lot full of people.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Andy says, “not just to have a presence in the community, but to actually be present in the community, to have face-to-face interaction with people in our community and to develop relationships.”

Beauty in Diversity

GFN’s new sports ministry is all about sharing life with people—and not just people with similar backgrounds. The church’s league represents the diverse cultural community of Greenville as a whole.

“One of the most beautiful things about this league is the diversity,” says Andy. “The diversity of language, the diversity of cultures. My wife said that this is what heaven must look like, to hear families cheer on their kids in multiple languages.”

GFN has leaned into the multicultural makeup of their league even more by partnering with organizations that work with refugees in their community and offering scholarships to some refugee families to participate in the league. The church is transporting the families to and from games and practices. They were also able to provide the players with equipment such as cleats and shin guards. Sometimes, Google Translate is required to help with communication, but it’s all worth it to connect with and support these families.

“We’re trying to develop relationships with our community,” Andy says, “But through soccer, we’re able to help these families develop relationships in the community, as well.”

In the Game

Andy also coaches one of the teams in the league. When he made substitutions in a recent game, one of the players, a little girl whose family recently settled in Greenville after moving from another country, went over to the sideline for a few minutes, then came back to Andy and said, “I don’t want to take a break. I want to be in the game!”

Andy says, “I couldn’t help but think, you know, what if the church kind of had that attitude? Too often, I think the church wants to be on the sidelines watching and taking a break, but what if we had this attitude of, ‘I want to be in the game, I want to be in the middle of what’s going on, I want to be part of this mission.’”

This proactive attitude is one the GFN congregation has embraced. The church’s Life Groups have all adopted a team or two within the league. The group members rotate attending game days. They bring snacks and cheer on their teams, run concessions, and get to know the athletes’ families.

“Our Life Groups are coming,” says Andy. “They’re a part of it. They’re talking with the parents. We’re getting a ton of people, just being here, just showing up and talking to people because that’s really what I want. I want our church just to be out here and be a part of it.”

Blessing Their Community

The level of investment the GFN church members have already shown is impressive, especially considering that the church decided to move forward with the league sooner than expected.

“We weren’t quite ready to begin,” Andy says. “But things just kept falling into place for us. And so, we’re like, ‘Alright, if we’re going to do this, let’s stop waiting. Let’s just take a leap of faith, and let’s just do this.’”

One of the things that encouraged GFN to hit the ground running was a special partnership between the Church of the Nazarene and Upward Sports. As part of the Church of the Nazarene’s Blessing our Community initiative, churches in the denomination that sign up with Upward receive several benefits, including a startup grant from Upward and funding from the Church of the Nazarene. It was through a grant from the Church of the Nazarene that GFN was able to provide for the refugee families to participate in their league.

For the past several years, GFN has used the phrase “For the Upstate” to describe their focus as a church in upstate South Carolina. When Andy arrived, he wondered about how the church could expand beyond traditional Bible studies, children’s ministry, etc., to serve their community.

He says, “I couldn’t help but think, you know, what if we started a sports outreach ministry to really be present in the upstate and create a presence here in Greenville, in our neighborhood, to not just be a place for people to come to on a Sunday morning for worship. But what would it look like for us as a church to provide a service for the community? Not just to grow the church. It’s great if that’s what happens, but really, it’s all about just providing this service for our community and developing relationships with people in the neighborhoods.”

Past to Future Ministry

Andy grew up attending the youth group at GFN as a high school student and received a call into ministry during that time. After more than 20 years of ministry, serving as a youth pastor and senior pastor in other places, he and his family moved back to Greenville to care for his parents and to follow an exciting career opportunity for his wife. When a staff position opened up at GFN, Andy stepped into an interim position before officially becoming the Family Ministries Pastor. He is passionate about helping the church that ministered to him as a teenager positively impact the community today.

“With a sports ministry, we’ve got people who are on our campus at least twice a week,” Andy says. “You’ve got kids, you’ve got families, you’ve got parents, you’ve got friends, aunts and uncles, grandparents, you’ve got all these people who are coming. It’s just a great way for our church to get to know people and for people to see our church and for our church to just let our community know, ‘Hey, we see you. We’re right here. We’re right here with you.’”

GFN is still in their first season of Upward soccer, but they have big plans for the future.

Andy says, “The vision is to be a church with a sports ministry that is providing a lot of different opportunities for kids with different skill sets and talents and interests . . . Our goal is just to continue to grow and develop this ministry. This is just the first small step of what we’re hoping is a giant, long journey of sports ministry.”

Written by Laura Coulter.

Past Stories

“It’s an outreach; it’s an opportunity to not only share the gospel and make connections with families… 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,”

Joey Lewis & Brett Nance, Bridges Christian Church & First Baptist Church, Russell KY

“Doing three leagues would be impossible if we didn’t have the partnership that we have. It’s really worth it”

Jerry Fourroux, Lycoming Centre Presbyterian Church, Cogan Station, PA

“… a team mentality is evident everywhere you look… leadership working together to an entire church dedicating themselves and making a sports ministry thrive.”

Nicole Rullo & Amy Snyder, Oro Valley Church of the Nazarene (OVCN), Oro Valley, AZ

“… this group of Christians proves that a church doesn’t have to be numerically huge to effectively and positively impact a community.”

Amanda Watson, North Hills Church, Vallejo, CA

“Kyle still believes what he learned as a child: that sports have an incredible power to connect people.”

Kyle Oakley, Lebanon Baptist Church, Greensboro, NC

“When we can do the little things well,” says Brad, “that just shows that we’re here and that we care. It seems to go a long way.”

Brad Habegger, Grace Church, Morton, IL

“The more opportunities we have for people to connect, the greater the chance of being able to share the gospel with them and their family.”

Jimmy Moneypenny, Second Baptist Church, Warner Robins, GA

Memphis Baptist Church has been running Upward leagues for more than 20 years, but in 2018, they stopped offering their flag football and cheerleading league to focus solely on their basketball and cheerleading league.

Jason & Amy Wright, Memphis Baptist Church, Dothan, AL

Concerts, food outreach, and rummage sales all took place there, but the church had never used the space for sports. Nate, an athlete at heart, knew there was an opportunity for something more.

Nate Blanchard, Chapel Hill Church, Brighton, CO

Ray never considered making an impact beyond the crops he sold each harvest to provide for his wife and little girl. Until one evening working in those very fields, he heard a voice whisper to him a simple phrase. “If you build it, he will come.”

Bill Gallahair + Dave & Kim Hicks, Harvest Fields Community Church, Deatsville, AL

Achieving the goal of becoming debt-free is worth celebrating for any church. But if you were to ask senior pastor Travis Osborne, he’d quickly tell you Valley Christian’s ministry extends well beyond the walls of the sanctuary.

Matt & Candice Carter and Travis Osborne, Valley Christian Fellowship Church, Redding, CA

Summerville Baptist’s basketball league has been thriving, celebrating its 25th season in 2022. John admits it hasn’t always been easy … but the reward of families coming to the gym to hear about Jesus, outweighs all obstacles.

John Lybrand, Summerville Baptist Church, Summerville, SC

Children with ADHD. Children with dyslexia. Children with autism. Children with Down Syndrome. Jesus welcomed them all.

Vinh Nguyen, Cornerstone Church, Grand Island, NY

“I had some awesome chaplains in pro-ball who would say ‘Don’t be surprised if God calls you into ministry one day.”

Brent Leach, First Baptist Church, Brandon, MS

“To say 2020 was a trying year for many churches would be a massive understatement.”

Darrin Worthington & Mary Jordan, Trinity Baptist Church, Lake Charles, LA

“Reaching a Community for Christ with Excellence!”

Alan Royalty, First Baptist Church, Alpharetta, GA

“Making Bigger the Family of God.”

Joel & Katie Stevens, Sherwood Oaks Christian Church, Indiana

“Utilizing Sports to Support P.E. in Christian Schools”

Brent Jenson, Angleton Christian School, Texas

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2021 Webinar Series

Season 2 of our webinar series is back! Titled “Community Heroes”, this season’s webinar series from Upward Sports will provide invaluable information to church leaders, sports directors, and volunteer leaders on how local churches are changing the game by creating customized sport experiences, offering new sports to their communities, and utilizing the improved technology, all offered through Upward’s new initiative called Project Select. Hear stories from Upward church partners across the country who are bringing their communities together in innovative ways through their sports ministry. We hope that this series inspires and encourages others to continue to labor in the Gospel work of making Jesus known through the power of sports.

Building Strong Foundations during Leadership Transitions

with Sam Sievers, Children’s Pastor at Lenexa Baptist Church, Kansas​

Beyond the Building: Restarting with Intentionality

with Kip Gingrich, Pastor of Student Ministry at Northside Church, New York​

A Customized Solution for Your Sports Ministry – Introducing Project Select​

with Ryan Shaughnessy, League Director at Christ Community Church, Nebraska

Upward Sports Launches a New Sport – VOLLEYBALL! ​

with Danny Downing, Sports & Fitness Minister at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, Georgia

Co-Laboring for the Gospel: Engaging Your Community ​

with Tyson Willis, Associate Pastor at New Fellowship Baptist Church, Texas and John Gillespie, Senior Pastor at First Baptist Church, Texas

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