"One World, One Dream!"
Anyone traveling around any part of China will see this Olympic theme displayed in prominent public places, especially in the capital city. With it are all sorts of billboards and banners encouraging the general population to be civilized, cultured and courteous and to contribute towards the good image of Chinaespecially with the world descending on the nation in the summer of 2008.
When China obtained the bid in July of 2001, the country was euphoric! A matter of national pride, the Olympics will be China's great "coming out party" during which it will project its greatness and culture to the world. For centuries, it has not exerted the influence of a nation befitting its size, but it opened its doors in 1978, and over the last twenty years has sustained double digit growth. As its economy has grown, so have its international influence and its domestic challenges. With 1.3 billion people, great diversity and growth, China has always been a place of many opportunities; so what makes 2008 different?
Rapid urbanization has occurred and has increased income in the cities. Urbanites, who have influence in society, are optimistic. Moreover, there is also a growing interest in sports as the country prepares to host "the best Olympics ever." This interest is not just seen in the greater investment the government has made in national teams, sports facilities or publicity for the Olympics. It is also more than just an admiration of sports icons like Yao Ming, Liu Xiang or Deng Yaping. Rather, many are beginning to spend more on leisure and sports, such as taking tennis lessons, mountain biking or watching matches at stadiums. This is only natural as people become more affluent and are able to spend on things beyond necessities.
The church has also benefited from growing opportunities and different avenues of service as a result of all this. In particular, there are urban churches and Christians of influence that seek to serve society in health, education and social services. This includes a focus on sports. With this focus, there is a growing group of young, urban adults who have been influenced by and received some training in the use of sports as a tool for reaching out to the community.
A number of local church leaders, as well as Christians involved in sports education or interested in sports, have had opportunities to observe firsthand how other countries have capitalized on major sports events for outreach. Over the last few years, from these local Christians, an interested group of about 30 to 40 adults had contact with sports outreach people. They received some training and initially just prayed about what God would have them do with it. Much was unclear as no one had done sports outreachor at least done it well in a local setting. From this group, a smaller core group of about ten emerged. They started to meet and pray together to discuss what their vision, mission, core values and strategy should be. At the same time, they planned initial programs and worked out their budget.
Since then, they have been able to impart a vision in a few urban churches. They have explained the use of sports as a platform, implemented sporting activities to get other Christians involved and shown them how to use these programs to build relationships and reach out to the community. In addition, they have started some leadership training for those interested and have used game days for people to invite their family and friends. During these fun activities, relationships have been built. Furthermore, because this is done with a local church, there have been follow-up activities enabling them to move from friendship to discipleship. Several churches have now supported this group and given them a platform to work with their youth leaders and members for community outreach.
This is a just the beginning, and while it may appear amateurish to those with experience in sports outreach in developed or open countries, it is poignant to see these young Chinese Christians using sports at a time when the country is hosting a major sporting event. It is great to see them progress as they pray and ask the Lord for a vision, for the why, what, how and where of all of this, while at the same time experimenting and implementing their strategies. Currently, they are using tools that have been developed internationally, but have adapted them so they can be understood in the Chinese church context. Their initial focus will be on three cities.
They have challenges as they move ahead with their plans. There is a lack of trained personnel, and since this is only the beginning, churches have yet to embrace this new service, especially in the rural areas. As expected, there is greater openness to sports in the cities where there are many more students or young people and greater wealth. As in all new ministries, they will have to find churches that are like-minded, have a vision for youth and open to using sports as a form of outreach and leadership training. There are also the challenges of doing all this in the context of the country's regulations, finding time for outreach if they are employed in the marketplace and finding support if they want to do this beyond the extent of volunteers. For those who want to start a business so they can creatively use it for sustainable outreach, they have a greater challenge in raising funds and developing the appropriate skills for their business. In the midst of all this, there is the challenge of maintaining their vision and calling.
In some ways, there is "nothing new under the sun." Many creative means have been used to reach out to people in more restrictive environments. It may be in the provision of social services, education or now, increasingly, through business or maintaining residence by finding legitimate employment. Sports outreach brings new avenues for both foreign and local Christians and a good opportunity to penetrate deeper into different strata of society. Professionals can reach professionals, academics and educators can influence other academics, educators and students, while business men and women can build relationships and influence the marketplace. Now, there is a kairos moment for sports to reach athletes, coaches and particularly men (and there are about 500 million men between the ages of 15-64) who comprise the majority of fans or those interested in sports and the sports world. Among these is a significant stratum of societythe youth.
With about 560 million youth aged 29 years and below in China, this is a strategic tool to reach a significant population. With many vices and materialism screaming for the attention of the young people, sports is seen as a means to good health. In Mao's era, physical activity, especially sports, was encouraged so people could be physically strong. A strong nation with strong youth meant a strong work force and, eventually, a strong economy and world influence. Mao himself was an avid swimmer and promoted sports. In this same vein, the government still promotes health through sports and healthy living.
The economic growth in China and Asia will mean that more major sporting events will be hosted in the region and, with a more affluent China, there will be an even greater interest in sports and leisure activities in the country. Given this scenario, it is logical to project that churches using sports will also become a growing movement.
Sports may only be another strategy or platform, but it is exciting to see local believers seizing the opportunity to ride on the 2008 wave for future activities. They still have a long way to go in developing a sustainable platform for ongoing work, but with our encouragement and support in their personal spiritual growth as well as professional life, they will be better equipped to be holistic in their approach and integrate their faith, life, vocation and service. As they continue to grow, they will be witnesses in their own communities and eventually beyond their communities. They will also encourage others to be witnesses.
As members of the international Christian community, we can pray for them, empathize and agonize with them. We can encourage and mentor them so that they can realize their dreams, in His time and in His way, and contribute towards the impact that other Christians are already making on society. Then, we will see the fulfillment of the many dreams for this country to have a positive impact on the world beyond China and beyond 2008.
Image credit: "One world. One dream" by rickz, on Flickr