Hope In Hungary

The casino’s 200 slot machines and 30 table games are running at full throttle as UWM’s John and Zsofi Wilson pass the spacious gaming room. Almost every type of person from the city of Györ, Hungary, is represented, sharing the same hope of getting richer.  But John and Zsofi move past and into the restaurant where engineers and executives from Audi’s local manufacturing plant have gathered. They are the brains behind Audi’s TT sports car and A3 limousine. Tonight they have not come to improve their gambling or engineering skills. The discussion begins:  Who is Jesus?

John’s first reaction to this new ministry is negative. Firstly, the program, called ‘Alpha’ is too direct. No soft opening to the first week’s question, “Who is Jesus?” or the next week’s, “Why did Jesus die?”  The evenings also include worship, a poor choice in an event for non-believers. “We’re going to run these people out of here,” he thinks. And the fact that the 12-week introduction to Christianity is used by such a variety of Christian denominations and groups also makes him skeptical.

But as the the weeks unfold, so does the program’s impact. Later, he travels to London, where Alpha International began 40 years ago, and learns why the method works. In his prayer journal he writes, God, if you want me to be part of Alpha, I will.”

God confirmed this calling, and today, John serves as Deputy Director for Alpha Hungary. Together with National Director János Rátkay, a Hungarian businessman and former atheist, they overhauled and restructured what was a floundering ministry into a flourishing and fruitful one.

The vision of United World Mission is to see a flourishing church, led by well-equipped local leaders, serving every city and neighborhood of the world. John and Zsofi Wilson are embodying just that in Budapest, Hungary.

In the last year, 143 Alpha groups met in this Eastern European nation, hosted in churches, homes or local venues. The program’s emphasis on hospitality and connection means food begins every discussion and a weekend retreat is planned at the six-week point. John says, “Although Alpha is designed for those outside the church, it serves as cultural yeast in the church.” The presence of the program influences the whole congregation to orient outwardly, becoming more relevant and missional to those outside its doors. Anyone in the church can participate, through set up, food preparation, prayer, or table helpers.

But it is ministries like these that are also most vulnerable to the impacts of Covid-19. Churches worldwide closed their doors and evangelistic programs shut down.

Hungary reported its first case of coronavirus on March 4, followed soon by national lockdown. Unable to live out the hospitality so vital to the program’s ethos, many groups stopped. John began to imagine a sabbatical in the weeks ahead, reading books and getting around to house projects.

But some groups wanted to meet. So John and János Rátkay surveyed about 50 churches. What they heard sent them in radically new direction.

John says, “It was like going back to the start-up phase of a company. The next weeks involved retooling ministry to be run online and furiously developing training for local churches, the majority of which had no previous experience or equipment to engage people virtually.” John and János explored platforms for watching videos together and having small group discussions, then provided a wave of training webinars and calls.

God’s invitation to John to reimagine ministry years ago in a casino with Audi executives has resurfaced as an invitation to design Zoom meeting for strangers, some of whom would never have come in person.

John’s wife, Zsofi, says the word she has heard many times in prayer since the coronavirus began is “opportunity.”  As a homeschooling mother of four, the pandemic has opened doors for her. For the first time, she can join meetings from home. Another young mother has joined an online evening class, something she was not able to do in person. Zsofi says, “This is a time of opportunity, for me personally to speak into people’s lives, but also for the church.”

“Part of our hope in training churches is to cast a vision,” says John. “There has been tremendous fear, now desperation. But God wants to give hope. How can the church provide this hope?”  If it is up to John and János, one way the Hungarian church can provide hope is by showing up online for a locked-down society.

The pandemic has changed the context for every UWM missionary, but not the commission. What’s amazing today is not the newest suite of obstacles, courtesy of Covid. It’s the resilient and imaginative faith of God’s people in the UWM family worldwide.

Jesus himself is the model, crossing the boundaries of time and space to be incarnated as a human child. So missionaries are crossing the boundaries of disease and social distance to be incarnationally present in whatever context God calls them. If the house church movements in China or the former underground church in Eastern Europe is any indication, a church with equipped leaders can survive and even flourish in the face of tremendous limitations.

In John and Zsofi’s world, to close a church door is to launch a Zoom meeting.