When we meet someone new, one of the first questions we are asked is why we are in Austria. And naturally, after we explain our role with the "free church" and our hopes of starting new churches in Vienna, the question follows: What are some of the differences between what you believe and the Catholic church beliefs?
Austria is a predominantly Catholic country, so when many Austrians hear the word "church", they think of a well-established institution with large cathedrals and a long-standing history. When we say Nate went to school to be a pastor, they often think of the priestly role of the Catholic church. So it has been important for us to learn to articulate what makes us different.
In explaining these differences, though, there is a fine line we walk. On the one hand, we have met Catholic Christians here who have a deep, abiding faith in Christ, and we believe God is working in the Catholic church. However, we also hear over and over again about the barriers that exist today to hearing and understanding the gospel in the Catholic church in Austria. We constantly struggle with wanting to separate ourselves from the Catholic church and some of the negative associations we have heard, while also affirming the positives.
Two stories highlight this well. First story: There is a new believer attending our church who also just joined our bible study. She has a wonderful heart, and we are enjoying getting to know her. I had the chance to talk with her after church last Sunday and hear a bit more of her story. She shared about how she grew up in the Catholic church and used to participate in prayer groups as a teenager. However, it wasn't until recently that she heard the gospel message from a co-worker and heard the concept of a "personal relationship" with God - one that goes deeper than church tradition and prayer. She also shared that she was never encouraged to read or study the Bible on her own and this is the first time in her life that she has begun to do that. Despite many years in the church, she is on a brand new journey.
Second story: During our mid-morning break at language school last week, a Polish classmate asked us about the difference between our beliefs and those of the Catholic church. Coming from another predominantly-Catholic country, this was an important distinction for her to understand. Although she does not share a belief in God (as far as we know), two things we shared resonated with her: the idea of going directly to God in prayer and in relationship, as opposed to through a priest, and making a faith decision for yourself, apart from tradition. She listened as we also talked about the importance of scripture and understanding the meaning behind God's words in the Bible.
So what's the difference? There are distinctions between the evangelical church here and the Catholic church. Important ones. But we want to speak to those carefully as we encounter Austrians from a variety of church backgrounds and experiences, while also affirming where and how God is working in the church in Austria today. Please pray for us - for wisdom as we navigate these waters, especially in a new language, and for sensitivity as we invite people into a deeper relationship with God.