Church’s baskeball program has an Upward focus
Conner is one of the 58 kids who participates in a popular children’s sports outreach ministry for kindergarten through sixth graders at the North Canton Church of Christ. Last year — the first season — drew 36 kids. Two-thirds of them are from the community.
Patterned after “Upward Sports” a 15-year-old, trademarked program based in South Carolina, the program gives children opportunities for skills-building, fun, friendship, competition and spiritual development.
That’s exactly what North Canton church leaders were looking for.
When they expanded their building to include a gym three years ago, they envisioned a multipurpose tool that would provide opportunities for community outreach and evangelism.
A Christian sports ministry was high on their list of priorities for the gym, which also is used for giveaways, youth activities, Vacation Bible School and Red Cross blood drives.
“We have families coming to church as a result of the Upward program, which has nearly doubled in size in only two years,” elder Jim Lindesmith said.
He and his wife, Carolyn, are co-directors of the program and sports enthusiasts. They know the popularity and power of sports from experience. All three of their sons played.
“The uniqueness of the program is teaching Jesus Christ along with basketball,” Jim Lindesmith said. It teaches Christian values rather than the “win-at-all-costs” mentality found in many children’s sports leagues, he added.
Carolyn Lindesmith said parents are “really surprised at the encouragement aspect of the program, and the fairness of playing time. There are no stars.”
Connor Stewart’s mom, Melanie, agrees.
“The experience has been very positive for Conner,” Mealanie Stewart said. “It’s important that kids who are learning how to play a sport need to grasp the sport before they start being competitive.”
Parents also are pleased about a short playing season and the spiritual dimension of the program, she said.
Christian coaches are part of the program, providing strong role models for the children. Each practice includes a brief devotional. Coaches share Bible verses and life lessons.
On game days, a devotional is offered at halftime so parents can get a taste of the program.
“You are helping kids understand the game of basketball and how to play as a team and work with the other kids,” said Trevor Price, a coach and father whose daughter has played in the league since its beginning.
After each game, players get awards for playing good offense or defense. They also get awards for sportsmanship, effort and Christ-likeness.
Though there are no stars in the Upward league, the children receive stars to wear for their performance in each category.
“That really motivated our son,” Mealanie Stewart said. “If he wanted a special star, he would strive to be better in that.”
Price sees the sports ministry as a creative way of keeping the church externally focused.
“If you are trying to reach the community with Jesus Christ, it also involves telling the kids that God wants people to behave,” he said. “Basketball provides a practical venue for teaching about that.”
Between 40 and 50 volunteers from the church and the community keep the program running. Ninety percent are from North Canton, including all coaches and referees, Lindesmith said. The rest are parents of the players who want to help.
One of the things that players most enjoy is the way they are introduced before the games.
“The church puts lights on them, and they run under a ‘tunnel’ to center court,” Jim Lindesmith said.
Parents like to see their kids have a good time in organized sports. Someone who isn’t the best of the best might not get an opportunity in school, but everyone gets equal playing time in this program.
“It’s exciting to see a kid score who is not very athletic. Parents and teams get excited about that,” Price said.
“It’s also great to see very talented kids — who can score any time they wish — throw the ball to someone who can’t. That’s a proud moment for any parents to see that kind of character,” Price said.
Price’s daughter, Katelyn. 8, likes playing basketball, too, even though she had never shown a lot of interest before, said her mom, Angie Price.
“She learned a lot, had a lot of fun, and her skill level really improved,” Angie Price said. “Most of all, she was thrilled that her two brothers, finally, had to watch her for a change.”