RUSSELLVILLE, Ark. – The campus of Arkansas Tech University (ATU) is less than a mile from Second Baptist Church (SBCR). With an enrollment of over 10,000 students, the school offers a very diverse mission field. The challenge through the years for the members of SBCR has been finding the most effective way to effectively reach those on campus.
In 2019, pastor Chris Russell and Jonathan Whitlock, missions minister and minister to students and families at SBCR, began praying in earnest for God to open up opportunities to make an impact on the campus and in the lives of students. Russell says they saw a need for Christian influence in athletics specifically. So, they began focusing their prayers on open doors among the athletes.
Fast forward to the spring of 2020. Tech underwent a coaching change as Mark Downey was hired to lead the men’s basketball program. Russell just happened to have a preexisting relationship with the new coach as he and Downey were related by marriage. The two men also had a connection from Downey’s time as coach at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Russell attended a pastor’s conference where he met Downey’s pastor, Chadd Pendergraft. It was through Pendergraft that Russell learned about an organization known as Nations of Coaches (NOC) that enlists and trains people to become character coaches. This same organization trained Pendergraft to be a character coach for Coach Downey’s team in Tahlequah.
When Downey moved to Russellville, he called and asked Russell if he would be willing to serve as the character coach for Tech’s men’s basketball program. Little did Downey know that this was an answer to years of prayers. Not only was God opening the door for ministry on the ATU campus, but He was also allowing Russell the opportunity to combine two of his lifelong passions with his current ministry position. While in college, he had envisioned himself serving as a student pastor and basketball coach. Instead, God called him into full time vocational ministry as a local church pastor. Now he would have a chance to minister to college students while staying connected to the game that he loved.
Russell agreed to serve and began training with Nations of Coaches. As soon as he received his certification, he began working with the ATU men’s basketball team. His training helped him to understand that his was not a position of title, but a position of service. In the very beginning, this meant participating in Zoom meetings with the team because of COVID restrictions on team gatherings. Once he and the team were allowed to meet on campus, Russell made a goal of being at practice at least two times a week where he made it his job to help in any way that he could. He would rebound balls, carry clipboards and retrieve items as needed. He even helped with sweeping the gym floor. In addition, Russell travels with the team and attends games where he sits on the bench just like one of the managers or assistant coaches.
The training from the NOC also taught him all about religious freedom laws and what he could and couldn’t say and do when working with the team. This training came in handy as Russell was given the opportunity to lead the team in a 10-to-15-minute character moment before each practice. Carefully choosing his words to stay within the rules, Russell uses Biblical principles to teach moral lessons based on the six pillars that Coach Downey has established for the program.
Beyond all of this, Russell says that his main ministry is simply the ministry of presence. “People want to see fruit. They want to see some product of their work. The ministry of presence is hard because it takes time and we don’t always see the immediate impact,” he said. But just being present and available has opened doors for ministry opportunities. In fact, Russell shares that the earliest conversation he had with a player came “just because I was there.” The young man came up to him at one of the practices and suddenly started talking. Russell says the player just needed someone to talk to, someone he could trust to just listen to him as he unloaded all that had been happening in his life.
According to Russell, COVID protocols actually provided many opportunities for ministry. He says there was a lot more standing around which led to conversations and relationships. Injuries also played a part as injured players were forced to sit and watch during practices which also allowed for good conversations. Russell often sends texts to individual players after each game, win or lose, good or bad. He checks on them, encourages them and/or compliments them on their performance. He shares how one of the athletes texted after a loss because he wanted to share his favorite Bible verse.
Serving as life coach for the basketball team has opened doors for the church to also get involved in ministry. A few of the players have attended services on Sundays. Some of them came during Halloween and helped distribute candy for the church’s Trunk or Treat outreach event. The church has opened up the building for meetings and study hall. They have fed the players and provided team building activities as well. Some of the guys have begun to reach out and ask for prayers for their home situations, for tests, and other personal issues.
The team continued to practice during the Christmas break with the exception of a mandatory 10 day layoff that was required by the NCAA Division 2. With a few exceptions, most of the athletes stayed in Russellville during this time. There was a need for meals for these athletes and many of the SBCR members stepped up to cook and/or deliver food. The church ended up providing six or seven meals over the break. “It’s great to see people get excited and jump at any opportunity to serve the team. At first it was just me, but the church has begun to catch the vision and get involved,” Russell said.
Even the coaching staff in other programs have begun to embrace and recognize the church’s help. This was not the case initially. Russell originally sent emails offering to help and received very little response. He says that now they are asking and are receptive to the church’s offer to help. In addition, he has been able to start a discipleship group with a weekly Bible study for the basketball coaching staff. Coaches from other programs have also been added to the group in the last few months. Some of the coaches have started attending on Sundays, with a few of them planning to join soon.
In spite of all that has happened, there is still much work to be done. Many of the students are not from Arkansas. Some of them will return home to live and work while others will find themselves playing basketball both nationally and internationally. Russell knows that if God can use SBCR to reach these students now, they can literally impact the world. He is asking that God would expand the ministry to other sports as well. He is praying that God would provide longevity as He continues to give them practical ways to serve the student athletes and coaches on campus.
Russell says it’s been a long time coming, but God is showing the church where He is at work and has invited the members of SBCR to join Him. “It’s been a slow reveal, but it’s exciting to see that God is answering our prayers.”
There was no way of knowing at the time just how God would answer those prayers. It’s important to note that Second Baptist Church of Russellville does not have a gym or a family life center. There is not a basketball goal to be found. And yet God is using them to reach the basketball team. Rather than make excuses, Russell led the church to embrace God’s call to reach student athletes.
God showed the church a need that wasn’t being met and helped them find a way to meet it. “We were trying to do the right things and seek the Lord in prayer but at times I was left scratching my head, wondering if maybe I was completely out of tune. But we continued to seek the Lord and He has used many moments in this process to remind us all that He is incredibly gracious,” Russell said. “There is no other explanation than the hand of God opening this opportunity.”