Reedley men reach out using “this crazy round thing called a basketball”
by Myra Holmes
Basketball is more than a game in Reedley, Calif.; it’s a tool God is using to transform men. “It’s amazing how this dumb round ball, called a basketball, can save lives,” says Mike Schellenberg, one of the leaders of Cross Trainers, a sports ministry of Reedley MB Church (RMBC).
Something happens when guys play ball together, Schellenberg says. “Their barriers are down, because we’re just playing basketball. And, by the way, while we’re playing basketball, we’re sharing Christ with them.”
Cross Trainers began about 14 years ago with an open gym and a few guys playing ball. Several RMBC men were involved with a boys’ midweek program that, because Reedley MB doesn’t have a gym, took place at the nearby Immanuel High School gym. After the boys went home, several of the men did what’s only natural when basketball players find themselves in an open gym—they played ball.
As more and more men showed up to play—mostly unchurched men—Schellenberg, Jeff McFall and others recognized the opportunity for ministry, and Cross-Trainers was born.
Over time it has evolved to include two nights of ministry. Wednesday nights are an open, informal time of four-on-four games. Participation is limited to men over 23, partly to control the numbers and partly to target men who are dealing with job and family issues rather than the issues of student life. Half-court games allow the maximum number of players at once, and teams rotate in so that everyone gets to play. Last winter, an average night drew anywhere from 30 to 50 men, with occasional nights near 60.
Somewhere in the middle of the evening, leaders call the men together for a “half-time talk”—a short devotional by a Cross Trainers leader, an outside speaker or one of the Christian players. Talks are brief to respect players’ time, but speakers preach Jesus, plain and simple. “We’re not going to sugarcoat anything,” Schellenberg says. Sports-oriented Bibles are always available.
The second part of Cross Trainers is a more formal basketball league that plays on Sundays from January through early March. Immanuel High School continues to graciously open their facility for both the Wednesday and Sunday programs.
A board oversees the league. This year, board members from RMBC include Schellenberg, Phil Goertzen and Mark Laemmlen. It’s the board’s job to make sure the play is both competitive and clean and to keep their goal always before them: to reach men for Christ.
Whereas most leagues invite ready-made teams to sign up, Cross Trainers carefully screens and chooses participants each year. The league consists of 10 eight-man teams, chosen by draft; some 20 to 30 men each year don’t make the cut. The careful and prayerful selection process is designed to connect Christian men with those who need Christ, so about two-thirds of the players are unsaved, unchurched or seeking. “Sure we want basketball players, but more importantly, we want unsaved guys,” Schellenberg explains.
Unlike other church-run leagues, Cross Trainers isn’t interested in a league full of churched men; they want to rub shoulders with men who don’t know Christ. Board members, team captains and other leaders are Christians, but otherwise, “We try to focus on ‘not-church’ guys,” Schellenberg says.
The Cross Trainers league season ends with a weekend tournament, to which wives, girlfriends and family members are invited. “We want it to be a fun, family thing,” Schellenberg says. The weekend opens with a Friday night tri-tip dinner featuring an evangelistic speaker. Last year, nearly 170 people attended that free event. After dinner, players and their families head to the gym for activities—a free-throw contest for wives or dribbling relays for kids. The tournament runs through Sunday, with the winners claiming T-shirts and bragging rights.
Not coincidentally, the weekend following the tournament, RMBC holds a men’s retreat at Hartland Christian Camp, a Mennonite Brethren-supported camp about an hour from Reedley. Cross Trainers strongly encourages all participants to attend the retreat, and usually 20 to 30 do. That chance to get away from the routine and focus on spiritual matters, says Schellenberg, has proven life-changing for some.
For both Wednesday night and Sunday games, clean play is a must. “We run a tight ship,” Schellenberg says. Although there have been problems with cursing, aggression and poor sportsmanship, over the years word has spread that such behavior will not be tolerated. Players know that in order to play, they’ve got to be good sports. And they know that they will hear the gospel. While some choose to leave rather than abide by those conditions, most are respectful.
Not only do players hear the gospel via Wednesday night devotionals, before Sunday league games and through the dinner and retreat, they also see it lived out by the Christian men involved in Cross Trainers. Between games, on the benches and on the court, friendships and conversations develop naturally. A simple query about a player’s tattoo, for example, might lead to deeper talk about life issues and spiritual matters.
“It gives me a chance to share who I am, what I do and what Christ means in my life,” Schellenberg says.
Because the example of the Christian men is such a big part of sharing the gospel at Cross Trainers, Schellenberg says providing a Christ-like example is a challenge at times for men who are passionate about the sport and competitive by nature. “You can lose your testimony in three seconds,” says Schellenberg.
Over the years, men have accepted Christ, marriages have been healed, lives have been changed—even a suicide prevented—through Cross Trainers. But Schellenberg is quick to give God the credit: “All we’re doing is planting seeds, allowing the Lord to do his work.”
He chokes up a bit as he tells stories about how God has used “this crazy round thing called a basketball” to change lives. For him, it’s a win/win situation. “I love the game of basketball,” he says, “yet I can share the gospel, get to know these men and invest in their lives. It doesn’t get any better for us basketball nuts.”
Cross Trainers leaders are happy to talk with those from other churches considering a sports or basketball ministry. They can be reached through Reedley MB Church at firstname.lastname@example.org or 559-638-8123.