01 July 2011
Christians count down to the Games
by Chine Mbubaegbu
We are a year away from what, for many of us, will be the biggest cultural event - Royal Wedding excluded - in our country in our lifetimes. Next summer, the eyes of the world will be watching as some 15,000 athletes and 500,000 spectators descend on the capital for the Olympic Games 2012.
It will be far more than a sporting event. Like many Christians living in Olympic host nations have discovered since the first contest in 1896, the Games present a unique and extraordinary opportunity to share something of the gospel.
That's why hundreds of churches across the UK are coming together under the More Than Gold banner to draw up a co-ordinated, strategic approach in preparation for the Games and to make sure they do not let the moment pass them by.
More Than Gold, of which the Alliance is a founding member, is an umbrella organisation representing the main denominations in the UK and bringing them together to help churches seize the opportunity that the Olympics provide.
Its mission is to enable the Church to engage with the 2012 Games and help "thousands of churches to taste the excitement of reaching their community in fresh and ongoing ways in Jesus' name". More Than Gold also serves as an interface between the UK Church and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), headed up by Sebastian Coe.
More Than Gold's CEO David Willson has seen his fair share of co-ordinated Christian outreach during sporting events. Despite 18 years of involvement in Olympic Games mission, including the contests in Barcelona, Athens, Atlanta, Sydney and Beijing, he is optimistic that London 2012 will be the most successful yet.
"It will be without question the largest Olympics outreach that we have seen since we started recording in 1992," he says. The amount of enthusiasm of UK churches that have got on board the More Than Gold vision is down to a number of factors, according to David. "First of all, we're a sports-crazy nation. It's estimated that 85 per cent of the population here watched at least 15 minutes of the Beijing Games, and this time it will be in our own country. The popularity is also down to the fact that we have got a large population within a small, confined area, making the Games more accessible to people across the country."
The general population's appetite for the Games is clear. Some 20 million people applied for tickets when they went on sale in April, with 1.8 million applications made for the 100-metre final alone.
With the country's eyes set to be on the Games, More Than Gold organisers say Christians need to get on board to show we are in-touch and relevant to the rest of society.
"The press is talking about this every day. We're not having to hype it up," says More Than Gold's national director, Jon Burns. "This is not just a sporting moment, this is a cultural moment and if the Church is not involved, then we will be irrelevant."
There are a whole host of ways the campaign is urging Christians to engage with their communities before and during the Games. They can run holiday clubs for young people, for example, or sports tournaments and quizzes. More Than Gold also offers churches training and advice on running creative and performing arts programmes.
Churches or Christians could also help host community festivals for all the family during key moments in the Games such as the opening ceremony, a major sports Saturday or the closing event; organising big screen showings, face-painting, clowns and competitions and barbecues.
Jon says: "If I'm watching the opening ceremony in my lounge then I'm not providing an evangelistic opportunity. But imagine what God could do if I held a street party for 200 people. This is an opportunity for Christians to show radical hospitality and service to their community."
Jon also dismissed claims that only Londoners are interested in the Olympics and said churches across the country are getting Olympics fever.
"The Royal Wedding showed us it's irrelevant where you live when something this big happens in your country," says Jon, who is from Teesside. "This will be 17 days that's beyond sport and bigger than London. Lots of people up and down the country will be hooked on it."
It's certainly a national event. The Torch Relay which kicks off in May next year will mean the Olympic flame will be within a one-hour journey for 95 per cent of the UK population throughout its 70-day journey from Land's End towards the capital.
The relationship between Christians and sport has not been a smooth one over the years. Fifty years ago, many believers felt they could not take part in the enjoyment of sport - particularly sport played on the Sabbath day. This is despite the Christian roots of many of the nation's sporting teams. Aston Villa FC, for example, has its origins in the Aston Villa Wesleyan Chapel Cricket Club which started in 1872.
Keith Procter, managing director of Christians in Sport - one of 30 Christian organisations with a significant focus on sport, is excited that the Church is re-engaging.
"Fifty years ago there was a real disconnect between sport and faith. But now, with more than 10 million people playing sport every week in our country, Christians need to get involved as part of holistic mission."
Good things can happen when the Church reaches out to those with a passion for sport, as Christians in Sport has found. Over the past year, 1,070 people have attended the organisations guest events.
"It's been a joy to hear of men, women and young people coming to faith through our events," says Keith. "We have really enjoyed seeing these people go on a journey and realise that this Christianity malarkey is worth investigating."
More Than Gold organisers, church leaders and Christians across the country are praying that London 2012 will provide even greater testimonies as they reach out and join with their friends and neighbours in celebrating this historic event.
To find out more about what you or your church can do, visit the More Than Gold website.