Guys who play basketball get to learn skills and hear the gospel during the Holy Hoops service.

It’s possible that a basketball just might be the best ministry tool a small church in New Jersey has ever used!

First United Methodist Church of Dover/Primera Iglesia Metodista de Dover started a ministry they call Holy Hoops. Because of the effectiveness of this outreach activity, the church went from no professions of faith in 2016 to 28 professions of faith in 2017. They expect to have about 20 more this year.

While basketball is the draw for the (mostly) youth who attend Holy Hoops, make no mistake, it is a worship service.

“We model what a church service is in Holy Hoops,” said the Rev. Charles Perez, pastor of the church. “It isn’t just basketball. We have a devotional time, music, prayer, and basketball. This year we have averaged about 75 people, up from 40 last year. I expect to have about 80 this coming year.”

Perez said he absolutely believes God made that happen. “He just made a way. I don’t think that I had a lot to do with it. The pieces just fell into place, people came, and our church was there.”

The church has two Sunday morning services in addition to the Holy Hoops service. The 9:30 service is mostly an Anglo congregation, people who have been there since before the neighborhood began transitioning. They are good people, but have trouble reaching out to the changing community.

The Rev. Charles Perez, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Dover/Primera Iglesia Metodista de Dover, Dover, N.J.

The second Sunday morning service is a bilingual service. This congregation, mostly unchurched and dechurched people, is growing. It reaches a lot of children and youth, as well as single mothers and women alone. Many of the people who attend this service are second- and third-generation in America who understand more English than Spanish. Others are new and need Spanish. The bilingual Perez uses both.

Discipleship is crucial to the success of the church. Perez teaches all the people – Anglo, Hispanic and Holy Hoops – what God expects of them. They all make mistakes, but understand that God forgives and wants them to do better. He encourages them to share that – the message that God wants you – with other people.

Perez said he finds more success following Jesus’ disciples’ example of “fishing for the boatloads.” Discipling relationships one-on-one are necessary for sure, but being able to reach a large group works for him. He believes that sometimes, like in the Bible, disciples go small, and sometimes they go big.

Perez has been at the church about 10 years. He said ministry is hard in Dover. The town small, but has big city urban issues. The town is about 90 percent Hispanic. Many of the townspeople are in the States illegally, making it hard to gain their trust.

Many of these people are scared and have been hurt. We emphasize relational evangelism to build trust with people. I believe if they don’t trust me, they won’t trust my God.

Guys who play basketball get to learn skills and hear the gospel during the Holy Hoops service.

“One thing I know is I have to be patient and consistent to gain their trust,” he said. “Many of these people are scared and have been hurt. We emphasize relational evangelism to build trust with people. I believe if they don’t trust me, they won’t trust my God.”

Perez said with a laugh that he may not be known for his smarts, but he is known for his persistence. He describes himself as an “unorthodox, outside the box thinker.”

“I believe if we honor God with our work and our worship, he will honor that our hearts are in the right place,” he said. “I think we have to be careful and not become narcissistic about our personal salvation. Too often, we don’t want to share it or talk about it. But God tells us that if we care about his people, we will do something. If you don’t, you show you don’t care. It takes time and energy and denying of self. That’s hard.”

Perez said Discipleship Ministries’ #SeeAllThePeople initiative has been a great strategy for their church. The church has worked hard to get outside the doors and reach out to people. It took sweat, tears, frustration and prayer to get where they are. If it can happen there, it can happen anywhere.