With the arrival of a new political reality in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, many evangelical churches enjoyed a phase of positive, and in some cases, unprecedented numerical growth. The sudden absence of governmental restrictions upon sharing one’s faith had two primary results. Many Evangelicals launched bold initiatives to share their faith in Jesus Christ with family, neighbors, workmates, schoolmates, and friends. Simultaneously, the general population momentarily was unusually open to new ideas.
Though the number of evangelical believers increased in many societies, not all churches experienced growth. Many churches found themselves unwilling or simply unable to welcome vast numbers of new believers into their fellowships. The evangelical subculture found the influx of new believers with little or no church background threatening. As the window of receptivity slipped away, churches by-and-large returned to the status and condition they experienced prior to the massive political changes. The church preserved its subculture, but it missed a great opportunity for exponential kingdom growth.
Three New Churches
Yet three churches in the vicinity of Budapest, Hungary, managed to confront the new realities and to sustain growth. Dúrkó István, a young church planter, sensed the strategic importance of reaching the capital city with the Gospel message. Meanwhile, in the 15 years following the abolition of Communism, the city of Budapest had been expanding steadily westward. In 2003, István started a church in the heart of the western suburb of Budaörs, renting a meeting place in a local school. Located in the center of 15 to 20 large, Communist-era apartment buildings, the church focused on community needs.1 Today, the pastor and the church leadership continue to pursue their vision of not only building a strong community church through small groups, but starting additional churches as well.
In the years immediately following the collapse of Communist rule in Hungary, a few Baptist churches observed the window of openness to the Gospel and launched bold initiatives. One such church was the Budafok Baptist Church, the largest Baptist church in the capital city region, with a membership of nearly 400. The church leadership recognized that its traditional methods and liturgy would serve as a barrier to reaching the new, emerging culture in the southwest part of the city. They therefore commissioned three families to begin a new, contemporary church focused on the residents of the Rózsakert (Rose Garden) neighborhood in the very heart of their district.2 The church meets in a rented school cafeteria in the midst of a large, multi-apartment housing complex in southwest Budapest. This congregation emphasizes both spiritual andnumerical growth through more than 12 small groups for all ages that meet in church members’ apartments in surrounding neighborhoods throughout the week.
In 1989, the Hungarian Reformed Church planted a church in the midst of the densely populated district of Gazdagrét which houses 22,000 residents. The church met first in an apartment, then in a school, and later in this residential district’s only community center. On Easter Sunday, 2004, the church officially moved into its own building strategically located in the center of Gazdagrét.3 The primary focus of the church is young, working class families living in the immediate neighborhood.
The first year (2003) for the Budaörs church plant was spent developing plans, assimilating a pastor, and worshiping together weekly in both homes and the school building. Since each family was new to the area, contacts came slowly and word-of-mouth invitations proved ineffective. With key outreach projects aimed at students and families in the immediate area, in the summer of the second year (2004), church members managed to make positive, initial contacts with members of the community. As these friendships developed over the course of the following months, the church continued to grow. By the beginning of the third year (2005), the membership reached more than 50.
Continued growth in 2004 - 2005 can be attributed to three major factors. First, the Budaörs Baptist Church is the only evangelical church in this entire suburban community. Though Hungarians are very familiar with Catholic and Reformed churches, the word Baptist is relatively unknown. Those raised Catholic tend to remain Catholic throughout their lives, but the Budaörs Baptist Church is the natural choice for membership and involvement for non-Catholics in the community.
The second factor contributing to the church’s growth in the past two years is its focus on meeting needs in the surrounding neighborhoods. By offering educational services, such as English language camps, small groups for mothers, and recreational opportunities for students through sport camps and film clubs, the church has gained positive rapport with residents. These positive relationships have served to combat some of the negative associations in Hungarian culture with ismeretlenség (being unknown), making assimilation into church life less intimidating.
The third factor explaining the church’s growth is its corporate vision, based on implementation of the Acts 1:8 Plan. The four simultaneous commitments undertaken with this plan include outreach that is local (a healthy church starting a church in the suburb of Budaörs); area-wide (a new church plant in the neighboring community of Törökbálint); regional (planting Baptist churches among the 150,000 Hungarians living in Ukraine); and global (planting healthy churches in Kazakhstan). In fact, the church sent out its first missionary couple after only eight months of existence and provides a considerable portion of the support for these missionaries. The steady focus on obedience to the Great Commission serves not only to energize the church but to keep it from developing an inward-only focus that would stifle growth and expansion. Furthermore, the Acts 1:8 Plan has increased both attendance and giving and has strengthened the overall evangelical mindset in the Budaörs Church.
Through home Bible studies and student outreach projects Rózsakert church leaders discovered that youth between the ages 16 and 22 are very receptive to the Gospel. According to the pastor, six years is the average time span for a non-believing adult to learn the faith, make a decision for Christ, accept believer’s baptism, and become a responsible member of the church, whereas it takes only six weeks (on average) for non-believing students to work through the same process.4 This discovery led the church to place a primary focus on student outreach. As a result, in four years the church membership more than doubled, with more than 50 baptisms.
The first factor contributing to the church’s growth in recent years is what missiologist Donald McGavran has defined as the harvest principle. The goal is “winning the winnable while they may still be won.”5 The church shifted its focus from non-believing adults to students and divorced women living in the area, resulting in dramatic growth. The pastor reported that in the church’s first five years, efforts to win adults and families from non-church backgrounds simply did not succeed.6 But in 1996, leaders of the church’s few student outreach groups decided to take a chance by inviting all its students to attend a worship service. Many students accepted the invitation and shortly thereafter made decisions to follow Christ, were baptized, and joined the church. A similar turn of events occurred among divorced women leading single-parent families. A great number of women who participated in the church’s single-parent support groups eventually took part in an Alpha Course, a small-group Bible study with an evangelistic thrust. This was followed by a brief course on baptism and theological distinctives that led to a large number of women giving their lives to Christ, accepting baptism, and joining the church.
A second major factor in Rózsakert Church growth is its emphasis upon small groups. Pastor Kovacs believes every member “should spend at least the same amount of time in a small group” as in weekly worship.7 This emphasis on small groups not only provides members with a place to grow in the Word; it also allows non-believers to experience Christian fellowship without immediate pressure to make a commitment. Currently, the church hosts more than 12 small groups (based on age categories) in the homes of church members. Paul Cho, describing small groups in his Yoido Full Gospel Church (Seoul, Korea), states that each group leader takes “a prescribed training program,” and this leader in turn chooses an assistant who becomes the group leader when the original group grows large enough to split into two.8 Following Cho’s principle, each group at Rózsakert contains at least two strong, spiritual leaders who are held responsible for spiritual and numerical growth. The pastor meets with these leaders monthly (25 men and women), using this time to further mentor and develop each leader.
One major factor contributing to the growth of Gazdagrét Reformed Church is its focus on one distinct level of society and its utilization of Donald McGavran’s “homogenous unit principle.”9 The distinct segment of Budapest society in this case is young, lower-middle class families and poorer families approaching middle class status. Since the needs of these families are relatively similar, the church has developed an approach specifically addressing the concerns of Gazdagrét residents in these ranks. As the church employs the homogenous unit principle, members develop relationships with residents and share the Gospel. As a result, they have seen neighbors become Christians without crossing social, racial, linguistic, or class barriers. In turn, new converts tend to join the church, become active members, and invite other young families in their network to do the same.
A second key factor at Gazdagrét is the focus on building true community among believers. In the larger cities of Europe finding a sense of community is difficult, particularly in societies with a low degree of trust. By offering a safe, easily accessible venue through home groups, worship services, and family events, the church helps families connect with others and grow in faith. Thus, the church is positioned for growth through the relationships church members form with other residents of the community.
The churches described above have each capitalized upon common sociological and spiritual realities found in urban centers in Central and Eastern Europe. Recognizing the need for fellowship with members of their own culture, each church has placed relationships and the importance of small group discipleship as key tenets of their methodology. Recognizing the need to mobilize laity, church leaders have stressed the importance of training and mentoring for their congregations.F
1 Interview with Pastor Dúrkó István, Budaörs Baptist Church, 17 August 2005.
2 Interview with Pastor Kovács Géza, Rózsakert Baptist Church, 17 August 2005.
3 Interview with Pastor Lovás András, Gazdagrét Reformed Church, 18 August 2005.
4 Kovacs interview with author, 17 August 2005.
5 Donald McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1990), 188.
6 Kovacs interview with author, 17 August 2005.7 Ibid.
8 Paul Y. Cho, More Than Numbers (Waco, Texas: Word, 1984), 148-49.
9 McGavran, Understanding Church Growth, 167.
Mark Aderholt is strategy associate, Central Europe Field, International Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention, based in Budapest, Hungary.