In spite of numerous setbacks related to the Summer Olympics, Southern Baptists in Japan are going for the gold as they seek to engage the Japanese with the gospel.
The Tokyo Games, originally slated for the summer of 2020, will be held July 23–Aug. 8. The International Olympic Committee is still referring to these games as Tokyo 2020, despite a yearlong postponement because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s Games will feature 33 sports at 339 events across 42 venues. Most events will be in the Greater Tokyo area, with a few events slated for Sapporo. And due to the pandemic, this year’s Olympics will be vastly different than previous years.
In Tokyo, a current state of emergency running from July 12 until Aug. 22 means that spectators, even Japanese nationals, will be banned from nearly all Summer Olympics venues to control the spread of COVID-19.
Numerous regulations will be set in place at Olympic Village to ensure the health and safety of the thousands of athletes expected to participate in the Games.
One historic change: Athletes at the Tokyo Olympics will put their medals around their own necks for another layer of protection, according to a July 14 statement by organizers.
As many as 11,500 athletes are expected to travel to Japan to compete, in addition to an estimated 79,000 journalists, officials and staff who will also be in attendance, NPR reported. All will be expected to follow current protocols, such as masking and social distancing. Vaccines are not required, but international athletes and staff traveling with them will be tested before departure and upon arrival in Japan.
These changes and regulations are set against a backdrop of general Japanese skepticism about holding the Olympic Games with the pandemic still claiming lives in Japan and the relatively low percentage of Japanese residents who have been vaccinated to date.
The BBC reported July 11 that about 18% of Japan’s population of close to 126 million is fully vaccinated and further reported that a recent poll in the leading Asahi Shimbun newspaper suggested more than 80% of the population want the Olympic Games canceled or postponed.
“At this point there is a strong sentiment against having the Olympics because of fear of … the thousands of athletes, coaches and limited media who will be attending and the potential to spread [COVID] during the Olympics,” said Scott Bradford, an International Mission Board missionary serving in Japan.
“That may change once it all begins but that is the general sentiment.”
Historically, volunteer teams from U.S. churches have journeyed to the Olympics venues and played active roles in ministry to spectators, athletes and others attending the Olympic Games.
With that traditional strategy out the door, IMB missionaries are adapting their evangelism and outreach plans, much like the plans for the Olympics have been adapted.
“Our vision, our focus as a Tokyo team, is first and foremost, the Japanese,” Bradford said.
The Japanese are the second largest unreached people group in the world, and Tokyo has a higher concentration of lostness than any other city in the world, Bradford stated.
Rather than focusing on the Olympic events specifically, IMB missionaries are focusing on planting churches and supporting Japanese believers and churches.
“We have had to rethink our Olympic strategies over the past six months. As a result, the Tokyo Global City team felt the best and most ideal thing to do was to utilize the Olympic time frame to strengthen and expand existing partnerships and engagements for the sake of bringing the gospel to those living in and around the Greater Tokyo area,” Bradford said.
“During this time, our team will be engaged in several activities throughout the city,” he said.
Activities include prayer walking along a heavily used train route that encircles Tokyo, five-minute English lessons and even dressing in cosplay (dressing in a costume as a character from a work of fiction).
While the pandemic squashed many plans, Bradford believes it might make people more open to the gospel. “We have already seen that people have been ‘stuck inside’ for so much of the last year and a half,” leading to increases in suicides, depression and loneliness, he said.
“We are praying that this will open doors for us to connect more deeply.”
Although Southern Baptists won’t be ministering in person alongside IMB missionaries serving in Japan, they are still a vital part of the ministry occurring during the Olympics.
“We need our SBC churches and supporters to continue to ‘hold the ropes’ for us. We cannot afford to have them let go! We cannot do this without their prayer support and encouragement,” he said.
He asked for prayer “for God to prepare the places and soil where we will be doing ministry.”
Additionally, he requested prayer “for God to use what we are doing to inspire Japanese Christian brothers and sisters to join in and this will open more opportunities for partnership with our local Japanese believers and churches.”
The Tokyo Global City team has prepared a “real time” prayer guide for Southern Baptists to pray “alongside us as we are doing” the outreach in and around Tokyo.
IMB missionaries in Japan who will be involved in outreach activities include Bradford and his wife Julie; Rick and Hiromi Price; and Daniel and Tara Rice.
After Japan reopens for international travelers, the missionaries will look forward to Southern Baptists from North America joining them again to build on all that God does during the Summer Olympics.
“People say that reaching the Japanese is tough, and I say it is not our job to reach them. It is our job to faithfully share and let the word of God and Holy Spirit reach out to them and penetrate their lives,” Bradford said.
“All we can do is control what we do on a daily basis. We just need to position ourselves to let God use us.”