With 4.8 million people now playing pickleball — a combination of tennis, table tennis and badminton — it is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.
First Baptist Church Centre, Alabama, is leveraging its popularity as an outreach opportunity.
The church started the pickleball program at its Recreational Outreach Center in 2017.
“Pickleball has brought people from different towns and backgrounds to play,” said Freida Ellis, who founded the program with Jim and Elaine Bridges. “It has been a place to meet others and have fun together. Our church membership has grown because of having our facility open for people to come together playing a team sport that provides a friendly and Christian atmosphere.”
Beth Serrentino, administrator of the ROC, said people even come from Gadsden and Piedmont.
Todd Hayes recently moved to the area from Indiana, found out about the ministry and has become a regular.
He said the difference in playing at the ROC versus some sites is that the ROC group is friendly, with no attitudes or cliques. It is an inviting place to play, he said. “I will choose their facility over all the other places.”
Serrentino has seen pickleball save people’s lives, including one widower who participated.
“When he started playing, I didn’t even know him,” she said. “He would break down and cry many times or just was so discouraged, but over the last two years he is one of my husband’s and my best friends, and it’s all because of pickleball.
“I introduced him to my friend, and he is engaged,” Serrentino added. “He will tell you pickleball saved his life.”
Eddie Nation, pastor of FBC Centre, said pickleball is an excellent outreach for the church.
“Pickleball is growing here, and it’s growing our community here at the ROC. We are very thankful we have a facility and can offer it to our community, which enables us to get to know others and invite them to visit our church.”
Randy Rainey, FBC’s worship leader, started playing the game about a year ago.
“Pickleball is a great way to fellowship with other Christians,” he said, adding that it’s a great way to reach out to others, too.
“I feel God wants us to use all our resources for His glory,” Rainey said. “I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some. I have built some great friendships through pickleball and feel it is a great outreach for us.”
FBC Centre is planning to build a facility on the property where the ROC is located. The church currently meets in the gym for worship on Sundays.
“After we play on Saturday, we lay down carpet and set up about 300-350 chairs every week,” Serrentino said. “After church we have our congregation stack all the chairs, and we roll up the carpet to get ready to pull out the nets and get ready for pickleball on Monday morning.”
Serrentino encouraged other churches with recreational space to get on the “pickleball train.”
“Do it today,” she urged. “We had some issues at first, and sometimes I think we have an enemy that really wants to break our little pickleball family up, but we get stronger.”
Serrentino said the ROC’s role as an outreach center means everyone feels welcome — even those who aren’t believers feel welcome.
“They see something different about us real quick,” she said. “The only con is we don’t have enough time and space to play as much as we all would like to!”
To learn more about the church, the ROC and the pickleball program visit fbc-centre.org.
Click below to read about how one Alabama Baptist pastor plans to minister to the pickleball community.