At a lookout in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, an American pastor sat down next to a young Australian and struck up a conversation.
Pastor John Nixon learned the young man’s name was Paul and that he had a very troubled life. As they sat above the expansive valley, Paul shared how he had been in trouble with the law and drugs many times, and his wife, child, and parents had turned their backs on him. John listened with compassion, and then he shared the new life he had found in Christ. After more than an hour of deep conversation, Paul put his trust in Jesus.
Pastor John was one member of a 165-person evangelistic team at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games serving with a sports outreach ministry that has led more than 1,000 people to make the same decision as Paul.
When it was time for John to leave, he asked Paul where he was headed, and Paul confessed that he had no plan because he had planned to throw himself off the cliff. John and the outreach team gave Paul a room for the night, and the next morning, Paul came to breakfast wearing a team t-shirt and hat.
“What are you doing?” John asked.
“I want to help you tell people about Jesus,” Paul said.
That day, Paul and John went to a popular park in Sydney. Paul told people how he was about to commit suicide before he met the pastor, and John told them more about Jesus.
Paul is one of thousands of lives impacted by a ministry that began when ABWE Board Member Dr. David Crandall helped with an evangelistic outreach at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. More than 600 people were bused into Atlanta daily from Chattanooga, Tenn., to share the gospel, and in two weeks, they distributed 500,000 booklets to thousands of people from all over the world. Dr. Crandall saw the immense impact as more than 600 people made professions of faith, and the seed was planted for a robust ministry that is now called Sports Event Evangelism (SEE).
“I saw a parallel between Acts Chapter 2 about the day of the Pentecost. The Bible says the whole world was gathered and represented in Jerusalem at that time and people heard the teaching of God’s word in their own language,” said Dr. Crandall.
“And I thought, ‘Well that’s what happens at the Olympics.’”
Every four years, thousands of people flood in to watch more than 200 nations compete at the Olympics, and Dr. Crandall’s strategy for reaching them was simple: train outreach volunteers to strike up conversations and share the gospel; equip them with gospel booklets related to that year’s Olympics; and then send these volunteers into the major tourist spots in the Olympic host city.
IN THE BEGINNING
Dr. Crandall saw this strategy work in Atlanta, but when he and ABWE missionaries Steve Mayo and Matt Douglas first pitched this idea to a small group of Australian pastors and ABWE missionaries for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, it was met with skepticism. Sydney was a tough mission field, and they struggled to see how a handful of small church plants could make an impact at such a large-scale event.
Thankfully, the skeptics did not win out, and by the time the opening ceremony was held, more than 100 witnesses from Sydney churches were on the street, and more than 60 Americans came over to help. They shared the gospel in the shadow of the iconic Opera House, in historic Hyde Park, and at every major tourist destination in Sydney.
It was at Sydney’s world-renowned Manly Beach that Pastor Ken Lesta, ABWE missionary church planter, met a group of athletes from North and South Korea. Ken was carrying booklets in Korean, so he asked the team's interpreter if he could give one to each of the athletes. The interpreter grabbed one and suspiciously leafed through it. Then he smiled.
“Do you preach?” he asked.
“Yes. I’m a pastor,” Ken replied.
“Then preach!” the interpreter commanded.
The interpreter had the team sit along the sea wall, and as the waves crashed in, Ken presented the gospel. Not wanting to abuse the privilege he had been given, Ken kept it short, but as he concluded, the interpreter urged him to preach more. The team members listened intently as Ken spoke, and when he finished, the interpreter confided, “I'm a Christian. They told me I couldn't tell the team about Jesus, but no one said anything about interpreting!”
Every day, stories like that happened all over Sydney, and each night of the outreach, all of the participants gathered and shared the stories of the amazing things they saw God do.
“The Olympics were unlike any other event I had ever been to,” said Matt. “I was sick one day so I went and just sat on a wall, but I was able to share the gospel 14 times that day and I never moved from my spot.”
The overall results in Sydney were staggering: 171 street evangelists were trained and mobilized; 500,000 gospel booklets were distributed; 512 people from 17 different countries were saved; and 286 people were followed-up with personally by Matt and referred to Bible-believing churches near their home.
“God surprised all of us with results that were beyond what we imagined,” Matt said.
Not wanting the momentum to end, a small group of pastors quickly organized and began to form an ongoing strategy to evangelize churches into existence. The 2000 Sydney Olympics ignited a church-multiplying and missionary-sending movement that continues more than 16 years later.
Before the Olympics, Sydney was one of the hardest missions fields with an average of one church plant every 14.5 years. Churches were isolated with only a few pastors meeting informally, but after the Olympics, they came together to create a formal network of churches focused on evangelism, church planting, and theological education. In the years that followed the Olympics, they have averaged one church plant per year, and 18 church plants have since graduated to self-support. In addition, this nationwide network of 32 Australian churches has now sent three long-term missionary families and various short-term mission groups to Asia, Africa, and South America.
The Olympics lit a spark in Australia,” said Matt. “It showed local pastors and missionaries how they can share the gospel and the amazing impact it can have.” •
REACHING THE WORLD
It also lit a spark in Dr. Crandall and Matt Douglas to expand and formalize this sports evangelism ministry. They began exploring the idea of sending teams to World Cups and organized another team for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
As they were preparing to leave for Athens, they received a letter from an athlete in Nigeria who had participated in the Sydney games. The athlete wrote that he was preparing for the Athens games by looking back through his notes, photos, and souvenirs from Sydney and found the SEE booklet he had been given. He said he read the booklet cover-to-cover and got saved. Four years after the Olympics, one booklet made him the 512th person to get saved from the Sydney Olympics.
“While conversations with our outreach team members are designed to be the primary way we share the gospel, the booklets are important tools,” said Matt.
According to Dr. Crandall, the average gospel tract/booklet is read by eight people, and more than 3 million of SEE’s booklets, authored by Dr. Crandall, have been distributed in more than 15 languages.
One SEE booklet was taken home by an Indonesian athlete, and it led him to Christ. Then, that athlete shared the booklet with a friend who was also saved, and his friend also passed the booklet on. In total, 17 people were saved.
The athlete used the response card in the back of the booklet to reach out to Matt Douglas, who sent more materials for all 17 new believers. Matt also found a local missionary in Indonesia to meet with them and disciple them. Eventually, they started a church with the founding members being the 17 people who got saved from the one Olympic booklet.
The booklets have also helped SEE’s teams bridge language barriers. At one Olympics, Dr. Crandall tried to speak to a man, but the man didn’t understand English, so he fanned out the booklet and the man chose the French one. Dr. Crandall didn’t speak French, but he knew the word “oui” for yes, so Dr. Crandall walked through the English book as the man went through the French book – page by page. At the end, Dr. Crandall pointed to the prayer of salvation at the end of the book and gestured to ask if he was ready.
“Oui,” he said, and he bowed his head and began reciting the prayer.
When he finished the prayer, tears were flowing down his eyes.
Later that day, as the team shared stories from their day, Dr. Crandall told the story of the French man. Before he was finished, a woman jumped up and shouted that she was a French teacher and asked for the man’s phone number. Dr. Crandall gave it to her and she spoke with the man for over an hour. When she hung up, she confirmed that the man had in fact been saved.
MAKING AN IMPACT
Since Dr. Crandall started the ministry after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, SEE — in partnership with ABWE, Baptist Mid-Missions, Gospel Literature Services, and Answers in Genesis — has sent street evangelism teams to five Olympic Games and three World Cups.
According to Spiros Zodhiates, a Greek-American Bible scholar, SEE’s Athens Olympic outreach was the largest organized evangelistic outreach in Athens’ recent history. More than 165 volunteers from all over the world handed out about 500,000 booklets in 15 different languages, and 620 people were saved. The majority of those who were saved in Athens were Greek, and four churches were started in the greater Athens area. Today, the smallest of those churches has 235 members.
“Every year and each event is different, but God is consistent,” said Matt.
ENERGIZING AND TRAINING BELIEVERS
Beyond the vast number of unbelievers reached by these outreaches, this ministry has also consistently energized local churches and missionaries.
In London, the idea of an Olympic outreach was also met with skepticism. England is a hard place for evangelism, but all skepticism was quickly squashed as local pastors and missionaries watched God provide opportunity after opportunity to share the gospel. Within the first three days, the SEE team had witnessed to people from 111 countries.
“I’ll never forget when a teammate started talking to a man on the streets in London who remembered our outreach ministry from when he was at the Vancouver Olympics. He even remembered the names of the two people he spoke with and those same people were able to share Christ with him again,” said Stefanie Cannon, Olympic outreach participant and SEE committee member. “It was a divine appointment — two of them!”
Along with energizing local ministry workers, Matt says that these large-scale sporting events are also valuable training grounds. They provide a unique opportunity for anyone interested in missions to get first-hand, cross-cultural evangelism experience.
“I was so scared going into it because I had never put myself out there like that before. Witnessing to people on the street is much more intense than trying to witness to a friend,” said Valerie Miller, participant at the London Olympics. “But I learned so much and I made so many lifelong friends.”
This August, Dr. Crandall and Matt are leading another team to the 2016 Rio Olympics, where more than 100 volunteers and missionaries will have the opportunity to reach the world.