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Seminarians venture to Athens, utilizing sports to share Gospel

ATHENS (BP)–When the Apostle Paul spoke at the Areopagus in Athens (Acts 17:16-33), the city was an important center for philosophical thinking. Paul used the language of the day as a platform for sharing the Gospel. As the eyes of the world focus on Athens for this month’s Olympics, students from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary are using the language of the day –- sports -– as a platform for sharing their faith.

“The Olympics is a global event with sports as its common language. Our students will use that language as a starting point to help people understand their need for Christ,” said Endel Lee, who is leading the NOBTS group.

“Though it probably will not be highlighted on ESPN or Sports Center, our NOBTS Olympic team members will enter a playing field where the benefits of their training meet the challenges of our world face to face. Our prayer is that while heaven watches we will leave a mark on history that will last for eternity.”

During their 12-day sports-based ministry trip to Athens, team members will be out on the streets teaching sports skills and looking for opportunities to share the Gospel. The group consists of six graduate students, six undergraduate students, two professors and six students auditing courses at NOBTS.

In addition to teaching basic skills in American sports such as baseball and basketball, the 20-member team also will play games like Ultimate Frisbee to draw crowds at locations throughout the city. With 4 million residents and an influx of Olympic visitors in Athens, the team will have ample opportunities to share the Gospel.

“To quote our mission leader, Dr. Lee: Doing Olympic missions in Greece is ‘intense fishing,’” said Tony Merida, one of the NOBTS students on the trip. “Multitudes of the peoples from around the world will be in one place. Our task is to tell them of the one way: Christ alone.”

The International Mission Board helped Lee, assistant professor of preaching and pastoral ministry at Leavell College (NOBTS’ undergraduate studies program) and Allen Jackson, associate professor of youth education at NOBTS, in planning the trip.

In 2000, Lee led a similar ministry team to the Sydney Olympic Games. He expects ministry at the Athens games to be a more challenging experience, however, due to language and cultural barriers.

“Compared to Sydney, personal safety has become a much greater concern due to the changes in our environment since 9/11,” Lee said. “We will have to be more alert and more patient as we participate in the Greece games.”

Lee is quick to point out that this trip is no vacation for participants. It has and will be hard work. Students began training for the trip in March.

Staff members from the International Sports Federation (ISF) helped Lee and Jackson train the students in how to use sports to create witnessing opportunities. ISF is an organization that coordinates and sponsors ministry-based sports trips throughout the world. Students also spent time sharing the gospel in the French Quarter of New Orleans, getting familiar with face-to-face encounters with strangers.

“During a training exercise in the French Quarter last May, our students got a feel for what it is like to approach someone on the street and initiate a conversation that could lead to a Gospel presentation,” Lee said. “These students will have countless chances to develop this skill in an international setting where millions pour into Athens to see the Olympic Games.”

A trip to Athens during a worldwide event is not without cost. Students had to make many personal and financial sacrifices to go. In addition to transportation and lodging costs, participants taking the trip for course credit have additional fees to pay.

On top of the financial barriers, jet lag and the grueling schedule will make the trip even more difficult. By the time the group returns, they will be exhausted and will have missed the first few days of class at NOBTS.

Those who have participated in evangelism events know that follow-up is one of the most important aspects of the trip. In addition to local follow-up by Christians in Athens, Lee plans to use technology in a significant way.

An Internet site will be started to help bridge the miles between New Orleans and Athens during the follow-up process. Each team member will have cards printed with the web address for the follow-up site. The cards will be given to the people they share with in Athens. Lee hopes those who hear the Gospel will log on the site for more information and to ask additional questions.

Prayer has played a key role in preparation for the trip. E-mail prayer reminders have been sent throughout the seminary’s e-mail system on a weekly basis for several months. These prompts call for prayers about the safety of team members and openness of the people with whom they will share. Team members believe that the only chance for success is the Holy Spirit’s leading in the hearts of people.

“It’s simple. It’s focused. It’s impossible –- apart from the transforming work of the Holy Spirit,” Merida said of sport-based ministry. “Thus our hope of success is not in strategy or our personality, but in the same Holy Spirit that worked in the life of the Eunich when he was told about the crucified Messiah. It is that end for which we pray.”

As a part of the ongoing prayer support, seminary officials hope to link with the team via live video during the first chapel service of the year Aug. 19. The team will give a praise report of their work in Greece. After the report, the seminary family will pray for the team’s last few days in Athens.