by Giles Knight
For Christians who are passionate about sport and proud to be British, hosting the Olympics and Paralympics this summer may be seen as a golden opportunity for mission. But for those who are not into sport, or have a deep concern for what God is doing overseas, is the Olympics not an expensive distraction from the real business of long-term mission? SIM, an international mission agency with a long-term emphasis, is not directly involved in the Olympics. So is this event important?
The Olympics is more than a short-term sports event. It is a gathering of tens of thousands of people from across the world. It is difficult to think of any other event where more nations are represented. And we can legitimately celebrate this gathering of the nations. Many of the countries taking part are completely closed to open missionary work. Sports people, officials, coaches and spectators will travel from nations where there are very limited opportunities to hear the gospel. Crowds will come to London with eyes open and ears attentive. In the past God has used outreach linked to such cultural and sporting events very powerfully for His eternal purposes. A stranger in a strange land is often more open to the Good News than in their home environment.
As the build-up to the Olympics continues, let’s pray that seeds would be sown in people’s lives that will multiply and bear much fruit.* Direct follow-up may be difficult, or even impossible, on a human level for those who commit their lives to Jesus, but we can trust our Lord to look after new children in the faith.
An imperfect competition
The Olympics is an international event and most nations on earth participate to some degree. However, an unequal distribution of resources means richer nations with better facilities win most of the medals. Has there ever been a medal winner from Niger, Mali or Burkina Faso? Some have criticised the amount of money being spent on five star accommodation for some Olympic officials this summer, while poorer nations struggle to provide racing bikes for their cyclists. The Olympics does raise issues of justice and such an event will never be a completely fair competition.
This doesn’t take away from the dedication and commitment of the competitors. The Olympics, imperfect as it is, is a celebration of what we as God’s creatures can achieve. It is also a very poor and incomplete foreshadowing of that glorious day when ‘. . . a vast crowd, too great to count from every nation tribe and people and language . . .’ will worship God together (Revelation 7:9).
The Games and world mission
The Olympics as a gathering of different nationalities with a common goal may also be seen as symbolic of the new missionary paradigm. The era when world mission was about the ‘West going to the rest’ is thankfully long gone; the difference between sending nations and mission ‘fields’ is dissolving. Missionaries from South America, Africa and Asia are now making their mark and bringing new vitality and strength. Korean, Ethiopian and Bolivian missionaries work alongside British, Canadian and US personnel in SIM. According to the latest figures, after the US, the nations producing most cross-cultural missionaries are India, South Korea and China (see The Future of the Global Church by Patrick Johnstone). Even Nigeria sends more missionaries than the UK!
These changes present difficult challenges concerning support raising and standards of living, but also great possibilities. This year my first missionary recruit is a Nigerian who earned her master’s degree in the UK and is now serving in Niger, having raised support from churches in both the UK and Nigeria.
The Olympics gives opportunities to a dedicated few to travel and represent their country in sport. Missionaries too are called to be Christ’s representatives and dedicate themselves to serving Him with faith and humility. They may have more opportunities over a longer period than an athlete or gymnast, but they dare not be less dedicated than the most driven sports person.
Indeed we are all called to follow the example of those who have sacrificed so much just to get to the Olympics. Our missionaries do not receive a gold medal; their reward is more than gold. And we all ‘run the race’ for our heavenly reward. So, whether we are able to be directly involved in the Olympics or to pray for those who are, let’s invest our lives in things of eternal value.
*There are lots of mission opportunities to be involved in the Olympics. More Than Gold has been established to help churches make the most of the 2012 Games. Visit www.morethangold.org.uk