SHAWNEE, Okla. (BP) -- With the 2014 Winter Olympic Games less than a year away, Southern Baptists are preparing for opportunities in Sochi, Russia, to turn hearts and minds toward a relationship with Jesus Christ.
The International Mission Board has launched an evangelism and church planting project -- "Engage Sochi" -- to do just that.
Oklahoma natives Marc and Kellye Hooks are leading the effort.
"Our vision is to make a difference for Christ before, during and after the 2014 Winter Olympic Games," Marc Hooks said. "Our mission is ministry and follow-up that supports and leads to church planting in the Sochi area and beyond."
Hooks said a key innovative aspect of Engage Sochi entails mobilizing Southern Baptists to reach the people of Sochi through mass evangelism and church planting not only during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games but also before and after when the masses of tourists and other visitors have left the city.
"We realized that traditional models only utilized one phase of the life cycle of the Olympic host city," Hooks said. "Olympic ministry has focused primarily on the time during the Olympics and Paralympic Games. However, Olympic cities begin building their infrastructure years prior to the Games. If we use the momentum provided by the Olympics to begin building a church planting infrastructure prior to the actual events, then in 2014 there will be new church plants ready to receive and disciple those reached by mass evangelism efforts during the Games. And that paves the way for follow-up and discipleship after the Olympics as well."
As part of the Engage Sochi initiative, IMB church planters arrived in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi in 2011 and have hosted numerous volunteer teams -- all focused on reaching the Sochi community with the Gospel. Engage Sochi missionaries have partnered with local Russian Baptists and have launched at least one house church group in the city and are working to establish a second home Bible study near the Olympic mountain venues in Krasnaya Polyana. They pray that several more small groups will be started prior to the start of the Games next year.
During the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Engage Sochi team will coordinate approximately 400 Southern Baptist volunteers who will come to Sochi.
"Our goal is to share the Gospel primarily with the people who live and work in Sochi and then connect those people with our missionaries and others involved in local church plants," said Hooks, a graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University as is his wife Kellye. "But, it is kind of like archery. That is our bulls-eye. There will, of course, be arrows that hit other areas of the target, and that is not a bad thing. However, you have to have something specific to aim at, and so we are trying to reach the people of Sochi."
Engage Sochi volunteers will meet and share the Gospel with people from all over the world, aiming to connect them with IMB church planters in their areas, Hooks said, noting that the opportunity to follow up with people is important. Volunteers will use traditional Olympic ministry methods such as trading "evangelism pins" to engage people throughout the city and in Olympic venues.
However, their primary task will not be to see how many pins they can distribute in a day, but to spend time talking with people and forming relationships. In addition, native Russian-speaking volunteers from across Eastern Europe and the United States will spend time in Sochi neighborhoods to connect with people and share the Gospel outside of traditional Olympic areas and venues.
The Engage Sochi initiative also has a stateside component. As churches send volunteers to Sochi, they are asked to engage their community as well. Each Engage Sochi partner church will receive a set of sermon outlines, adult and children's small group lessons and ideas on how they can create Olympic-themed outreach events in their own churches.
"The Olympics are a wonderful way to reach people," Hooks said. "Not just in the Olympic city, but across the world. The Olympics bring us together. So at the same time that churches are reaching out across the world, we want them to use the Olympics as a way to reach people in their own communities."
Engage Sochi leaders hope that churches will join them as prayer partners, realizing that not every church can send a team to Sochi.
"Prayer support is very important to us," Hooks said. "We realize that those churches who pray for us are on the front line of Olympic ministry. None of this would be possible without prayer. So regardless of whether a church sends volunteers to Sochi or not, we want them to both pray for the efforts in Russia and for them to be part of 'Engage Your Community.'"
Over the next year the Engage Sochi team will release a virtual prayerwalk for each of the three major Olympic areas in Sochi. They will also publish a prayer guide to help those in the United States to know how to pray for the teams in Sochi.
To prepare for the Engage Sochi project, Hooks has slated three stateside training sessions. The first, on May 10, was held at the Georgia Baptist Convention Missions and Ministry in Atlanta. The others are May 18 at the Geiger Center at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, Okla., and June 13 on the north campus of Second Baptist Church in Houston.
For more information about Engage Sochi, how to become a partner, how to send volunteer teams to be part of the mass evangelism and church planting efforts in Sochi or to register for a training session, go to www.EngageSochi.org or e-mail TellMeMore@EngageSochi.org.
Julie McGowan is news and media relations director at Oklahoma Baptist University. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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