Recreation still reaches people, church recreation minister says
Monday, May 7, 2012
By Lonnie Wilkey
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)— When Bill Highsmith became minister of recreation, activities and senior adults at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., 21 years ago, he made one thing perfectly clear when he accepted the position.
Bill Highsmith, minister of recreation and senior adults at Tusculum Hills Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., stands on the church's walking track as a basketball game occurs below.
“When I came here I explained that a recreation program is a ministry and it must be open to anyone,” he said.
And, it has. Through the years the church has reached out to the community through church recreation and its facilities.
Reaching people and introducing them to Jesus through church sports and recreation has been at the heart of Highsmith’s nearly 50-year ministry which has included stints with two Baptist state conventions, including the Tennessee Baptist Convention where he served as state Royal Ambassadors director from 1968-75.
His main focus, however, has been church recreation, a field in which he has served two churches for about 43 years — Tusculum Hills and Belmont Heights in Nashville.
Highsmith has seen the heyday of church recreation (in the 1970s and 1980s) and present day where church recreation appears to have been discontinued or placed on the back burner at many churches.
“Church recreation has faded out,” he acknowledged, noting that it once was prominent in the denomination.
Church recreation at one time was a large program of the former Baptist Sunday School Board, now LifeWay Christian Resources, Highsmith observed.
While recreation is still an emphasis, it does not get the attention it once did, agreed John Garner, who directed LifeWay’s church recreation department from 1993-2007 when it was discontinued.
Garner noted that Highsmith is one minister who still knows how to use church recreation as a ministry to reach his community.
“Many churches see recreation and sports as play. Bill sees it as a tool to reach the community,” Garner said. “He has been on the forefront of reaching his community through sports and recreation,” he added.
When Highsmith first went to Tusculum Hills, the church had sports teams in several leagues in both softball and basketball.
As other churches discontinued teams in the Nashville Baptist Association, Highsmith began to develop his own leagues for children.
In essence, Highsmith developed a program very similar to Upward Basketball which came later and is used by many churches across the Southern Baptist Convention.
The primary difference between what he did and what Upward offers is that scores are kept in the games at Tusculum Hills.
“Kids need to learn at an early age on how to deal with winning and losing,” he observed.
In addition to basketball skills, the teams have devotions at practice and sportsmanship is taught and practiced.
Highsmith estimates that “hundreds of decisions” have been made by the several thousand children who have participated in the basketball leagues over the past two decades. Many were made at Tusculum Hills, but others were made at neighboring churches. “It is a kingdom thing,” he stressed. “We have reached a lot of families over the years."
Another major facet of the recreation program at Tusculum Hills has been the “Strider’s Club.”
When the facility opened in 1992, about 25-30 walkers a day would take advantage of the walking track above the gym floor.
Today, Highsmith estimates about 100 walkers a day use the facility. Last year, members of the Strider’s Club walked 49,000 miles, he said. Since its inception, Highsmith said walkers have walked more than 1 million miles on the track.
The Striders Club is open to both members and non-members. They all pay the same $15 a year to use the facility, Highsmith said.
Highsmith noted the walkers, who come from all backgrounds, have developed a camaraderie with each other. They “keep up with each other” and minister to each other when they are sick, Highsmith said. As with the basketball program, people first introduced to the church through the Strider’s Club later walked down the aisle for church membership.
The church is so known for its walking program that doctors from a nearby hospital encourage their patients to walk for their health at the church, he added.
“The track has intertwined the church into the community,” he observed.
In his dual role, Highsmith has been able to incorporate senior adults into the recreation ministry through the Strider’s Club and the numerous trips he sponsors each year.
Highsmith has taken groups to several countries and all across the United States. A trip to Israel later this year is already booked to the limit, he noted.
There are normally about 100 people or more on each trip and again, not all are church members.
“People are looking for places they can build relationships,” he said, stressing once again that “church recreation can be an evangelism and outreach tool.”
In addition, the church offers countless other recreation classes and programs, including health and fitness courses. “As the church we are responsible for the well-being of members,” Highsmith said.
While economic realities within the church have caused a cut in the church recreation budget, most of the activities have been able to continue because they are cost-recovery, Highsmith said.
He is convinced that one reason for the success of the church recreation ministry at Tusculum Hills has been its consistency.
“People see and know what we do.”
Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist and Reflector, where this story first appeared.
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