Students use ‘yellow card strategy’ during World Cup evangelism

Student volunteer Grant Gilliam raises a yellow card—resembling what a referee uses to call a rule violation in a soccer match—to get the attention of a soccer fan near Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã Stadium. Gilliam, a student at Mississippi College in Clinton, and his teammates (from left) Brazilian Baptist Bianca Brandao and Stephanie Silva, a student at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, shared the gospel before a World Cup match between Russia and Belgium. (IMB Photo: Wilson Hunter)

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About 600,000 visitors converged on Rio de Janeiro and 11 other host cities in Brazil to cheer for their country’s team at the FIFA World Cup, the world’s most-watched sporting event. But other visitors to Rio arrived with another goal in mind—sharing the message of Jesus Christ.

brazil streetevangelism425Baptist students took the gospel story to World Cup fans in Brazil. (IMB image)A team of 11 Southern Baptist college students and two student ministry leaders traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the 2014 World Cup as part of the International Mission Board’s student mobilization efforts, to partner with Brazilian Baptists in outreach during the soccer tournament.

The students, their Brazilian co-workers and some IMB missionaries spent two weeks witnessing in communities around Rio and evangelizing near the city’s Maracanã Stadium, where tens of thousands of fans attended World Cup matches.

“The World Cup is where the nations come to one place,” said Lee Dymond, campus minister at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and leader of the student missions team. 

“It’s our opportunity to share the gospel and hopefully impact not just Brazil but all the nations that are coming to Brazil for World Cup. …There (are) very few times in history where so many people from so many different places come together. We get an opportunity to be right here with them, and we get an opportunity to share the gospel with as many as we can.”

Student volunteers used a specialized witnessing technique the Brazilian Baptist Home Mission Board developed. Diogo da Cunha Carvalho, coordinator of evangelistic strategies for Brazilian Baptists’ domestic missions efforts, helped design the “yellow card strategy” for Brazilian churches to use at a regional soccer competition in 2013.

brazil ryckeghem425Dane Van Ryckeghem (center), a student at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and some of his teammates share the Gospel with Brazilians in a community on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. (IMB Photo: Wilson Hunter)In soccer, Carvalho explained, a referee displays a yellow card as a warning or caution to a player regarding conduct that could lead to expulsion from the match.

“It’s a sign to the player that he is getting very close to severe consequence for his actions,” Carvalho said. This visual understanding is the perfect direct approach for witnessing against the backdrop of a soccer match, he added.

The witnessing technique begins by approaching someone and raising a yellow card while blowing a whistle—just like a soccer referee. This warning, however, is a message from God, the Baptist volunteer tells the person.

“In Brazil, probably 90 percent of the people will say ‘yes’ when asked if they want to hear the gospel,” Carvalho said. “With such an interest in the word (of God), we can take a direct approach like this yellow card.”

brazil smirniotopoulos425Nick Smirniotopoulos (left), a recent graduate of Virginia Tech University, shares the Gospel with soccer fans outside Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium. (IMBPhoto: Lina White)After receiving permission to explain the message, the approach leads to a “goodness” test, Carvalho explained. Here, the presenter shows, through a series of questions, how all are sinners according to the Bible and fall short of being “a good person.” Then, the believer shares the gospel message.

“We talk about the law to emphasize the seriousness of sin, but now introduce the good news through the act of love that God did for us,” Carvalho said.

In a country such as Brazil with a history of religiousness, “at this point some may connect the phrase ‘Jesus died for our sins,’ but there’s a disconnect between that phrase, their actual sinfulness and the ‘I’m a good person’ mentality,” Carvalho told the Baptist students. “They don’t connect the giant statue of Jesus that stands over Rio with what Jesus did for them on the cross—that he came to die and he rose again to defeat death for their freedom.”

On game days in Rio, the collegiate team divided into groups of two or three, along with a translator. The teams then fanned out around the outside of Brazil’s national stadium, thick with celebrating fans hours before the stadium opened.

Bekah Gordon, co-leader of the trip, said the atmosphere was exactly what she had hoped.

brazil argentine425Student volunteers share the Gospel with Argentine soccer fans in front of Rio de Janeiro’s national stadium as a bystander walks through the crowd, carrying a banner proclaiming Jesus. (IMB Photo: Wilson Hunter)“It’s the World Cup!” said Gordon, who previously served with Dymond at Auburn-Montgomery as a semester missionary through the North American Mission Board. “I grew up playing soccer, and I’m now a soccer coach in Montgomery.  To be able to combine two of my greatest loves—the gospel and soccer—is awesome.”

At the stadium one day, Gordon and her partner approached a young man sitting alone.

“Ricardo was sitting by himself, (and we) walked over to him and threw up the yellow card and blew the whistle,” Gordon said. “He immediately threw up his hands and said: ‘What did I do? What did I do?’

brazil myers425Student volunteer Alison Myers (right) hugs a Brazilian girl whom Myers’ teammate had just led to Christ during a World Cup outreach project in Rio de Janeiro. (IMB Photo: Lina White)“That was the perfect reaction, because we wanted him to have the idea that something was wrong,” she said. “We told him it’s not just what he has done; it’s what all of us has done.”

Ricardo admitted he had a faith background as a child, but he discarded it to enjoy a pleasure-seeking lifestyle.

Gordon and her evangelism partner, Jordan O’Donnell, a student at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, explained to him “that giving our lives to God is not like going to prison. It’s not bondage, but freedom,” Gordon recounted. “We shared that we are not bound to sin anymore, and life with God is better than the world.

“We continued to share, but our translator interrupted us and said, ‘He’s ready to accept Christ.’” Gordon said. “We prayed with him, and he said, ‘I feel free now.’ The cool thing about this whole exchange is that Ricardo is from Lima, Peru. God blessed our (Portuguese-speaking) interpreter with enough Spanish to communicate the gospel clearly.”

Alison Myers, a senior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, arrived in Rio with a special story to tell. She was born with hip dysplasia, and doctors told her parents she never would walk.

brazil briefing425Diogo da Cunha Carvalho briefs Southern Baptist and Brazilian Baptist student volunteers on the “yellow card” evangelism method used during the FIFA World Cup June 12 – July 13. Carvalho, who coordinates evangelistic strategies for the Brazilian Baptist Home Mission Board, helped to develop the strategy for a regional soccer tournament in 2013. (IMB Photo: Lina White)“That was really a setback for my parents,” she said. “The doctors told them they needed to accept the fact I would be handicapped. My parents prayed and got people from all over the world to pray for me. They had faith in the Lord that he would provide and be the physical and spiritual healer in my life.”

After a first surgery was unsuccessful, Myers’ parents continued to believe God had a different plan for their daughter. A second surgery brought good results and allowed Myers to walk.

“Every step I take is a daily reminder of what he can do through me,” she said. “When talking to people here, if they look depressed or discouraged or broken, I include my story because it’s such a huge part of my life. That really lights up their eyes when I tell them how the Lord has done so many great things in my life.”

Myers said she prayed before leaving for Rio “that the Lord would stretch me and allow me to be uncomfortable … and be able to deal with it. It was probably a very bold prayer, but that’s what I prayed for. To hear people say ‘no’ is hard, but the Lord has given me that boldness.”

Sharing the gospel with people who understand and receive the message “is so great to see because sometimes when you have a language and cultural barrier, it’s hard to know how they’re feeling,” she said. “So to see a face light up with understanding and wanting to accept Jesus is totally worth this entire trip.”

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