Ten years ago, when St. James was expanding their church to add a gymnasium they wanted it to be used for more than just youth group games and evening parishioner athletics. They wanted something that would bring the community together in fellowship inside the gym walls. A search committee set out to see what they could find that had already seen success and they found Upward Youth Basketball program. They went to Dallas, Texas to learn how the program worked and how they could build the same outreach program at St. James First United Methodist Church in Little Rock.

Upward Youth Basketball program has at least one church that houses the program. The basketball program is for K-6th graders who want to learn basketball and play against other teams. The parents register their child’s age and gender with the online Upward link which is provided by the program free of charge as a simple tool. The parents are requested to pay $85 for their child to participate in eight weeks’ worth of practices and games. The money charged pays for the Upward uniform and curriculum which is how the brand makes money, and the church does not have any investment other than the gym and the balls.

A group of young girls huddle during a timeout at an Upward basketball game.

They build in late fees on registrations that in turn pay for scholarships for students who may not be able to afford to play. Upward Youth Basketball provides weekly coaching skills curriculum and scripture devotion for each practice and halftime of each game, so no volunteer has to be an expert at either. They just have to feel called to serve children and their families.

Upward Basketball does not keep score and has a system in place that if you attend all games, each player will have equal playing time. The games played are about team building, basketball skill development, learning God loves them, and most importantly fellowship of players and parents.

The young boys groups wait to start their game.

Sean Dunbar came on staff at St. James six years ago and added his love of soccer to the program to get even more families to walk into the St. James gym. Dunbar introduced futsal – a variation of soccer that is played on an inside court instead of outside – because it offered soccer kids some inside soccer skill competition in their offseason. He runs basketball all day Saturday and futsal Friday nights and Saturday nights.

The Friday night futsal games just “happen” to overlap with Youth Group Live going on in the free space next to the gym, so many of the teens from futsal venture over to the St. James youth group fun while waiting for their next game. Dunbar is communities.

Two volunteer referees for Upward smile for the camera.

Here are some hard numbers that Dunbar was able to share about those who take part in the Upward Athletics program at St. James. There are currently 279 children enrolled in St. James Upward program. He had to turn 100 away because they didn’t have enough practice space to add more than the 32 teams they already practice. Forty-one percent of those kids are unaffiliated with a church. Twenty-six percent are affiliated with a UMC church. Thirteen percent of the participating Upward players are from St. James. I will end by sharing a quote from a father who is not a member but wrote an article about the work being done at St. James under the leadership of Sean Dunbar and the St. James Mission team.

“Thank you, St. James, for opening your doors to serve the youths of central Arkansas – even those who are not church members. It has allowed kids to become better athletes in the right kind of environment, gives kids an opportunity to play basketball and soccer in ways otherwise unavailable, and opens the doors of the church to do it all with the presence of God in the background.” – Matt Dishongh