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At Olympics, believers carry hope onto Beijing streets

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tim Ellsworth, director of news and media relations at Union University, is in Beijing Aug. 6-16 covering the 2008 Olympics for Baptist Press. He is assisted with photography by David McIntyre, a freelancer based in Asia. Baptist Press will publish features about Christian athletes in the Olympics, give results of their competition as well as highlight and summarize the Summer Games. Also, Tim will blog throughout each day about his experiences with athletes, coaches and the Chinese people. He will continue his coverage from the U.S. from Aug. 17-25.

BEIJING (BP)–After all the talk about pollution, Internet censoring and human rights abuses, the 2008 Olympic Games are almost here.

The opening ceremony on Aug. 8 will kick off the first Olympics in China, and hundreds of thousands of foreigners will pour into Beijing for the 17-day event.

Among them will be a number of Southern Baptists who will participate in a variety of ministry and outreach opportunities.

“Because it is a global event, you have the opportunity to touch the whole world all at once,” said Jean Cullen, ministry consultant at the Woman’s Missionary Union. “In one minute you’re speaking to one person from one country, and the next you’re speaking to another person from another country. Your witness has a lot of bang for the buck.”

Four teams of WMU volunteers will be serving in Beijing during the Summer Olympics, and will be involved in such activities as pin trading, festivals and cultural exchanges. They will also be involved in prayer walking around the city.

Cullen said Olympic ministry is especially fitting for people who are outgoing and can easily engage others in conversation.

“Usually people who are there to attend the Olympics are very open to talking,” Cullen said. “One of our hopes with this particular Olympics is that we’ll have the opportunity to engage Chinese people.”

Normally such ministry is no cause for concern at Olympic events. But this year could be different, as religious freedom in China is much more limited than in previous host countries.

“The volunteers have to be aware of what’s acceptable in the country,” Cullen said. “That’s always an issue, but I would say there’s more to it this year.”

Other Baptist volunteers will be in Beijing as well, looking to engage people in conversation and talk to them about Jesus Christ.

But on the ground in China isn’t the only place where Olympic ministry is taking place. Some churches are finding ways to use the Olympics as a means of outreach in their own communities.

For example, David Dykes, pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, is preaching a five-week sermon series in August titled “Go for the Gold: How to be a Champion for God.”

“I’m going to actually highlight some of the unsung champions from the Bible,” Dykes said. “Everybody knows about David and Goliath and Daniel in the lion’s den.” Dykes will use such biblical characters Benaiah, Ehud and Michaiah, and will incorporate stories from the Olympics to give practical applications for how his listeners “can be a champion for God.”

Green Acres held a 100-mile “Carry the Light” torch run throughout Tyler leading up to the Olympics. Hundreds of church members volunteered to carry a torch through different neighborhoods in Tyler, accompanied by others who prayed as they ran and walked through the city.

“I just think people are interested enough in the Olympics themselves,” Dykes said. “I’m always looking for opportunities to involve people who wouldn’t ordinarily come to church.”

Dykes said his church is especially interested in the Olympics this year as they have had a partner city in China for the past five years. He’s been to China himself 10 times in the last three years.

“We’re happy for the Chinese that they have [the Olympics], because it’s a really big deal for them,” he said.

Other churches recently have returned from mission trips to China ahead of the Olympics.

One Baptist church in southeast Texas (unnamed for security reasons) took a team of 15 in June.

“We saw that it was kind of a once-in-a-lifetime ministry because of the Olympics coming up,” the church’s missions minister said. “We were using the Olympics as a draw for people.”

The team members’ ministry focused on meeting people in various parks around Beijing.

“Once we met them and established a relationship with them, then we would slowly start to share when the opportunity became available,” he said.

Another pastor, at a Baptist church in north Texas, also led a team to China in June. The Olympics were certainly a topic of conversation, he said.

The volunteers worked with some house church members in China, the pastor said. House churches in China are unregistered congregations that have refused to come under the oversight of the government-controlled Three-Self Patriotic Movement. Many house church leaders in China have faced intense persecution at the hands of the Chinese government.

The pastor was optimistic about the openness for Christians to talk to others about their beliefs during the Olympics.

“If I was going to be there during the Olympics, I would feel a little more of a freedom of sharing my faith,” he said. “The police are not going to be so much focusing on the Christians as they are other groups that may use the Olympics to undermine the government.”

He encouraged other churches to consider short-term mission trips to China, as he said the Chinese people are increasingly open to the Gospel.

“There is a real evidence of the growth of the Christian faith in China,” he said. “Going over to China on short-term trips can really make an impact — the relationships that you develop and the opportunities you have to share the Gospel with the people who really are hungry. They’re hungry for truth, and they really are hungry for God.

“I’ll be involved in China, probably until I go to heaven,” he continued. “And I want to take as many of those people with me as I can.”

While ministry and outreach will be taking place in Beijing, most of the world’s focus will be on the games themselves and the athletes who are competing. U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps will be trying for an Olympic record eight gold medals, which would break the mark of seven gold medals set by Mark Spitz in 1972.

The U.S. men’s basketball team will look to rebound from a disappointing third-place finish in Athens in 2004. Beach volleyball teammates Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh will look to extend their streak of 96 consecutive victories.

Dara Torres will again try to become the oldest swimmer to win a gold medal. She already holds that record, after winning gold in Sydney in 2000. Gymnast Shawn Johnson, 16, will look to become only the second American all-around champion (Mary Lou Retton was the first).

Throughout the Olympics, Baptist Press will feature profiles on Christian athletes who are using their God-given talents to honor Him in their events.

“I can’t sing at all, but I can row,” Canadian rower Jane Rumball said. “That’s my expression of worship. I’ll be giving my best ‘thank you’ performance on the water on the biggest stage in the world.”

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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