Among the things we Southern Baptists know as reality but seldom express is that churches will almost always be happy to undertake projects that expand their buildings. It makes us feel good about ourselves, as in ‘we might not be growing but take a look at our facilities.’
If one looks around there are scads of SBC churches who can count several successful building programs in their history. And don’t call me a cynic (I prefer ‘realist’) when I write that the pastor who leads in building that new sanctuary, that new educational building, that new family life center is more likely to be remembered favorably by the congregation than one who led the church to baptize a lot or who led when individuals and couples were called out of the church to missions or vocational service.
So, the great ‘family life center (FLC)’ building boom of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s yielded a lot of permanent structures, not so much in church growth. Every church I pastored wanted a gym, call it a FLC if you want to dress it up, because it was thought that those were a natural progression of church life (a multi-purpose ‘outreach’ facility), a draw for the young people, a boost for the ‘youth group’, and because the church down the street had one and we don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage.
My evidence is anecdotal, admittedly, and some of these facilities are an integral part of some church’s programming but many (most?) are severely underused and ill-maintained. I’m thinking about the budget minded church that threw up a metal building in the 1980s housing a gym, maybe a kitchen, and a room or two. The stark metal exterior was never appealing and the exposed insulation inside is discolored and has rips and tears. Church folks like the big space for occasional covered dish meals, family reunions, and events but that’s about it.
No ‘youth group’ in my church was much into basketball. Fitness facilities are a dime a dozen and cheap to join, with expensive equipment that average churches would be loath to buy, and have free classes of all kinds. The old FLC: often an albatross, dinosaur, white elephant…the animal metaphors are abundant.
Along comes the whimsically-named sport growing by leaps and bounds: Pickleball. Like tennis but shrunk up or ping pong grown up, it’s the fastest growing sport in America.
Hey, I play. I’m legendary (for an octogenarian) on the court.
Some churches have discovered this, as Baptist Press reports: Churches use pickleball’s popularity for relationship building, outreach.
“We have used pickleball for building in-house community, but also for our congregation to invite friends who may not normally come to church to play,” [Support Pastor Lee] Chinnis said.
“It’s a good sport to bring people together and that’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to get some of our congregation who might not know each other to do so.”
The only church around me that does this is a large United Methodist church. Good for them.
Several things about the sport from my perspective:
- Geezers love it. What’s this about giving patterns in the church? That older folks give more. Older folks, and my group of several dozen ranges in age from around 60 to over 80, like to get on court and whack the hard ball around. Not that any of my pastor colleagues would be motivated about gaining some new members who actually give. Contrast pickleball to the typical open invitation to a monthly ‘senior adult luncheon’ with bingo. You can do both but the latter doesn’t have the same appeal as an active sport opportunity for seniors who like fun and movement, not just heavy casseroles and moving a fork from plate to mouth.
- Nothing weighs more heavily on SBC churches than a declining birth rate. We are below replacement level here. Pastuh Bubba in Podunk wants you to know that pickleball will not help your birth rate but this is an option for building relationships with older people.
- It’s competitive but highly social. People bring their neighbors and friends. Instant, low-cost, low-threshold way to build relationships. In my group you just show up and are paired for doubles. People are forced to learn your name.
- Cheap. My Sunday School class has a bunch of golfers. They try mightily to get me in the group. I’m not interested in the investment. Spend $50 on a paddle or use the ones at the facility for free.
- Cheap for the church. Paint the gym floor, buy some portable nets and, instant pickleball. The county just added courts to an existing basketball gym, three pickleball courts fit comfortably. It’s a magnet for players.
- Fun. Once you get past the distorted Calvinist thinking that if it’s fun, it’s sinful.
- It’s biblical. That pickleball in my photograph: 40 holes, brethren and sistren, exactly 40 holes. (OK, so an indoor ball has less holes, don’t get technical when I’m making a biblical point.)
- It’s a game of finesse, I’m told, which handicaps me since have been confirmed to have above average Neanderthal DNA. Pow! Slam! But a good player can easily beat me without any kind of power game.
Consider me to have added pickleball to my SBC Voices portfolio. I am now the self-appointed expert here for it along with opera, birding, the clergy housing allowance, and edgy sarcasm.
Pow! Slam! Merry Christmas!
So take a look at the photo in the BP story:
Some, ahem, seniors in the picture. The article says that the church has one evening a week for pickleball. All my group are retired or have jobs where they can play in the daytime. No competition for the court then. Open up your gym in the daytime. People will come.
Outdoor courts will cost a bit. Not many churches have tennis courts that can be converted.