PLZEN, Czech Republic—Larry and Melissa Lewis were three steps ahead of most International Mission Board missionaries when they set foot in Plzen, Czech Republic, embarking on a new ministry.
The couple already had a deep love for the people thanks to Larry’s Czech ancestors, Texas immigrants who kept many traditions and the language from their homeland after moving to America in the 1850s. The Lewises also had experience planting churches in Pennsylvania with the North American Mission Board.
Larry’s mom, Shirley, attempted to teach her son the Czech language as a child. She and her husband Harry provided a mission-minded foundation that encouraged Larry’s openness to further ministry. After graduating from Texas A&M, Larry pursued theological training at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
When First Baptist Church of Forney handed the Texas missionaries a list of contacts they had developed through repeated visits to Plzen, the couple naturally jumped feet first into planting the gospel. Within a month of their arrival in their new city, they held an English camp and started a Bible study—something unheard of in this country made up mostly of atheists.
“Through the relationships Forney already had, we were able to have an English camp about a month after we moved to Plzen,” Larry said. “There was not an IMB missionary in the western Czech Republic at that time. Forney made repeat visits to this city. Through this, they built many relationships with teachers, students, administration and others in the city.”
“They literally gave us a jump start to ministry,” Larry added.
First Baptist has served as something the IMB has called a virtual strategy coordinator in this city of 160,000 for the past four years. Many Southern Baptist churches across the United States have embraced this volunteer role that accepts the responsibility of reaching a people group or city for Jesus Christ where the IMB has no personnel.
“It’s the second most atheistic country in the world,” stated Jimmy Pritchard, pastor of the Forney congregation, who made 10 trips to Plzen in three years. “It’s a rough, hard place, but we’re going to launch a church there.”
The Forney church worked to make inroads in a community where it knew no one, sending numerous members several times. Scott Lyle, leadership and missions pastor, said the church quickly found that one of the best ways to get involved was to host English camps.
“Many students were interested in learning more about Americans and have the experience of conversational English,” Lyle said. “I believe one of the keys of our relationships in Plzen was consistency. We continue to go back so they know that we care about them and did not just come for one trip.”
Some students keep in touch with him and other church members via e-mail and Facebook throughout the year.
As conversations slowly opened to God and the gospel, the Texas church realized they needed to take this ministry one step further by starting a Bible study that met each week, not just a few times a year.
“One of our challenges being a virtual team was with follow-up,” Lyle said. “What would we do with people who were seeking when we could not be there to meet with them regularly? Our prayer was for God to provide someone we could work with full-time who would be there in Plzen to continue the work.”
As members of First Baptist Church of Forney prayed about a partner, the Lewises were finishing language school in Prague and seeking a strategic city in which to live.
“Our partnership with FBC Forney was completely a God thing,” Larry explained. “We were not seeking each other, but God brought us to the same place at the same time. They have come here with their hearts open to where God is leading. Czechs love them and often ask when they are coming back.”
Lyle said the church knew the Lewises were a perfect match for a ministry partnership the first time they met. First Baptist immediately adopted the missionary family. Now, they work side-by-side to meet the needs of the people of Plzen.
“I knew right away that we were going to be in this for the long haul with the Lewises,” Lyle said. “It was as if our church played a small role in helping them get started and perhaps shaved a couple of years off the time it would take for them to get to the same point.”
To Larry, this approach with First Baptist of Forney has been irreplaceable. Because of the church’s professional-level English camps and years of previous work, doors have opened for the Lewises to work in the schools and interact with other professionals in their community. Larry explained that these relationships helped build trust in a country where trust means everything.
The Texas missionary said a lack of trust among Czechs in general stems from their communist background, as well as their 400-year history under someone else’s rule.
“The importance of taking the time to build relationships cannot be overstated when talking about the Czech people,” Larry emphasized. He and Melissa teach English clubs and archery, host an English coffee house, and help with an American football club in an effort to build these relationships.
“Because of their skepticism, it is necessary to build relationships before they will trust you,” Larry added. “The majority of Czechs do not see value in organized religion and do not trust the church as an organization.”
Sharing the gospel is a slow process in this city. Most people think of Jesus as the person who brings presents at Christmas. Few believe that God exists and loves them. While it takes time to establish this concept, when the Czechs take hold of the idea they latch on to it and hold it dear to their hearts—just like the friendships they’ve forged with FBC and the Lewises.
The overseas effort in Plzen is just one element of an Acts 1:8 model for ministry, according to Pritchard. With numerous local ministries, additional international and stateside mission trips, the church eventually hopes to connect with all major affinity groups.
Giving regularly through the Cooperative Program remains a central part of the church’s missions strategy.
“I think you can do both,” Pritchard said, describing the advantages of using the traditional Southern Baptist missions funding mechanism as well as being involved directly.
“I don’t think it’s either-or. For us it’s not. We’re going to continue our support because we believe in the ministry of the Cooperative Program and want to stay strong with that and try not to spend as much on ourselves.”
The Lewises encourage other churches to be virtual strategy coordinators and partner with missionaries to reach cities throughout the world. Lyle couldn’t agree more.
“When we started, all we had was a hotel reservation,” Lyle said. “Three years later, we are seeing groups meeting regularly to study the Bible and talk about God. The plans are to reach more and grow disciples that will then go out and reach even more. We are able to be a part of this thanks to our partnership. This to me is the perfect model to build a strong bond between church and the field.”