FIRST PERSON: Spiritual lessons in London
EDITOR'S NOTE: Tim Ellsworth, editor of BP Sports and director of news and media relations at Union University, covered the 2012 Olympics in tandem with Baptist Press' London bureau.
LONDON (BP) -- As the world turned its attention on the Olympics, London 2012 provided a number of memorable images that will endure for years.
The blinding speed of Usain Bolt. The triumphant smile of Gabby Douglas. A stadium of 80,000 British fans cheering madly for Mo Farrah and Jessica Ennis.
Oscar Pistorius blazing past on his prosthetic blades. Allyson Felix winning gold in the 200 meters after failing to do so in the previous two Olympics. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings claiming their third beach volleyball gold medal. Manteo Mitchell breaking his leg in the 4x400 relay and still finishing the race. And Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian ever, saying farewell.
These are the scenes that captured the heart of the world over the past two weeks. Here in the United States, the London Olympics became the second most-watched television event in history, behind only the Beijing Olympics four years ago.
But there's more to the Olympics than what is seen on TV or read about in the news. Behind the scenes, hundreds of faithful Christians traveled to London to labor in anonymity, telling people without hope about the hope found in Christ.
"We're here in London to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to proclaim to all the people that come here from all the nations that there's one Savior of sinners, and there's no other name under heaven given among men by which they must be saved -- the name of Jesus," said Bobby McCreery, an evangelist from Georgia.
McCreery was part of a team ministering with Sports Fan Outreach International. They read the Bible openly in places like Trafalgar Square. They preached at Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park. They handed out Gospel tracts.
"That's why we're here, to lift Jesus up as King and Lord of all the universe," McCreary said.
While he was preaching in Hyde Park, a woman named Ann came up to McCreary.
"How can I be born again?" she asked him.
"We were able to share the law and the Gospel with her, and the excellencies of Christ," McCreary said. "At the end, we said to her, 'Is there anything that's worth holding onto that would keep you from repenting of your sin and turning to Christ right now?'"
"I think that's what I am doing right now," Ann replied.
"She was crying," McCreery said. "What an amazing God we serve."
In addition to volunteers sharing the Gospel in the London streets, many Olympic athletes themselves used the opportunities they were given to talk about how the Lord had worked in their lives.
"God has been so good to me," Felix said after winning gold in the women's 4x400 relay. "I couldn't do anything without Him."
Said Douglas, after winning two gymnastics gold medals, "God has given me this awesome talent to represent Him. Glory goes up to Him, and the blessings fall down on us."
U.S. diver David Boudia -- who won bronze in the 10-meter synchronized diving event and gold in the individual 10-meter platform -- talked about the way his church family had encouraged him throughout the Olympics.
"I get so many messages, whether it's Facebook or Twitter or text messages, letting me know that they're praying for me," Boudia said. "The coolest ones are that they're not praying for the victories. They're praying that God's name would be revealed and lifted on high. Now I have a crazy opportunity. I'm going to be in front of thousands of media people and I get to speak the name of Jesus and praise Him for what He's done."
The Olympic experience stirs something within us, something that longs for the unity, peace and camaraderie the Games embody. We gather around our TVs each night with our families to watch the competition together. We rejoice together when Boudia nails his last dive to capture the gold. We grieve together when Lolo Jones finishes fourth.
As my friend Owen Strachan wrote on Twitter a few days ago, "The Olympics really do accomplish what they set out to do: they unite. You feel like part of the world watching them."
I think Owen is right. But ultimately, the Olympics are a shadow that points to something far greater.
We yearn to live in a world free from the corruption, violence and chaos that so often characterize our lives. For those who are in Christ, that day is coming -- a day when people from all the nations will gather as one, freed from the sin that has so thoroughly mangled our lives. We will gather, not to participate in athletic competitions that display the best of human achievement, but to proclaim the excellencies of the One who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.