Just a couple of months back and it felt like the Commonwealth Games were going to go by pretty much unnoticed by Christians/churches. A few years back when the news first emerged that the games were switching from Durban to Birmingham, we had been asking the question “are there opportunities for churches to witness?” but didn’t get much response back. It was “far too soon” for everyone. Then COVID came and no one really was able to think beyond the pandemic. I’d decided I’d try and get out and about during the games but expected to be pretty much on my own.
Then things came together very quickly. It turned out that there were churches wanting to do things and that a whole host of mission organisations were planning to come. Birmingham City Mission did a brilliant job of stepping up to the plate and helping coordinate/facilitate things. I was able to help them with this by looking after what was happening around the Alexander Stadium. It has turned out to be a 10 day period with lots going on.
The big challenge about outreach in a context like this is that the aim of the Games organisers is generally speaking to get people straight in and out of venues with minimal contact with the local areas. This means that many people are bussed straight into venues. Furthermore, exclusion zones restrict where it is possible to witness. Traditional methods of evangelism such as street preaching and entertainment led contact are not possible. This however in my opinion has been a positive as It has pushed Christians to focus on one to one contact and sharing things like Gospels and other literature.
At the same time, despite the best efforts of organisers, I found that on a number of occasions I was stopping to talk to people who were lost and bewildered and needed pointing in the right direction or help finding places to eat or catch the bus/train home.
In terms of things to think about or challenges I would highlight the following.
Much of the outreach seemed driven by parachurch organisations rather than churches. I still didn’t detect so much excitement in the overall response from the churches across Birmingham and the West Midlands. This may have reflected a belief that most people would come from afar so that it wasn’t our mission field. I would encourage church leaders to see the wider kingdom opportunities when a large event comes to town but also, so many of those attending were local.
This also meant that at times, especially early on it seemed that people were coming from outside with a fixed view of mission and plans that revolved around their preferred methods. It took a little while to help people see that methods that benefited them might not benefit the specific people they were seeking to reach. This included how days were planned meaning that some mission teams turned up to do outreach at the very point when few people were around and then headed home before the crowds congregated.
Finally, whilst we are dealing with negatives, I have a little gripe about how we tend to centre our focus on the prominent parts of our cities and other parts get forgotten. A lot of messaging and organisation has focused on the city centre and university areas -the very places where there’s already a lot of gospel focus. It was as though Christians did not want to accept a change in the centre of gravity.
Yet, the main venue with the largest crowds, the opening and closing ceremony and the big hitter athletics was in Perry Barr, to the north of the city. This was the centre of the action from the Commonwealth Games perspective and yet from a Christian perspective, those of us out here did feel at times like we were at an outpost! There was even a thanksgiving service organised at a city centre church clashing with the final and biggest events at the main stadium! Indeed, some of the teams had already packed up and gone home before the final weekend.
The specific example here reflects a wider problem. We are so often stuck in old habits and not aware of where people are, metaphorically or physically.
Enough of the gripes though. We have much to give thanks to God for and much to be praying about. There have also been lessons to learn. Two things I’ve learnt personally are
- To be ready to take that extra step of offering to pray for/with people. Spiritually hungry people are ready for this and appreciate it.
- To make it as easy as possible for people to follow up. I need to master QR codes as a means for people to access online materials.
I’m thankful that people have willingly accepted Gospels and other literature. From Church Central North, we’ve given out around 300 Gospels. Whilst plenty of people said no thank you, many others were happy to receive good news.
I think outreach worked best when people caught the tone of the occasion. The young people from Firestarters were particularly appreciated as their “cheer tunnel” showed a willingness to join in the fun and the celebratory atmosphere.
A few conversations stood out for me. In particular I had the opportunity to speak with a few Muslims who were working or volunteering. One asked a lot of questions about what we believe about the Trinity and Scripture. They expressed a sincere desire to live a pure life and show modesty. We were able to share with them that Jesus points to a godliness/modesty seen not in what we wear but in what comes from the heart.
Another person told me that their faith was cultural but they knew they needed peace with God. They thought they needed to get into the rituals of prayer to please God. We talked about praying, not to force God’s hand but because he is the good Father. They were happy for me to pray with them and overwhelmed with emotion to receive a free Gospel.
My prayer before the Commonwealth Games was that outreach would both reach people who need to hear the Gospel from wherever they have come from and serve the local church by encouraging people to love and pray for the West Midlands. I hope that we have begun to see some of that fruit over the past two weeks.
 Simply lining the sides of a pathway and applauding people going in to the Games. Something was offered to those coming through with a Gospel message.