Effective Sports Camps in Vienna

By Bill Sundstrom
agape-vienna-aia-465x280.jpg "When AIA plays a new team, players like Gerhard Wagner and David Brandstadter (left, centre, share their testimonies and explain the gospel," says Wolfgang Sutter, director of AIA Austria (right). "But with teams who know them, they concentrate on building relationships." Photo by Bill Sundstom

"How did you come to Christ?" I asked Fabian, the lanky teenager who met me at the Vienna train station.

"At an Athletes in Action sports camp, when I was 12 or 13 years old," he replied. "I grew up in a Christian home, but the sports camp made it all real."

Such stories have been repeated over and over during the last 12 years, since Wolfgang Sutter began leading sports camps for Austrian youth. In the beginning, Wolfgang could hold only one or two camps a summer, but God has blessed to such a degree that AIA now holds about 10 a year, including winter sports camps.

Usually each camp has two groups of people – one group are believers and the other group has no contact with Christianity.”We try to attract people far from God,” says Martin Rychli, a Christian-school sports teacher who wears a blue WWJD bracelet. “The aim is for them to take steps toward God, and give their lives to Jesus.”

These camps, consisting of anywhere from 30 to 120 teenagers, include plenty of time for playing sports and improving skills, but they also provide an opportunity for leaders and Christian teens to build deep relationships with non-Christian teens. By the end of the week, the group has become like a big family. Non-believers look to the leader, think, “He’s cool, and he’s good at sports.” They become more open and begin wondering, “What is this Christian thing he is talking about?”

The week concludes with an evening of worship and testimony, with soft music and candles. “We are very direct,” says Martin, who has led several camps over the years. “We tell them there are two ways in life. The way to God, and other one. They must choose.” The leader shares his testimony, explains the gospel and invites youth to come to a “Praying Station” if they want to talk. At each station, a counsellor is ready to lead them to Jesus.

Bruce Clewitt, director of Youth With a Mission Austria, believes that these camps are one of the most effective means of bringing young Austrians to Christ. As he puts it, "We're always running across young people who gave their lives to Christ during these Sport-Camps."

Renewing the Mind

“We are in a spiritual and cultural crisis in Europe,” declares Kurt Igler, director of the Renovatio Institute in Vienna. “Christians should take leadership and try to influence the public.”

Kurt, who joined Agape last year, spent many years in youth ministry and church planting. During that time, God gave him a dream of founding an institute that would help bring the Christian world view into society, beginning with the university. He shared his dream with Peter Heinz, national director of Agape Austria, who encouraged him to join Agape and launch such an institute as a part of an effort to reach universities in Vienna.

The Renovatio Institute opened its doors last January. The Institute, whose name implies “Renewal of the Mind,” is located just a couple of blocks from the University of Vienna and seeks to influence both professors and students. “We help people analyse world views,” says Kurt, “and we help non-believers see that the Christian world view is a rational way to think.”

One way that Kurt influences leaders is through membership in the Old Order of St. George, an exclusive society composed of army officers, senior officials, lawyers and members of the old Austrian nobility. After 9-11, he wrote an article for the newspaper explaining that what Austria needs is a change in world view. A few days later he received a call from a count, who wanted to talk further. Eventually this led to an invitation to join the Order, in order to more widely promote his views on the need to bring Christ back into public discourse.

Through the Institute, Kurt hopes to influence professors and academics. A weekly discussion group draws both students and professors, and Kurt hopes to begin small groups with Christian professors. Their first major outreach took place in June, when prominent chemist Henry Schaefer was invited to give a lecture. The head of the chemistry department offered the invitation, but when university leaders found out that Schaefer promotes Intelligent Design, they revoked permission for the lecture. Instead, it was held in a nearby church, with about 60 in attendance.

In time, Kurt would like to see the Institute become a “home base” for a traditional university ministry. “We need fulltime staff to go to the university and do evangelism and discipleship,” he says. “This is the missing piece of the puzzle.”