It’s not about the Olympics. It’s not about 2008. It’s not about Beijing. It’s not about sports. It’s about what God is already doing across China and how can we join him in his work. God is working powerfully in the hearts of the people of China. Record numbers are coming to faith each year. Growth is so fast that church leaders are having difficulty keeping up. Perhaps no other Olympics have been held in such an amazing context where God’s spirit is moving like a mighty wave.
If we are to keep up with God, we need to be apostolic, not just evangelistic. We need to expect, encourage and equip multitudes of new believers to immediately start new churches. Most will be small groups, perhaps part of a larger church or network. These new groups can be healthy, reproducing rapidly to the fourth generation and beyond.
Long before the Olympics were awarded to China, the Chinese people showed great interest in sports. On a national level, when a Chinese athlete wins a championship, a sense of pride is felt in the hearts of the Chinese people. Thus, China will invest vast sums of money in the Olympic Games with a goal of producing a 2008 Olympic event that will bring honor to China in the eyes of the world.
On the local level, sports and exercise are a way of life for the Chinese people. On most days, parks are filled with people running, skating and exercising. A program called “Whole Community—Total Fitness” encourages sports programs and exercise.
If you add Chinese fervor for sports to Christian zeal for the lost, you can readily understand “China fever” among many believers outside China. Questions often raised include: “How many people will come to do outreach during the 2008 games? How much evangelistic literature can we pass out? What can we get away with?” Better questions are: “What are we trying to do? What will be effective over the long term? How can a passion for sports be linked to a passion for spiritual things?” What we pass out does not matter as much as what we leave behind— new believers gathered into new healthy, reproducing churches.
Restrictions and Respect
An early consideration for ministry in China is to realize that what works well in most places may not work in China. Many methods effective elsewhere may not be welcomed in China. Even though Christians disagree with some restrictions in China, it is in our interest to show respect for those restrictions. Yet, we can still affirm that the Great Commission and the entirety of God’s word take precedence over any human institution. If we operate without taking both sides of this tension into consideration, the results could be detrimental to many. Foreigners enjoy some autonomy that the local Chinese Christians do not have. What foreigners do with that “freedom” can negatively affect local believers. The Olympics coming to China will offer great opportunities; nevertheless, we must take advantage of these opportunities in the appropriate manner.
In 2008, throngs of Christians will come to China to “share the gospel.” The method that many will use will be massive amounts of materials being handed out to total strangers. Chinese do not readily “hear” a stranger. They are polite and may listen. But the words fall on deaf ears even if the heart is really soft and open. Impersonal mass distribution of material without relationship or means of relational follow up will not have any significant impact on bringing people to faith. The fact that God can take material and use it is not being questioned; however, we need to ask if there are better ways to spend our time, energy and finances. Let us look beyond Beijing and before 2008.
What Can We Do?
Be a learner. We must first be willing to learn from what is already working and adapt our work to fit what God is doing. Our Chinese brothers and sisters have much to teach us about what works in their homeland. We can learn how to start healthy groups that reproduce rapidly (see box below).
Be a friend. If you go out to eat with a Chinese friend, don't plan on a quick meal. A meal with a friend may take three hours. Relationships are built and maintained by taking time to talk and show interest. As in many cultures, in China, friendship opens the door to the heart. The depth of the relationship will often determine the opportunities you have to share with a person. Sometimes this can happen very quickly. Other times it will take much longer. We need to be sensitive to each person and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Be a servant. Friendship may open the door, but a true servant attitude lets you walk in. Since the 2008 games were awarded to Beijing, sports have increasingly provided many ways for Christians to serve all kinds of people in China. Multiple government and non-governmental entities want to promote and develop sports. This applies to the athletic community as well as to the general public. We can train Chinese athletes. We can compete against Chinese teams. We can play all kinds of games with ordinary people. Sports are a great way to build relationships and be a servant.
Pray. Pray for the Chinese people that they may come to know Him and then be used by Him to carry the gospel to others.
Short-term Opportunities in China
The 2008 Olympics is an event that will come and go. What we do in the years leading up to the event will make the greater impact on China. Don’t wait until 2008 to go to China. Come now! Come before 2008. Build relationships as a tourist, as a sports participant or sports instructor. There are many opportunities for you to make a difference by just being available. You would be surprised by how many Chinese are studying English. Many are eager to engage any friendly native speaker. Perhaps you qualify.
Build face-to-face relationships that allow you to share the truth. Chinese are less likely to reject the message if they have a good relationship with the messenger. Plan ways to stay in contact with these new friends and put Christians already here in contact with those who show interest. Plan to return to China to maintain those friendships and make new ones.
Come to China to get a vision of what the people here are like so that you and your church can pray for the people of China. Read books and internet articles about China and the church in China. Learn some basic Chinese before coming by using computer software, taking a class or talking to Chinese you might know or meet.
Long Term Opportunities at Home
Look around where you live. Do you have mainland Chinese in or near the place you live? Befriend them. Serve them. Share the gospel with them. Start a Chinese house church right where you are.
Why start a house church instead of inviting them to your church? Your church is probably not at all like the church in China. Thus, if you want the Chinese you bring to Christ to continue their spiritual growth after they return to China, you need to model for them a church life that will be like what they may find when they return to China.
This may require study and lots of change on your part but could be very rewarding. You will better understand how most Chinese worship and have fellowship with other believers. You can rejoice with God as your group grows and multiplies in your home country and then starts reproducing groups in China. Instead of seeing a few Chinese believers join your church, you could see a stream of reproducing churches you initiate flow back into the mighty wave of what God is doing across China.
Starting churches and teaching the churches how to start new churches that start churches is the way to reach the huge population of China. It is not the method we are accustomed to, but it is what is working in China right now.
It’s not about the Olympics or sports, but about what God is already doing in China. God has given us the tool of sports to use to make relationships which will give an opportunity to share about Him to an audience that will not turn us off before we begin. If you wait until 2008 to expect great things to happen in China, you will miss a blessing waiting for you now. Come to China now! Come as a learner, come as a friend and come as a servant. China is a field ready for the harvest. Make yourself available now to come and labor.