"Sometimes during our church service, somebody will come to the sports museum and have to walk right through where we're worshipping," said Russell Atherton, church planter of The Bridge.
The museum now will boast a new attraction -- another NCAA national championship trophy the UConn men's basketball team won by defeating Butler 53-41 in Houston April 4.
"It wasn't the prettiest game that has ever been won by UConn," Atherton said. "After the game ended, we could hear the celebrating on campus, and we live two miles north of the campus. They were happy people."
Atherton and his wife Cynthia had a group of seven UConn students who are members of The Bridge over to their house for dinner and a Bible study before the group watched the Huskies win their third national title.
Afterward, Atherton and his wife drove through the campus with some students to observe the celebration festivities.
Atherton and the members of his church were hoping for a sweep of the men's and women's championships, but Notre Dame spoiled those plans when the Fighting Irish knocked off the UConn women's team April 3 in a national semifinal matchup.
"Those who attend the Bridge are much more fans of the women's team than the men's team," Atherton said. "We support both, of course. UConn is spoiled because we've won so many championships. It's almost presumptuous that both teams will be the Sweet 16."
Atherton, a Texas native, came to Connecticut in 2003 as associate pastor of First Baptist Church in Manchester after serving with the International Mission Board in Nigeria for five years. But he said God kept pointing him to the need for collegiate ministry and church planting in New England.
"I realized that those two things were not mutually exclusive at all," he said.
So three years ago, Atherton started The Bridge, a Southern Baptist congregation, with a core group of seven people. Average attendance now is about 35 in a church that invests heavily in both the collegiate and local communities.
The church rents a room for worship from the UConn alumni association and is partially supported by the Baptist Convention of New England and the Waccamaw Baptist Association in South Carolina.
"It's obviously very different from the Bible Belt," Atherton said of ministry in Connecticut. "Even though there's an evangelical church on almost every corner in the Bible Belt, that's not the case here."
He said only 1 percent of the state's population is in an evangelical church on Sundays.
"The soil here is much more difficult," Atherton said. "Growth happens much more slowly, and it takes longer to garner momentum and to build up to any goal you might have numerically."
Atherton spends a lot of time reaching out to students at the University of Connecticut, where he said only a small percentage of the student body are believers. The university may be known for its basketball prowess, but "we haven't found a way to tap into that passion and excitement for sports and for basketball into growing God's Kingdom," Atherton said.
He said Southern Baptists can help support his ministry in a number of ways. Prayer support is crucial as are finances, he said.
Churches can send mission trips to New England, Atherton continued, and can encourage those in their congregations preparing for ministry to consider frontier ministry in a place like New England.
"The thing New England needs most," he said, "is people and workers for the harvest."
Tim Ellsworth is editor of BPSports (www.bpsports.net) and director of news and media relations at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
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