NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Question one: Are you regularly involved in sports or recreation? Question two: Do you regularly watch sports on television? Question three: Do you have immediate family members who regularly watch or are actively involved in sporting events?
Answering yes to any one of these questions provides the premise for an Aug. 7-11 workshop on sports missions at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Seventeen students were taught how to conduct sports clinics and participate in fan-based and church-based ministries in preparation for their upcoming mission trip to Sydney, Australia, for the 2000 Olympics.
With an expected 2 million people coming to Sydney, many of whom are from unreached people groups, sports missions provides an ideal opportunity for seminary students to provide the gospel message for visitors to take home with them.
“The Olympics, like the World Cup in soccer, provides the perfect mission field for reaching people because people come from all over the world to one place,” said Courtney Cash, vice president of International Sports Federation (ISF) of Arlington, Texas. ISF is a network of Christian athletes, coaches and project coordinators who work with International Mission Board missionaries to share the gospel.
“People live and die for their sports,” Cash said, explaining how sports has become like one of the religions of the world. “When you combine national pride and the religion of sports with 2 million people, you have to be innovative in the way that you share the gospel with them. That is where sports comes in.”
Cash and Endel Lee, NOBTS assistant professor of preaching and pastoral ministries in the College of Undergraduate Studies, explained the value of sports ministries to NOBTS students.
“If you’re working on a ministry project, you usually spend 70 percent of your time getting people interested in what you are doing,” Cash said. “But with sports, people are already interested.”
Case in point: In a July trip to Kosovo, an ISF mission team built a basketball court as the draw for ministry. “Before we actually finished building the court, children were already playing on it,” Cash said. “Two hours later, 27 people were playing basketball.”
They were later able to have Vacation Bible School activities with around 200 participants, he said, all because the sports provided “an open invitation” for the gospel to be shared.
The strategy has been very successful. In 1996, IMB volunteers hosted nine sports projects. Only three years later, they hosted 76 projects and in 2001, more than 100 projects will be held all over the world.
Last year alone, Cash said 25,000 people were exposed to the gospel through sports missions. “The number is really around 50,000 people because of the newspaper articles, word of mouth, and television and radio broadcasts that followed the events,” Cash said.
In preparation for the Olympics ministry, NOBTS students were given background information on prior Southern Baptist Olympics ministries, different fan-based ministries (such as hospitality, servant-based evangelism) and sports ministries.
“Connecting with people is a key aspect of leading a person to Christ. Sports can link you to people who otherwise might not hear the gospel,” said Lee, organizer of the NOBTS missions trip. “Some of the first seeds of Christianity were planted in my life during Royal Ambassadors meetings at a small country church. I went because they played football and baseball. They played these sports so that people like me would come and then have an opportunity to hear about Jesus.”
NOBTS student Grant Stegall agreed. “It is easy to talk to people once a bond is formed. Through sports a bond is already formed, so sharing your faith is made easier,” he said. “I have loved playing ball since I was a kid, and now I see how God can use that to bring people to love him.”
“Sports mission volunteers do not all need to be coaches and athletes,” Cash explained. Equally important are the volunteers who minister to the young girls or boys standing in the sidelines, he said.
“We don’t want a group of athletes who happen to be willing to share the gospel,” he explained. “Instead, we want a group of missionaries who use sports as a tool to share the gospel.”
Having done sports missions on six continents, Cash explained how throwing a baseball or an American football around can draw the interest of people and open the door for the gospel to be shared. This is particularly helpful where it is illegal to solicit or do street evangelism, he said.
Similarly, missionaries can more easily visit restricted access countries under the umbrella of providing sports clinics. Cash has seen how easy it is to bring sports equipment (balls, flag belts, basketball nets, even tennis shoes) into countries with strict requirements.
The common interest in sports opens many doors, Cash said. For example, one IMB sports mission team, under a different name, actually met with Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat.
Prayer is also a key focus of this type of mission trip, Lee said.
“The students have already started keeping their prayer journals. Those who join us in this season of prayer for ministry during the Olympics will provide one of the most important resources for our venture,” he added.
To that end, the NOBTS Australian mission team has developed activities to increase the prayer emphasis, including setting up a table display during registration, requesting prayer partnerships, and organizing a Campus Olympics to be held Sept. 7. The Sydney mission team and seminary faculty members will compete in a variety of sports events, including swimming, softball, tennis, track and field, volleyball, table tennis and basketball. Faculty, students, staff and families will be encouraged to participate by attending the events and cheering on the two teams. Those who attend the events will be given tickets, which are to function as prayer reminders for the NOBTS family as we support the team before they leave and during specific intervals while in Australia.
Prayer coordinator Beth Courtney said, “I feel that the mission team will not be successful in Sydney without people here in the United States providing this vital prayer support.”
Though not going on the trip, Courtney and others have committed to pray for the following team members who, along with Lee, will be involved in Olympic sports missions: Michael Albritton, Leah Chambers, John Courtney, David Darby, Joshua Dickson, Jennifer Donaho, Jerry Guthrie, Jack Kisby, Jimmy Major, Tony Merida, Phillip Raybon, Scott Rourk, Cecile Stanback, Clay Stegall, Grant Stegall, Eric Swinney and Anna Wolverton.