The Commonwealth Games are coming to Birmingham. Whilst not up there with the Olympics, this is still a hugely significant event. It will bring together competitors from across the Commonwealth (the group of nations linked primarily through historically having been part of the British Empire and usually today with ties through the Queen). In fact, the impact will be wider than Birmingham with a number of major events taking place across the West Midlands in Sandwell, Coventry, Leamington Spa. Wolverhampton and Warwick (in fact the cycling will take place in that well known suburb of Birmingham at the Olympic Park Velodrome in London).
I remember raising the question about what evangelistic opportunities there might be and how churches could be involved soon after all of this was announced. At the time, it seemed that this was all a long way off and something we should talk about nearer the time. Then when we got nearer to the time, the small matter of a pandemic had got everyone’s attention.
So, we are playing catch up a little bit, though to be fair, even the games organisers (and this isn’t unusual) will be working to the wire to make sure everything happens. However, there are now mission organisations talking about bringing teams and my friends and Birmingham City Mission have stepped up to try and encourage co-ordination.
Whilst encouraged, I have a couple of pleas to make. First of all, I would prefer to see the local church on the ground front and centre in terms of the focus. This includes ensuring that whilst yes there are opportunities to share the good news with visitors to the Games, that we also think in terms of the longer term spiritual legacy for local communities here in the West Midlands. This means that its important that parachurch organisations don’t just see this as an opportunity to come and “do their thing.”
This is also important because we need to think carefully about what is actually possible and actually needed here on the ground. There is a danger with short term mission organisations that they focus more on giving an experience to participants especially where they have paid to be part of the team and this means they can get stuck in a rut because they offer things that feel good for participants but may not actually be effective vehicles for Gospel ministry.
In fact, I think that the Games may expose some of the fragility in our evangelistic thinking. Over the past 30-40 years a lot of evangelism has relied upon two things, entertainment and care. So, we organise teams to run sports events or we put on street performances with mime and music. Then we get people kitted out with bottles of water to give to thirsty people as well as some handy tracts. That’s all well and good but first of all, people coming to the Commonwealth Games have already got their entertainment sorted. They are hear to watch sport not see a mime or have their face painted. Secondly, in terms of practical care, the Games organisers have that covered with a team of volunteer hosts ready to offer water, directions and first aid.
Indeed, the nature of the areas around some of the main venues means that they are not close to high streets and pedestrian precincts so they don’t lend themselves well to street performance. Furthermore, it is likely that you are not going to be able to get too close in to some of the venues without tickets.
This may discourage us a little because we might wonder whether or not its worth doing anything. I do however think that much is possible.
First of all, I think there will be opportunities for a few people to be ready to engage people, perhaps with a Gospel or evangelistic booklet. This will involve scouting around the venues and finding the routes people will walk from public transport. This is something BCM are currently working on and I’m getting involved with for the Athletics venue.
Secondly, even at this late stage, churches can look at publicising where they meet and even plan to organise some special meetings. This will be two pronged. First of all, there will be visitors to the Games who might consider visiting a church whilst here. Secondly, we can use the Games as an opportunity to engage with our local communities too. This leads to my third recommendation.
Thirdly, quite a few of the communities around the venues are “Commonwealth communities” with second or third generations of families originally from some of the competing countries. I would be using the Games as a focal point to reach into our local neighbourhoods. With help from outside teams, this is a good time to go door knocking with Gospels and invites to Church, Christianity Explored, Alpha or First Look.
Fourthly, I’d encourage people seeking to witness to people during the Games to get involved and participate. Don’t simply be someone hanging around the periphery. We’ve got tickets for a few events including the closing ceremony. This means we’ll be properly part of what is going on. Why not go online and book in to some of the events too?
Fifthly, this event could become a focal point to encourage people to get involved in longer term mission to the West Midlands. Why not plan to come for the Games as a taster for what it might mean to come and live and serve the Gospel here longer term. If you are thinking of coming along and potentially coming back later to get involved in long term church planting then I’d love to hear from you.
Finally, please can I encourage you to pray that there will be long term Gospel fruit from Birmingham 2022?