So, what's up with a little Upward basketball, football and other sports? You're not going to slam Upward.org, are you, Pastor?
No, I'm not going to slam it. But I sure won't call it a slam-dunk, either, that Upward is a program that does nothing but provide a healthy sporting environment for children.
Truth be told, the Upward program, according to their website, is . . .
"a parachurch organization which currently partners with churches in over 40 denominations to share the gospel with children and their families."
Catch that? Upward doesn't partner with churches to engender good sportsmanship and healthy competition and athleticism. It partners with churches "to thare the gospel with children and their families."
We are not necessarily critical of that, mind you. We have a Church School which exists to do more than teach children their ABC's. Good Shepherd Lutheran School exists so that children are taught within the context of the Gospel Ministry of Christ's Church, and we specifically aim to proclaim the Gospel to them and to their families. We are very upfront about that, and people would not send their children to our school if they did not want them to hear the Gospel.
With a sports program like Upward, it may not be so clear to parents that the organization doesn't partner with churches specifically for athletic or sports related reasons, but for religious and evangelistic. Parents may not realize that Upward is a missionary effort and athletics is the environment and means in which that is to occur.
The Mission Statement of Upward is "to introduce children to Jesus Christ by creating opportunities to serve through sports."
Certainly, other organizations have used earthly, temporal contexts for evangelistic outreach. The YMCA was founded on the principal of instilling Christian values in youth through a balance of physical and spiritual training. In and of itself, there is nothing objectionable in a group meeting earthly needs while at the same time being mindful of eternal things. But then it is no longer simply a sports activity for children. Parents need to understand that a certain religious perspective, doctrine or philosophy is necessarily at work in any organization seeking to evangelize through sports. For that reason, parents will want to ask themselves . . .
Are you looking for an evangelistic program for your children as well as a sports program?
Will such a missionary program support or contradict the faith in which you are raising your children?
If your child was baptized into Christ as an infant, will that be valued as a legitimate work of God to save, or will a different theology urge your child toward a decision for Jesus and a "believer's" baptism as a teenager or adult?
Upward may certainly provide parents what they desire their children to have in terms of healthy sports and competition, but parents need to investigate the theology of any progam which aims to evangelize their children. In some more agressive efforts unrelated to Upward, we have seen where children were urged in directions that would clearly concern a faithful Lutheran parent. You may listen to the sermon below, which recounts a couple of instances. It also strongly urges that we who recognize God's will to freely pour out His Gospel-blessings to infant children in Holy Baptism ought be mindful of the opportunities we have to bear witness to the Truth, in love.
Click here to listen to a New Year's Day sermon for the Circumcision of Our Lord, based on Galatians 3:23-29, in which Pastor Sawyer addresses the importance of infant baptism and the dangers of a religious culture that is opposed to the baptism of our infant children. LOTS of good stuff here, running through Biblical concepts of circumcision, the 8th day, the Ministry of Joshua/Jesus and the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Listen to it more than once and email Pastor Sawyer with comments or questions. The sermon is almost 28 minutes in length and is in MP3 format.
Should you decide to participate in an Upward activity, consider the following witnesses you might give . . .
Share the Gospel with the coaching staff, explaining that your child was born again as a Christian when he or she was baptized. If your child was baptized as an infant, you might need to underscore that fact, and stress that nothing more needs to be done to "introduce" him or her to Jesus, but that you as parents will continue to instruct your child and keep him/her in the Divine Service where Christ Himself personally ministers to your child, even to the point of providing His Body and Blood to eat and drink in bread and wine.
If your child is confident enough, he or she may tell the coach, "I want to learn how to be a better basketball player and a good sport, but I'm already a Christian. Jesus made me one when He baptized me. Do you believe that Jesus wants us to baptize babies?"
Admittedly, not every child is so bold to speak that way to an adult, but I've known a couple, and I know one even now who bears witness to the Gospel to her neighborhood friends. We are not able to keep our children sequestered from the world. They must live within it, and any activity - sports or otherwise - in which they participate, will bring challenges to our children's continuing in the Faith once delivered to the saints. Be aware of the risks. Speak openly and honestly about your expectations of a program, and let those in charge understand that the best thing they can do for your child is to teach him/her sports. You have a pastor and a church to continue administering the Faith to your little one, and you will make sure that happens.
Of course, Upward's mission IS - as they state it - to evangelize children through sports, and so, in asking organizers to stick simply with sports you may be imposing an unfair requirement on them. If someone demanded that Good Shepherd not teach children the Gospel, we'd have to say, gently, "Then Good Shepherd Lutheran School is not for you, because that's what we do." Be understanding of the Upward staffers if they cannot refrain from evangelizing your children. After all, it's their Mission. Be aware of that, and keep it in mind as you look for a sports program for your children.