Faith on the Field

Summer games give teens a chance to minister to peers

By David Anderson Jr.
Published August 16, 2009

Sometimes it takes the experience of an unfamiliar place to show us how to make the most of what we have at home.

That’s what happened to a group of teens from New Hope Baptist Church in Sanford who traveled to Tampa, Fla. to minister to the city’s homeless. The 27 youth returned to Lee county with a newfound knowledge of how to reach out to strangers, along with a motivation to serve the un-churched closer to home.

In place of their typical Wednesday night activities, the youth from New Hope Baptist have been meeting at Temple Park in downtown Sanford each week for evenings filled with summer games, sweet refreshments and fellowship. Since the first gathering in June a crowd of children from the surrounding neighborhoods have been drawn to the park with hopes of joining in the fun. Over the course of two months, several have left with a better hope for the future after hearing what God can do in their lives.

“Each week it’s like they’re expecting not only to play kick ball, but to learn a little about why we’re out here and what God wants for their lives,” 17-year-old Abe Herbert said.

For youth pastor Brian Stebbins the summer program has been not just an opportunity to share the gospel with those that haven’t heard it before, but a time to help his students grow stronger in their faith, working on the frontlines of ministry in their own community.

“Our whole purpose out there is simply loving on them as Christ loved us,” Stebbins said. “And we’re just trying to exemplify that in the best way we can.”

The neighborhood devotions have their roots in a short-term mission trip the church sponsored in April. Students from 6th to 12th grade traveled to Tampa for one week to help local Christians reach out to the homeless in the area.

“They would go out into the homeless community of Tampa and deliver meals, spend time with them and develop relationships with those homeless people really with just an ultimate purpose in sharing the gospel with them,” Steb-bins said.

When the youth returned to Sanford, they were burning with a desire to do whatever they could to continue that ministry at home.

While Lee County isn’t burdened with a homeless population like Tampa’s, there are plenty of people in Sanford who need a little encouragement and haven’t heard the message of Christ. The group decided to focus on working with children and teens, using kick ball games, soccer and skateboarding at Temple Park as tools to build relationships with strangers.

“It’s fun and it helps the kids,” said Olivia Moore, 14. “They’re just looking for inspiration.”

Instead of assembling at church for an hour of devotion and prayer as they usually do on Wednesdays, the youth all meet at church and ride over to Temple Park at 6:30 p.m. They break into groups according to age and spend an hour playing whatever sports the crowd is in the mood for. Around 7:30 p.m. refreshments are served, followed by a short devotional led by one of the teenagers from New Hope Baptist.

The first Wednesday of the summer, the youth split into groups and went door to door inviting families to join them at the ball field for an hour of games. The next week a crowd was waiting.

“You see all the kids sitting on picnic tables down there and just looking for something to do,” Stebbins said. “It really has been a success from the get go.”

Casey Atkins, 15, said he had high expectations when the program started. He hoped the games would attract hundreds the first night and that most of the participants would accept the church’s message right away.

“We had a pretty small group the first week,” Casey said. “I was kind of discouraged about that, but I thought ‘this is only the first week.'”

Casey realized as the first set of children that came to play got to know him and his friends they would feel comfortable and invite their friends the next week, who would then invite another wave of participants.

Within a few weeks, around 70 people from the neighborhood were coming to the park on Wednesdays to socialize with the group from New Hope Baptist and listen to their message.

Brandon Chapman, 24, volunteers with the youth group at New Hope Baptist and helped organize the summer program.

“When you’re starting off with a child and they don’t want to talk with you, and the next Wednesday they’re running up to you and showing you love and attention, that lets you know you’re doing your part,” he said.

Stebbins said much of the church in general appears to be a closed box to the community. To see his students reaching out and getting to know people from different walks of life, overcoming language and cultural barriers in the process, was encouraging to see. He said the youth from New Hope Baptist have benefited just as much from the ministry as the community members who came to listen.

“That wasn’t my intention at first,” Stebbins said. “At first I was just thinking ‘it’s going to benefit them,’ but I’ve definitely seen our own students grow in the process.”

Part of that growing process has been preparing and delivering simple sermons to the group at the close of each evening. The responsibility rotated between a handful of youth from the church. For many of them the sermons marked their first experiences speaking in public about their faith.

“It’s a tremendous leap of faith for them but at the same time I’ve been able to kind of walk them through that and see them step out in faith and see that through this, they can do great things,” Stebbins said. “It’s Christ that gives them that strength to do it and then they do it and I think they surprise themselves sometimes. It’s been really neat to see them get to take part in that.”

Casey was nervous before he led his first devotion, but the comfortable relationships he’d built with his audience over the summer eased his fears.

“When we saw all the kids pay attention to every word that we were going to say, it made us a little more comfortable knowing that they may walk away with a new-found love for the Lord,” he said.

The summer programs were not intended to necessarily bring new members to New Hope Baptist, but to get people in the community interested in building a relationship with God. Still, Stebbins said he didn’t want to leave anyone stranded as they began to develop their faith; so following the group’s next-to-last meeting two weeks ago, he drove to the park to offer a ride to anyone interested in attending a Sunday worship service.

A few of the participants were anxiously waiting.

“I really think that God has opened up a door here and allowed us to build some relationships,” Stebbins said. “I can’t see any reason why we wouldn’t be back here next year.”

 

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Text and images copyright 2009 by The Sanford Herald/Paxton Media Group.
Used with permission.

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