An Historic Outreach in Vienna

By Bill Sundstrom
historic-outreach-cathedral-vienna-465x280.jpg During the Celebration of Hope, ribbons crisscrossed the cathedral, symbolising that we are one in Christ. Photo by Bill Sundstrom

Outside St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna, EuroCup 2008 fans draped in flags and funny hats talked eagerly about the next day’s championship match. Inside the cathedral, however, fan fever showed a different face. Followers of Jesus were holding a “Celebration of Hope,” led off by teenagers carrying flags from each country playing for the Cup. They staged a mock battle called "Winners and Losers,” and one by one the countries fell, until only Germany and Spain were left standing, glaring at each other.

Suddenly two men carrying a great wooden cross climbed to the stage. As they set it up, both Germany and Spain fell before it. Everyone arose and embraced at the foot of the cross. The message, as pointed out in the program: “We all come to the Cross as losers, but through the Resurrection we become winners.”

This drama captured the spirit of the evangelistic outreach at the EuroCup. Believers from across the spectrum of Christianity worked together to take the gospel to the tens of thousands of fans cruising the streets of Vienna.

These believers came together under the banner of “Christen am Ball,” an organisation formed for the occasion. Outreach included personal evangelism, concerts, drama, children's events and “Public Viewings” where people could gather to watch the game and talk about Christ. Street evangelists passed out 30,000 whistles (football fans like making noise) and 70,000 newspapers with testimonies of Christian footballers. And an Athletes in Action team from Northern Ireland held clinics and played local teams.

AIA played a significant role in organising the outreach. Wolfgang Sutter, director of AIA Austria, travelled throughout the country mobilising churches to do Public Viewings, as well as training them to talk with non-believers about Christ. Some 120 churches held these outreaches. “This was a special time,” says Wolfgang, “for the church began to understand the concept of evangelism through sports.”

Back in Vienna, some 240 people from nearly a dozen countries and several Christian groups went out to talk to people on the streets. "I have been impressed by the openness of people to the gospel," said Bruce Clewitt, director of YWAM Austria, as he spoke to people doing personal evangelism. A band of 60 Polish hooligans, for example, came to Vienna to cause trouble . . . but God had other plans. The leader met one of the evangelistic teams and gave his life to Christ.

Initial plans for the outreach included a platform in the "Fan Mile" and a huge open-air rally to close the week. Though permission was initially given, security concerns led police to revoke permission at the last minute, causing Wolfgang and other organisers to trust God as they scrambled to find new venues.

United by the Cross

This city-wide outreach has its roots in relationships built between individual leaders of churches and Christian organisations in Vienna. For more than a decade, believers from Free Churches, historic Protestant churches, and the Catholic church have met in a monthly “Round Table.” Theological differences are not glossed over, according to Clewitt, but rather discussed openly. So are points of agreement.

"We can come together in the Cross," explains Dietrich Fisher-Dörl, leader of the Baptist Youth of Austria. “That is what unifies us."

This city-wide outreach has its roots in relationships built between individual leaders of churches and Christian organisations in Vienna. For more than a decade, believers from Free Churches, historic Protestant churches, and the Catholic church have met in a monthly “Round Table.” Theological differences are not glossed over, according to Clewitt, but rather discussed openly. So are points of agreement.

"We can come together in the Cross," explains Dietrich Fisher-Dörl, leader of the Baptist Youth of Austria. “That is what unifies us."

Coming together in the Cross and honestly discussing differences has given these brothers in Christ a deep trust in each other. As a result, the Viennese churches they represent were willing to step out in faith and do evangelism together—though not without some hesitation. Joint services had been held before, but never an actual evangelistic outreach. Agreements had to be worked out on such issues as where a new believer would go to church.

Nor did everybody agree with the concept of working together. "In all the main groups – Catholic, Lutheran, Free Church—there are people against this cooperation," says Walter Bösch, a free-church pastor and leader in Christen am Ball. "But we made a theological foundation we can agree on, and we agreed not to fight each other.”

"John 17 says that the world will believe if the disciples have unity," says Wolfgang. "It really is a scandal if Christians don't work together, especially in Western Europe.” The churches are like islands in the sea of unbelievers. The islands must have contact with each other, and work together to make an impact."

"We wanted to bring the name of Jesus Christ to the city," explains Bösch, "not as a church, but as Christians who love Jesus. We want to tell the nation we are here, we have a message, and we invite you to join."

Spiritual Life in Vienna

This is a message the nation needs to hear. "Vienna is less than 50 percent Christian," says Fr. Michael Scharf, head of pastoral care in the diocese of Vienna. "This includes nominal Catholics. Perhaps only 3 percent are believers. But the spiritual climate is changing."

Scharf goes on to explain that in the 1970s and 1980s, a whole generation of Austrians decided not to believe in God. They completely rejected spiritual things. But now the children of that generation have grown up, and they know nothing of Jesus Christ. "People today know so little about faith," says Scharf, "that they listen to us. This does not mean they are ready to give their lives to Jesus, but they find it interesting."

And many people in Vienna noticed that Christians were speaking up. "When the papers realised the police had prohibited Christians from doing outreach [in the Fan Mile]," said Bösch, "they felt sorrow, for they found what we were doing to be very good."

The final celebration in the cathedral was televised, but no camera could capture the spirit of the moment. Chairs sprawled in all directions, and though some were empty, most were filled with followers of Jesus. Tourists crowded around the edges. Praise songs such as "How Great is our God" echoed among the Gothic arches high above.

"What a historic moment!" was the thought on many minds. Never before had believers from such a broad spectrum of Christianity worked together to present the gospel. "It is not always easy to do this type of thing together," says Michael Scharf, "but it is possible. This is something we can share with Europe."