FORT WORTH, Texas (SWBTS) – Paul Stutz, assistant professor of administration and church recreation, and six students from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary traveled to California July 26-Aug. 2 to partner with Vision San Diego, a three-year project of the North American Mission Board. Specifically, the team went to lead Upward Sports Camps, an evangelistic sports ministry with the motto, “Every child is a winner.”

Working alongside groups from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Warren Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga., the team partnered with Tommy Yessick, a representative from Upward, to lead basketball and cheerleading camps at two local churches.

At their initial meeting, Yessick explained the challenges of ministry outside of the “Bible Belt.” Stutz says, “He reminded us that most of the people in the area where we were do not make church a priority. They can go golfing or to the beach or to church. Church is a leisure choice.”

Amie Chambers, who is pursuing a dual master’s degree in marriage and family counseling and Christian education, said many of the kids at their camps came without presuppositions. “The kids and their parents were both hungry for God’s Word. Parents wanted to know when we were coming back or if we could stay,” she said.

Camp participants were not the only ones pushed out of their comfort zone. Katrina Wilkerson, a Master of Arts in Christian Education student, loves basketball and has played the sport all of her life. However, at the second camp each day, they had more girls than boys. She volunteered to switch from leading the basketball camp to teach the cheerleaders.

“It was a real challenge for me,” Wilkerson said. “I made a complete fool of myself trying to do the cheers and the jumps, but it was also the highlight of my week. Because I didn’t know much about the sport, I gave each child extra attention.  They had such sweet spirits and just wanted to be loved.”

Chambers has taken a few classes in church recreation and has consistently heard how God can use sports to draw people to Him. However, this trip was the first time she actually experienced this fact herself.

On the last day of the first camp, she had a conversation with one camper’s mother, who said, “I have seen my daughter’s face light up this week. She quotes Scripture and has had such a wonderful time. I think we are going to start coming to church here.”

The way Upward Sports camps are set up, on the last day, family and friends are invited to come and see what their child has learned. Stutz says, “The congregations of these churches had probably never had so many people come to their church. Sports are a great outreach for the church. You get the kids involved, and the family soon follows.”