For the past week, the songs of 75 middle-aged Oklahomans harmonized across the Black Sea and the West Caucasus mountains. “Oklahoma, where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain!” It sounds like Broadway, but it’s Sochi, Russia.
The Singing Men of Oklahoma are Southern Baptists with the International Missions Board (IMB) ministry Engage Sochi. When they finish singing, they hand out pins and use the Olympic rings to tell the gospel. At least 400 Americans traveled to Russia to work with local believers and the IMB. They’re not alone. Dozens of evangelists are taking advantage of the diverse audiences at the Olympics.
The Olympic villages house official prayer facilities for Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. The facilities are nothing special—just folding chairs and books. But Campus Crusade’s Athletes in Action is a major player in that small space. More than 7,500 athletes and paralympians live at the villages. “In such a high-pressure, high-stakes place, you never know what someone will want to talk about, but we're there for them,” Carl Dambman, 63, told the Huffington Post.
The former Olympic wrestler has spent 35 years with athletes and Athletes in Action in Russia. In the Soviet bloc, sports were a way in to the closed-off country for evangelists. Despite the cramped quarters shared by Catholics and Protestants, Dambman and his team hold Bible studies and prayer and keep quiet space for athletes, some of whom have faced dream-ending injuries.
Athletes aren’t the only ones at the games, though. As many as 200,000 people descended on Sochi from around the world. Outreach Bible Project from Georgia’s Hillcrest Baptist Church has used that Olympic melting pot since 1996 in Atlanta. The group’s Facebook page says it’s “going well” in Sochi despite having their books of John and Romans held by Russian customs, which said the combination of “Sochi” and “2014” printed on the cover was too close to the official Olympic brand. Outreach Bible Project’s goal is to interact one-on-one with people, encouraging believers they meet and sharing Jesus with others.
A large portion of believers’ efforts in Sochi are geared toward neither athletes nor tourists. Many organizations are focused on Sochi its residents. “SOAR has not gone to the Olympics,” said Jan Barclay, a project coordinator for Alaska-based SOAR International Ministries. “SOAR has gone to Sochi during the Olympics to … help support the local church in their ministry and their outreach.”
The Olympics have become somewhat of a coming out party for the evangelical church of Sochi. Under Soviet rule, Barclay said, some churches registered under strict Soviet guidance, while others decided to go underground. “When communism fell, those two sides each felt that they had been right in their approach during communism,” she said. “And what we’ve seen today is a merging … there’s no longer that … friction. … Now there’s a real community, a common goal of evangelization.”
That’s where Americans come in, specifically SOAR, Bible League International (BLI), and the Salvation Army. SOAR got its start 12 years ago across the Bering Strait. Now it works throughout Russia, focusing on children and orphans alongside local church leaders. “We’ve helped the local community become aware of the church so they see the church is a good neighbor,” Barclay said.
While the Olympic city of Sochi is largely open, there’s no street preaching or open proselytizing. (Some gay rights supporters are saying security is standing idly by as Christian street preachers march with pro-Vladimir Putin, anti-homosexuality signs in an unapproved area.) The rules have encouraged a new animal called the “Fun Zone.”
Churches can speak freely on their property, and they have set up stages and tents with screens to show the games. There’s games for children, puppets, clowning, bubbles, face painting, and gospel-themed magic shows. “I say the kids, but we’re finding the adults are having a lot of fun with that as well,” Barclay said. In its two Fun Zones in the city and one at Mountain Cluster of Olympic courses, SOAR and its believers use tea and refreshments to build relationships with other Sochi residents.
The Salvation Army, Bible League International, and SOAR are all doing Fun Zones. Bible League International has 1,000 volunteers with 24 Sochi churches, preparing up to 100,000 New Testaments and gospels in Russian. More than two-thirds of Russians are Christian, most of them Russian Orthodox. Perhaps fewer than 2 percent are evangelicals.
The local approach caught the eye of the Southern Baptists International Missions Board. “We realized that traditional models only utilized one phase of the life-cycle of the Olympic host city,” said Engage Sochi co-director Marc Hooks. Ever since the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Hooks and IMB have been organizing for Sochi. They liked the street evangelism, but there’s years of construction before the games and discipleship to do afterward.
Engage Sochi has worked with Central Baptist Church of Sochi to cultivate a local team years in advance to continue making disciples years after the games end. Engage Sochi already had a house church in Sochi and a Bible study in the mountain community last year. “I think that God has brought these events to Sochi to allow the people in our city to be more open,” pastor Danil Pankratov said while learning and training at the 2012 London games. “As the church, we have to get on our feet.”
Taking what they learned in London, local Russians and volunteers from the United States have branched out throughout the city, even into residential neighborhoods. While the U.S. warned American athletes to tone down their gear outside Olympic venues for safety reasons, Engage Sochi volunteers have found an opportunity: International media and fans view American-sightings as part of the Olympic experience. “When we get back, we are going to become nobodies again,” a volunteer jested.
In high-traffic areas, they’re using flash mob-like methods to draw crowds, such as breaking out in “Oklahoma.” Then they can interact one-on-one, handing out Olympic pins and telling the story of the “Wordless Book,” in which colors represent parts of the gospel—this time with the colors of the five Olympic rings.
“Oklahoma” may not echo forever on the streets of Sochi, but Sochi’s believers are taking advantage of the opportunity afforded them. Some are already looking forward to the Paralympics, the first Formula One Grand Prix in October, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
“The Lord just seems to have opened up this door to Sochi,” SOAR’s Barclay said, “and we’re just waiting to see where that goes and what other doors he opens up.”