Building relationships: Alabama churches open doors of ministry to young athletes and their families

Local football players stand in the service at West Blocton First Baptist Church.
Photo courtesy of Kyle Hodges

Building relationships: Alabama churches open doors of ministry to young athletes and their families

Though sports options abound year round, fall feels like the unofficial kickoff for a new year of athletics — an avenue many churches use to open doors of ministry to young athletes and their families.

Some churches hold sports-themed Sunday morning services during the year. That’s the case at West Blocton First Baptist Church, which hosts an annual “Sports Sunday” and invites members of local sports teams, parents, coaches and officials to join with them for worship. The event usually brings in more visitors than a typical Easter or Christmas service, said pastor Kyle Hodges.

Celebrating the community

“They come wearing their team jerseys, and the service is geared toward celebrating them, praying for them and delivering a salvation message with a sports-related theme,” Hodges said. “This offers a chance for the community to see that a local church cares and is highly interested in what the community is involved in.”

He noted that a luncheon following the service allows church members to have conversations and build relationships.

Students pray during an event at Freedom Baptist Church in Ranburne. (Photo courtesy of Jerome Whaley)

Other churches hold special events. That’s what Freedom Baptist Church in Ranburne did recently. Pastor Jerome Whaley said the “Heart of a Champion” event was conceived last year as a way to reengage and reenergize the community as the COVID-19 pandemic subsided.

“We started to pray about reaching out to preteens and high schoolers in particular,” Whaley said. “They had just experienced a series of traumatic events by seeing people in their community pass away and their school years cut short.”

Whaley said he and other church leaders, many of whom teach in local schools, could still see the aftereffects of pandemic-related restrictions.

“We started to notice a decline in most youth groups in our area, and ours was not an exception,” Whaley said. “There was this constant spirit of fear.”

Whaley knew something had to be done in order to encourage youth to become involved again and make a commitment to Christ.

‘A bold move’

“We decided to make a bold move and do what we do best — what Matthew 28 commands us to do — and evangelize. Our mindset was to go back to basics,” Whaley said.

Ronnie Coleman, pastor of SoulQuest Church in Jackson, Tennessee, spoke at the event. A frequent speaker at youth-oriented events, Coleman said he always prioritizes sharing the gospel.

“We do whatever it takes to get them (young people) there, and the Holy Spirit will do His part. [He] always does,” Coleman said.

Whaley said following Coleman’s sermon, the altar was full and 24 students made first-time commitments to Christ.

“God moved in a miraculous way,” Whaley said. “Kids were coming down broken and ready to do business with God.”

Athletes worship at Heflin Baptist Church’s 2022 Gridiron Night. (Photo courtesy of Heflin Baptist Church)

Brent Thompson, pastor of Heflin Baptist Church, said he hopes his church’s annual Gridiron Night challenges young athletes to accept Christ and to be a bold voice for Him too.

“There’s so much God wants to do in our communities,” he said.

“God’s placed us here for such a time as this, and I’m really praying for some young men and women to rise up among [these student athletes] and carry the banner and cross of Jesus Christ without compromise. We’re going to continue to encourage them in that.” (Lizzie Bowen, Carrie Brown McWhorter)