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Involvement in Atlanta Olympics fuels their outreach in Italy

TURIN, Italy (BP)–Twelve volunteers from the South Carolina Baptist Convention intend to spark interest in the Gospel among the thousands from around the world now in Turin, Italy, for the Winter Olympics.

“We are taking two teams. One team is going during the first half of the games and the other will be coming in the second half,” Eric Spivey, associate pastor and minister of Christian formation and missions at the Baptist Church of Beaufort in Beaufort, S.C., told Baptist Press. “We have 12 folks who are going, six from our church and six from around the state of South Carolina, all mixed in between those two different teams.”

South Carolina Baptists developed an affinity for Olympics ministry in 1996 when the games were in Atlanta, Spivey said. Volunteers from the state have gone to most Olympics since then, including four teams at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

In Italy, the volunteers will work with More Than Gold, an organization that coordinates the work of Protestant churches for ministry and dissemination of the Gospel during the Olympics. The first team traveled to Italy Feb. 8 and will stay until Feb. 18, and the second team’s trip will be Feb. 17-27.

“The primary church that we’re working with there is the Waldensian church,” Spivey, leader of the first team, said. “It is the largest Protestant congregation in Italy, and there are probably more Protestants in that part of Italy than any other part of Italy.”

Because Protestants are such a small percentage of the population in Italy, a precisely planned ministry similar to what happened in Salt Lake City hasn’t quite come together, Spivey said.

“There will be some established ministries that our volunteers will work with, most likely in the ministry of hospitality,” he said. “I know there will at least be two hospitality sites that we’ll help to staff as volunteers, both in the city of Torino [Turin] as well as in the mountain venues. We’re also hoping to work with some of the Protestant congregations to have opening ceremony festivals, so hopefully we’ll be working actually in some of the congregations in some of the communities.”

Spivey, in an interview before his team’s departure, said he did not yet know what hospitality ministry would entail in Turin, but in the past volunteers have set up sites in high-traffic areas and provided something for free, such as bottled water, hot chocolate, Bibles and creative arts including face painting and balloon twisting.

“In Salt Lake City we gave away a lot of water all over the different Olympic venues, primarily because it was a high mountain, desert community and there was always the possibility of dehydration,” Spivey said. “We had a lot of success giving out water even though it [was very] cold.”

The teams will use two key evangelism tools that are popular among those who minister at the Olympics: the More Than Gold trading pins and the interactive pocket guides. Both will be available in English and Italian, Spivey said.

“[The pins] are incredible pieces that people just love,” he said. “We give them as gifts to people we meet, and it’s a way of being able to share our faith with someone in a very easy, straightforward way. That began to be used in the ’96 games.”

The other tool that was first implemented in 1996 is the interactive pocket guide, which includes a listing of all the Olympics sports and who won in the past years and a way to keep track of who wins this year, Spivey said. At the back of the pocket guide, a Gospel presentation corresponds with the design on the trading pins.

Southern Baptists ought to be grateful for the leaders at the Georgia Baptist Convention and the Home Mission Board (now the North American Mission Board) who led the way in Olympics ministry by envisioning and developing specific evangelism tools for the Atlanta games, Spivey said.

“The ideas that they developed in ministry there are still some of the main pieces of ministry that have worked for each one of the Olympics since then,” he said, mentioning specifically the trading pins and pocket guides. “… It was Southern Baptists that came up with the ideas and developed the prototypes.”

Such tools, Spivey said, are incredibly helpful in “winning the right to be heard.”

“As the Olympics ministries came into their own, Southern Baptists were the ones who helped make that happen,” he said. “Ideas like hospitality centers and community festivals and those kind of things — Southern Baptists helped lead the way and were the cutting-edge folks who helped make those ministries happen.”

Though Southern Baptists can be thankful that some of their own were innovative in their means of spreading the Gospel, the Great Commission is still an unfinished task. And in addition to sharing Jesus with individuals from around the world who will gather in Turin, Spivey said he hopes the evangelical volunteers who converge on the city will be an inspiration to those few Christians who will remain once the crowds are gone.

“One of our real hopes is that not only as the games come into Torino but as the influx of Christians come into Torino there will be a strong movement of God’s Spirit working inside those local congregations — both in strengthening them through the fellowship and strengthening them in a chance of doing some new types of ministry and outreach that maybe haven’t been done before,” he said. “So there are a lot of opportunities there for God to work.”

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  • Erin Curry Roach