Try for a second to imagine not being able to publicly praise your Holy Father in Heaven.
Imagine being so on fire for Jesus Christ and His amazing sacrifice on the cross and wanting to tell every person you met but, because of fear of persecution or deportation, you couldn’t open your lips.
Imagine that governmental supervision was required when assembling in large groups to discuss all Christ has done, all the grace He showers upon us.
Imagine having to gather with fellow believers in secret to praise God in a truly meaningful and loving way.
With the freedoms most of us enjoy in the United States, it’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? For people living in China, it is everyday life.
For the first time in history, the Olympic Games are going to China. And as the Olympic torch makes its way from Athens to Beijing along the 85,000-mile course dubbed the “Journey of Harmony,” the flame has taken on a more symbolic meaning than ever.
The Light of the World is coming to China.
Traveling through countries near and far, it will eventually light an enormous fire with millions watching. Never has there been a greater time to spread the love of Jesus Christ and His gospel to a country that desperately needs it.
When the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, it announced its official position as an atheist country. The original leaders claimed that religions were “backward” and “superstitious.” Since that time, the government has slightly relaxed the laws, most notably signing the 1978 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, which guarantees “freedom of religion” but still maintains many governmental restrictions.
Today, the religious environment is considered pluralistic, meaning many different religions coexist with the majority of citizens practicing Buddhism and Taoism. Only about 4 percent of the 1.3 billion Chinese citizens practice Christianity.
The government has established “officially sanctioned” churches in which the Chinese people are allowed to worship, but these are overseen and run by the government. This kind of political involvement has led many citizens to create underground and house churches to worship without governmental interference. They do this at their own risk as the Chinese government has begun cracking down on the underground church system by sending many people to jail and deporting foreign missionaries.
China's Great Wall
Sharm Scheuerman, president and CEO of Basketball Club International (BCI), an organization that partners with FCA and sends post-college Christian basketball teams to China for exhibition games, knows what it is like to have to hold back religious fervor while in China.
“The Chinese government is against any group get-together,” he said. “We try to be asked why we are different than other American teams that come over. That is how we lead into, ‘We are top-notch basketball players, but what sets us apart is that we have a strong faith in Jesus Christ.’ But to protect our players, we don’t elaborate on that. We are careful withwhat we say.”
Despite the challenges of sharing their faith, BCI is still reaching out to the Chinese people through their actions, something any missionary or athlete can do.
“Our players understand that their everyday lives are testimonies to their faith, both on and off the court,” Scheuerman said. “Fans see a different team and are impressed by it. Our program is our players and their lives and their hearts.”
WILL CHRISTIAN ATHLETES BE FREE TO WITNESS?
Dating back further than the establishment of the People’s Republic of China to the beginning of the Chinese civilization, thousands of generations have carried a deep, meaningful pride for the country and culture. A profound reverence for older generations has also remained, which can be a strong contrast to Western society’s focus on youth.
Not lost on their culture, however, is the ability to welcome visitors and to learn from them.
“The Chinese people are wonderful people and are very welcoming. If someone is a guest, they get special respect.”
~ FCA’s Ken Williams
Ken Williams, FCA executive vice president and chief operating officer, has made three trips to China. In each journey, he worked with his daughter Heather’s American foundation, Hope’s Heart Orphan Foundation*, which provides funding for medical, care-giving, educational and life needs for orphanages in China. Through his travels, Williams has experienced the culture and religious environment of China.
“The Chinese people are wonderful people and are very welcoming,” he said. “Part of their culture is treating visitors with respect. If someone is a guest, they get special respect.”
Under these circumstances, Olympic athletes and fans traveling to the country this summer can expect to be welcomed by the respectful Chinese people. Armed with this knowledge, it is projected that Christian athletes will be free to express their religious beliefs without fear of being deported, unlike their missionary counterparts who serve long-term in the country.
Human rights issues also have caused speculation that certain countries will boycott the Olympic Games. But, in the opinion of Williams, these countries would miss the point by not having a presence at the Games. Rather than staying home, Williams suggested that by attending the Olympics and interacting with the locals, people from other countries will have the opportunity to establish relationships and ultimately encourage change.
“The only thing that will cause change is the gospel, and in order to preach the gospel you have to get into the country,” Williams said. “If you don’t even go into the country, you don’t have a chance. We should send our athletes—our best athletes—and have them compete at their best because that is what the Olympics are about: the competition. They are about bringing people together around the common theme of sports. Even though we have political differences, cultural differences and individual differences, people can unite around sports.”
Despite the controversy, most countries are committed to both sending athletes to China and to celebrating the true essence of the Olympic Games.
In their purest form, removed from any world issues, the Games remain a gathering of human beings who test their physical and mental limits to see who is the best. Removed from the politics and issues, people from all around the world will gather for 14 days of sport, interaction and relationship-building that will open doors to dialogue about Christ. For the Christian athlete competing for God’s glory, it will be a true 14-day mission trip of spreading God’s Word through sports.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Beijing National Stadium
and Aquatics Center
There are 1.3 billion people in China. What can one believer do to change a life from thousands of miles away? What can you really do as you sit in your comfortable recliner and watch the events unfold?
You can pray that God’s love shines through the Christian athletes as they take to their respective fields, courts, pools and tracks to honor and praise Him with their athletic abilities.
Pray that the athletes are vessels of His love in the down time before and after their competition.
Pray that they go to Beijing with an understanding and respect for the culture and the traditions in which they are immersed, and that, through the relationships created, deeper everlasting issues can be addressed.
Pray that the Holy Spirit boldly speaks through the athletes and that the knowledge of the gospel is spread to everyone who can hear it.
Pray for all athletes who do not yet know the Lord, that their hearts will be open and receptive to the good news of Jesus Christ.
It is inevitable that the Olympic flame will be extinguished, but the memories of these Games will live on. The two-week event will be memorable. The Olympic Games are always memorable. But because of the nature of the situation and the opportunities that come with it, the memories may never be as important as they are this summer.
*For more information, visit www.hopesheart.org.
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.