Four teams competed at the 23rd annual Eastern PA Conference Men’s Softball Tournament Saturday, July 19. They included Hopewell UMC, which emerged as the wining team, Grove UMC, Jarrettown UMC and New Hanover UMC.
These men represent church leagues in their areas. If you look closely at our group photo you will see men of all ages, from their teens to their sixties. It is especially great that there are teams with fathers and sons playing together.
The primary purpose of this tournament is to promote Christian fellowship, from the opening devotions, as men gather in a circle around one of the infields, through the presentation of the winning team’s award. The players meet and get to know fellow United Methodists from other churches. Women are welcome to play, but this year the teams were all composed of men.
We recite the Pledge of Allegiance and have a Bible study provided by Jarrettown UMC’s Senior Pastor Rev. Bob Strauss. We then have a prayer by one of the players, followed by all the men singing together “Rise Up Oh Men Of God!” We then close the service by holding up a big poster, like you often see at many sporting events, stating simply, “John 3:16”, and all the men recite that verse in unison. Then it’s “play ball!”
One thing special is that our playing fields are right in the middle of Upper Dublin Township’s main recreation park. The one-mile jogging and walking track passes about 10 feet from the fields that we use. Hundreds of folks are walking, running or bringing their kids to the playground as they witness our devotional gathering and our healthy play together.
It takes five rounds of games to win the championship. We play “intermediate pitch” rules using ASAP approved umpires. We provide two very modest plaques for the first and second place teams. While the teams play hard, we strongly emphasize that Christian fellowship is why we are there. The championship game ends about 6 PM.
Athletic Ministry is something that all churches should use to reach out to the young people in our communities. Sports Illustrated stated that softball is the most participatory sport in the America. And if you go some evening – or, unfortunately, on Sunday mornings – to local softball diamonds you will find lots of young adults playing softball, most often in “Bar Leagues.”
I started our Jarrettown UMC team among our UMM 25 years ago. When I asked our men in February if they wanted to start a team, they were enthusiastic. But when I started calling other local UMC’s to put together a league for the upcoming summer, the response I heard was, “We are too old.” I almost gave up.
But then our Township Recreation Director gave me the name of the head of a church league that had been operating locally. I called him, and he invited me to their winter meeting. They had 12 teams in their League, all from independent churches with strong evangelical ministries. We joined the league and have remained a member church. But we still have not been able to get any local UMC’s in our area to join us. Still they tell us, “We’re too old.”
Two years after we joined our Suburban Fundamental Church League, and seeing how great church league softball has been for our men, I scoured our annual conference for other UMC’s that had softball teams. I found a few but they were too far away to play us on a regular basis. That was when I decided to put together this tournament for the UMC’s who could come together for just one day. And it has been great every year.
As tournament commissioner my only disappointment is our inability to convince more UMC’s to develop teams at their churches. At Jarrettown UMC our home games are on Tuesday evenings. On that night our men, of all ages, some with wives and girlfriends, arrive about 6 PM. At 6:30 both teams gather at home plate in prayer. The teams then play hard with the game ending about 8:15. The teams then gather again at home plate for a closing prayer. Now during that evening the players don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke, don’t curse and their families get to know each other outside of Sunday morning. From my point of view – “we won that night!”.
Here in the Eastern PA UMM we are looking for other sports in which we can develop Christian athletic ministries. At the tournament Saturday a young man from one of the teams thanked me for having this event and then told me that several churches in his area have a volleyball league. I also have been talking to men from our inner-city churches who remember their church leagues long ago where the young men in their neighborhoods would play basketball. Why not now?
My friends, if we want to reach out to our young adults and teens we’d better go where they are. Let’s take what they like to do and put it in a Christian setting. Bethany UMC in Allentown is the biggest UMC in the North East Jurisdiction. They are now building a new, big Church. The part they completed first is their new gymnasium – and instead of a big front lawn they installed soccer fields and a ball field.
Another of our growing churches is New Hanover UMC. When you enter their beautiful sanctuary on Sunday morning and look down you see basketball floor lines woven into the carpet. And New Hanover’s softball field lies between the church and the parsonage.
Now don’t get me wrong, Christian athletics is not the sole key to success. New Hanover also has an excellent 65-member choir, an orchestra and a Girl Scout troop that together performed and presented the National Anthem at “United Methodist Night at the Phillies” in July.
I will close by saying, there just may be some credence in the expression, “Praise the Lord and play ball!” We can do both, while lifting up team spirit and the Holy Spirit together. And then we can witness to our faith and fellowship in Christ, so that others will see and want to join an active, athletic body of Christ.
By Ross Brightwell
President of the Eastern PA Conference UM Men (UMM)
Photo: Players from four churches competed in the 2015 Eastern PA Conference Men’s Softball Tournament Saturday, July 19. Doug West photo