When the Olympic Committee announced in 2013 that Tokyo would host the 2020 Games, Fellowship of Christian Athletes Japan (FCA) Director Will Thompson saw an opportunity.* After years of establishing relationships in Japan’s sports community, he began connecting with the International Sports Coalition (ISC) and church and ministry leaders to prepare to leverage such a major global spotlight. From his perspective, Japan’s hosting of the Olympics could spark a fresh vision for sports ministry in the country, and he was ready for it.
After living in Japan for five years as a child with his family, Thompson was drawn to the country’s culture and people. He knew he wanted to go back and take his passion for baseball. In 2012, Thompson returned to Japan from the US to begin a vision plan for sports ministry through FCA. Since then, he has been redefining strategy and re-establishing vision for FCA Japan—not just for now, but for years to come.
The upcoming 2020 Games felt like perfect timing and a confirmation of Thompson and his team’s ministry. They began the process to establish FCA as an entity with the Japanese government.
“FCA is a game changer,” said Motoki Oba, FCA’s field support manager. “I was looking for teammates. In Japan, there was no ministry like FCA to focus on serving coaches and athletes, but God gave us a way to reach these communities.”
To grow FCA Japan’s influence leading up to the Games, the team developed a Japanese Bible for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and a Japanese baseball Bible. They hosted numerous baseball and rugby clinics. They also designed a set of three Olympic pins for trading among athletes, something that happens throughout the Olympic Village and host city Olympic venues each Olympic Games. Each FCA pin displays one of the three main words of 1 Corinthians 13: faith, hope, and love. At the end of 2019 the country appeared ready to host the Olympics.
“We thought, ‘God’s going to use this to bring the people of Japan to himself,’” Thompson said.
In 2020 the world watched and waited as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. After years of training and preparation, athletes hoped they would still be allowed to compete. When the decision to postpone the Games was announced on March 24, 2020, a collective sigh of disappointment resonated across the globe. As the host country, Japan’s sigh may have resounded even louder, and Thompson and his team joined in. They had poured countless hours into prayer, brainstorming, and preparation. But they weren’t devastated, just discouraged.
Thompson and his team rebounded quickly, and he began to see the postponement as an extra year to prepare. Over the past year, FCA Japan has narrowed in on two main initiatives: Olympic Bibles and chaplaincy training.
For the Olympic Bibles, Thompson and others in FCA East Asia worked on a Bible that appeals to coaches and athletes. Biblica has a long history of producing Bibles for the Olympics and partnering with groups like FCA to get them into coaches’ and athletes’ hands. Thompson’s goal was to get one into the hands of every Japanese athlete.
FAC also formed a sports partnership with the Olympic Chaplaincy Committee, which doesn’t only operate during the Games, but also once they’ve ended. Thompson’s hope is for the chaplaincy opportunity to enable FCA Japan to impact more coaches and athletes in the country moving beyond the Olympics.
“If we’re able to serve coaches and athletes through chaplaincy at the highest level—the Olympics—it gives us more credibility to be able to serve through sports chaplaincy through every level of sports moving forward,” he explained.
A major source of encouragement is Yoriko Okamoto, the Japanese taekwondo bronze medalist at the Sydney Games in 2000 and a supporter of FCA Japan. Not only has Okamoto chosen to partner with FCA as a volunteer and donor, she also is a prospective chaplain giving insight from her years as a top-level athlete.
“She is on fire for God,” Thompson said. “We have a champion to engage in sports ministry who is also a high-profile athlete and an amazing witness for Christ.”
A shift in perspective
COVID-19 has brought continued uncertainty for coaches and athletes all around the world, but FCA Japan says it has led to a shift in perspective and approach for sports ministry. What had largely centered around event ministry has transformed into everyday ministry.
Before 2020, much of FCA Japan’s impact came from camps and clinics and utilized professional baseball players—who visited the country during short-term events or who participated on off days during the Japanese season. Now, Thompson and Oba are looking to strategically develop staff and leaders, re-envision camps and clinics, and intentionally reach out to coaches and athletes to walk with them through one-on-one Zoom chats and Bible studies.
Thompson said, “We are now less event-driven and more discipleship focused.”
According to Thompson, this re-envisioning actually invigorated the work going forward.
“We are believing that maybe the spark for the 2020 Olympics wasn’t about the event itself but about what God’s going to do,” he said. “We are trusting and believing God’s plan. Now, we are strategically raising up disciples to equip for the harvest.”
If the Olympics had gone on as planned, ministry in Japan may have looked different from what it does now. What appeared as delay gave way to an undeniable movement of God that has the team in Japan excited and hopeful.
The Olympic Committee’s decision to proceed with the Tokyo 2021 Games was complex, as it isn’t just one sports season spread over many months, but 33 sports with athletes from around the world converging in one city for a short amount of time. Yet despite this uncertainty and complexity, Thompson and his team are more ready than ever for whatever comes next.
“God’s using this pandemic for his kingdom purpose,” Thompson said. “We pray and believe that what the enemy uses for evil, God will turn around for good. We’re believing God is preparing an awakening and bringing people to himself.”
By Sarah Freymuth
Edited version of article published by FCA on July 9, 2021.
*This is not an OMF ministry.