Long-term commitment aids Czech church growth
August 23rd, 2018 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments
Soaring 333 feet into the sky, higher than any other cathedral in the Czech Republic, the spire of the 13th-century St. Bartholomew Cathedral draws residents and visitors to the Pilsen town square where the city’s forefathers laid the church’s and the city’s foundations in 1295. But the city’s Catholic footing has slipped as time, war, Communism and growing secularism have left Pilsen’s residents with no firm faith foundation.
But 1.4 miles southeast of the historic square, in a rented space off a busy street, Mozaika, a small Baptist congregation, flourishes. After a 10-year partnership with First Baptist Church Forney, which ended this summer, International Mission Board missionaries Larry and Melissa Lewis see their congregation following the Texans’ example of stepping out in obedience to share the gospel and make disciples.
“These young believers are growing in their faith, encouraging each other and reaching out to their communities,” Melissa said in an email to the TEXAN. “We are looking beyond Plzen and working and praying to start new churches in surrounding communities.”
Plzen, Czech for Pilsen, is home to 200,000 people and the world-renowned Pilsner brewery. Like much of Europe, Pilsen’s residents have grown indifferent to their Christian roots.
“Many people say it’s an atheist country. In our experience that’s wrong,” said Rod Cushing who, along with his wife, Marnie, traveled several times to Pilsen with FBC Forney. “We have seen the vestiges of Christianity throughout their culture.”
The FBC Forney mission trips predate the Lewis’ arrival by a year or two and laid the groundwork on which the missionaries and the fledgling Christian community would build. Before Pilsen had an IMB missionary or Baptist church, the Texans committed themselves to 10 years of short-term mission trips to the city in the western Czech Republic.
Before committing to a years-long mission effort, FBC Forney inventories the skills its volunteers offer. By matching the teams’ abilities with the needs of a prospective area, the church has learned how to most effectively use their time and resources to the benefit of the community they hope to engage.
In Pilsen that meant sending one team a year to help the Lewises facilitate gospel-infused English camps, a popular event the community has come to anticipate each summer. The camps have grown from 69 students—children through adults—to 250. Some of the FBC Forney members, like the Cushings, have visited more frequently.
Eventually, the stranger-wary Czechs began to warm to their Texas visitors.
“The churches who are willing to invest their time and money again and again speaks volumes to Czechs,” Melissa Lewis said. “It is very hard to gain the trust of a Czech.”
By investing in the life of Pilsen, the Lewises and their three children Laini, 16, Larissa, 22, and Zachary, 24, and his wife, Hana, who is Czech, earned their trust. Larry coaches the Pilsen Patriots American Football team and teaches English and archery. Melissa has taught English at a local high school for nine years. That school, with historically Christian roots, has hosted the English camps for a decade.
The Lewis children have played an integral role in the ministry by serving in the church and witnessing to their peers. Like the cathedral spire, Christian hospitality has drawn neighbors and the spiritually curious to the Lewis home for Bible study, children’s clubs, babysitting, and one-on-one language lessons and discipleship.
The summer partnership with FBC Forney allowed the Lewises to expand the English camp far beyond the means of the 40-member Mozaika church. The week-long program creates an environment that forces people—Americans and Czech—to do something they might not be inclined to do: converse with a stranger who speaks a different language.
The English teachers use songs and Bible stories for reading and speaking practice. Participants, most with no church upbringing, are told this at the outset yet still register themselves and their children.
And faith conversations extend beyond the camps. Melissa intentionally arranges housing in order to place the Texans in the homes of non-believers who graciously welcome the strangers. Rod and Marnie Cushing have cherished those stays and the faith conversations they have had in those homes.
The Forney teams have done more than expand the Lewises’ ministry opportunities for one week out of the year.
“They have befriended our family, loved on our kids, brought us surprises from the states, sent packages to our son in college,” Melissa said. “The list goes on and on. We love the church family at FBC Forney and count them as dear friends. This relationship has been priceless to us.”
Each subsequent visit from the Texans has nurtured trust and friendships with the Czechs. Faith conversations flow from those relationships—conversations the Texans entrust to the local Christians when they leave.
This summer FBC Forney said their final good-byes. The church committed to 10 years of service and that time has expired. They began their work in Pilsen with little more than the conviction God wanted them there. They leave grateful to have been a part of his handiwork.
No new cathedral fills the city square. Instead, a growing congregation of 40 faithful Christians meets regularly in rented space blocks from the city’s famous landmark. Czech pastor Daniel Kuc shepherds the church.
Because of the work done during the camps the gospel has been heard throughout the year in the school that has hosted the event and where Melissa Lewis teaches.
“We are very happy that you are here teaching English, but we are most excited that you have given everyone a Bible and for what you are sharing,” the principal told Larry Lewis after the first camp.
And Forney’s relationship with the school continues this fall as Rod Cushing returns to teach English for the year.
Most significantly, the church planted by the Lewises and watered by FBC Forney is bearing fruit. While the Lewises and the members of Mozaika will miss their Texas friends, the congregation stands ready to emulate their work.
The day Larry announced FBC Forney would not return, a young mother approached Melissa and told her God had been urging her to offer Christian day camps to the children in her neighborhood. She had resisted, not wanting to duplicate the English camps. Then she heard the teams would not return.
In one month, she offered two Bible camps.
“Both camps were full almost immediately. The children loved the camps and were excited each day for the Bible stories and songs,” Melissa said.
The Lewises hope to partner long-term with another American church to engage churches and evangelize in Czech cities where no such work is being done. But the relationship will be from a different vantage point, Larry Lewis noted.
“The advantage at this point is that now there is a ‘mother church’ in Plzen, so mission teams coming can have valuable input and leadership from Czech believers,” he said. “American mission teams still can very much bring their gifting, excitement, encouragement, etc., in ways that are invaluable to the Czech church.”