SOCHI, Russia (BP) -- Excitement is mounting in the Olympic host city of Sochi, Russia, where the countdown clock in the central square displays fewer than 365 days until the Opening Ceremonies of the 22nd Winter Olympic Games.
In February, Russian dignitaries and Olympic officials celebrated the one-year mark in the recently completed Bolshoy Ice Dome in nearby Adler. Several thousand Sochi residents gathered to watch the countdown at one of the live Olympic viewing sites in their city's downtown area along the coast of the Black Sea.
Olympic officials and Sochi residents were not the only ones in the area watching as the clock clicked down to the one-year mark. Southern Baptists from Oklahoma and Georgia joined International Mission Board missionaries in the city as preparations for Olympic ministry continue.
The Engage Sochi project is an IMB initiative that mobilizes Southern Baptists to reach the people of Sochi through broad sharing of the Gospel and planting of churches before, during and after the Games.
Staff members and volunteers from two state Baptist conventions joined Engage Sochi project leaders to plan for more than 400 people to share the Gospel in Sochi during the Olympics in February and the Paralympics in March 2014.
"I think it is important for conventions to be leading out in Olympic ministry," said Georgia Baptist Convention staffer Marty Youngblood, who is a veteran of Olympic ministries. "It allows us to reach the world in a much more responsible way, as far as our resources go."
Unlike other Olympic ministry projects, Engage Sochi focuses on more than broad Gospel-sharing. At its core is a strong church planting component. While volunteers will have the opportunity to share the Gospel with people from around the world, the primary focus is to reach individuals who live and work in the Olympic city.
Youngblood said the intentional church planting at an Olympic event makes the project unique.
"We are going to be focusing on the people of Sochi," he said. "Mass evangelism is good. It's important to focus on the people from around the world. But when we focus on the city and the people of Sochi, we leave more of a lasting influence than we usually would during the Olympics."
Bob Nigh, managing editor of the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger, believes the Engage Sochi philosophy is important.
"We need to be able to look back on this and ask, 'What difference did all of that make?' And hopefully, and prayerfully, this is going to make a huge difference in the lives of many people who live in Sochi," Nigh said.
Nigh joined Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma worship and music specialist Randy Lind and several members of the Singing Churchmen of Oklahoma, who will perform in Sochi during the first full week of the Games.
While the group spent the week seeking venues where they can perform as a hundred-person-strong men's choir, they will spend much of their time in Sochi during the Games singing in small groups throughout the area as a way to meet people and share the Gospel.
"We looked at Mexico, China and some other places to minister in 2014," Lind said. "But when I heard that we could help local pastors and also do work in church planting, that really touched my heart. The fact that we get to do all of this during the Olympics is just icing on the cake."
With just under a year remaining before the kick-off of the Olympics in Sochi, much of the city and surrounding area is covered in a cloud of construction dust that can be seen from a nearby mountaintop. Just as Russian officials are preparing the city of Sochi to host the Olympics, the Engage Sochi team and scores of volunteers have much to do as well.
"We are going to be praying a lot," Lind said. "We will be preparing to do things that we believe will reach out and touch people's hearts musically. But we will also be refreshing that story ... that story about how our lives have been changed by God working in us and how Christ has made a difference in our lives."
Youngblood said he believes all Southern Baptists should be praying in earnest for the Engage Sochi ministry team and logistics coordinators.
"This may be one of the most difficult Winter Olympics that I have ever come to know and see as far as logistical planning is concerned," Youngblood said.
"I think God is going to do something spectacular here ... maybe even more than anything we have ever experienced in Olympic ministries," Youngblood said. "I am convinced that this is going to be a time where we see the Lord move in mighty ways in the community of Sochi, with the churches here and with people from around the world."
While Baptists in Oklahoma and Georgia already are deep into the planning of their Olympic ministry trips to Sochi, they and IMB missionaries pray that other Southern Baptists will get just as involved in Engage Sochi.
Marc Ira Hooks is an IMB writer based in Europe. He also serves as co-director and Olympic event coordinator for Engage Sochi. Updates and other information, including video features, can be found at www.EngageSochi.org
or by writing to TellMeMore@EngageSochi.org.