In many European countries, the number of those who identify themselves as Christians is dwindling. The number of those who actually attend church services and have an active Christian life is even less. With atheism and agnosticism on the rise, those who are Christian often feel very alone. This can be especially true for younger generations. The country of Hungary is perhaps a bit of an exception. Quite a large portion of the country still identifies itself as Christian as of the 2001 census. However, of that group, only 3% are Lutherans (CIA Factbook for Hungary) and the census does not measure how many are active Christians versus nominal Christians. Approximately 25% of the population is something other than Christian, either a non-Christian religion or non-religious. Being so greatly outnumbered, Christians, Lutheran parishioners, and specifically young Christians, often feel lonely and as if they have no support from fellow Christians. Into this void came The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) Globally Engaged in Outreach (GEO) Missionaries Melissa Karges and Sarah Berta-Somogyi.
Melissa and Sarah serve in two different Lutheran High Schools in Hungary. Melissa serves at Berzsenyi Dániel Evangélikus Liceum és Gimnázium in Sopron, Hungary, where she teaches English conversation classes, develops relationships and helps organize the chapel times for the students. Sarah serves at Péterfy Sándor Lutheran School in Győr. Melissa and Sarah noticed a need for their students who were Christians to have more contact with other Christians. As Melissa says,
The retreats started as a seed planted in my heart during the summer of 2012. There had just been an English camp in my city hosted by Concordia University, Irvine. It was a chance for me to reconnect with a lot of students from other schools. In talking with them, and in conversations I’d had with my own students, a common thread seemed to be emerging, in that, most Christians had a significant lack of support in their lives. I really wanted to find a way to connect all of these kids, and God put this idea on my heart and sort of shaped the plan from there. I wanted these youth to be able to interact with one another to see that they weren’t alone in their faith and to help create a support system for encouraging one another to grow in faith.
Sarah adds that “Melissa and I saw that there was a need for our Christian students to be put into fellowship with each other and grow as Christians, as many times they don’t have any other friends who are really Christian (in name only, yes, in practice, not so much). So, we decided to get them together and the retreat was born.”
Sarah and Melissa offered the first retreat in March of 2013. Students from three high schools in Hungary were able to attend that retreat. The two have also put together other informal times for the students to connect, such as their recent game night.
The retreat was held once again in Révfülöp, Hungary on November 15–17, 2013. There is a very nice Lutheran conference center there called Ordass Lajos Evangélikus Oktatási Központ. Melissa notes that the “town is situated on Lake Balaton, which is an extremely popular destination for Hungarians. Everyone likes to go there and it’s the perfect environment for ‘retreating.’ It’s not a very big town, and as it’s more of a ‘summer town,’ there isn’t much to do at this time of year. However, there was some free time to go out and walk around, and we all went down to the lake shore together for a while.”
Sarah describes an overview of the weekend this way: “We tried to build a schedule so that the students learned a lot but also had time to hang out. We had four main sessions, one on Friday evening discussing the character of God, and three on Saturday: one about our lives with and without Jesus, one about the fruits of the Spirit, and one about how to apply this knowledge (especially the fruits of the Spirit) to our lives as Christian people. We also had ice-breaker games, s’mores, worship time, and prayer time.” Melissa noted that the ice-breakers were a great way to get things started as not all of the students knew each other. They then broke into two smaller groups so that they could get to know each other even more closely. Thirteen students attended the retreat, so the two smaller groups were of good sizes. Melissa also led some times of worship where the students could sing and read Scripture. They also partnered up to pray for each other. Melissa says of that particular activity that “they really seemed to like that activity as we got a lot of positive feedback about it afterward.” Free time was also offered where students could share their favorite music with one another, watch videos, share stories, play games and talk together.
The formal sessions were built around a theme. The verse was 2 Corinthians 5:14–15: “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised” (ESV). Melissa explains that the idea for the theme verse
came from a talk I had with one of my students (who was in attendance) about not always knowing the right thing to do. My mind immediately went to the idea of the Holy Spirit working in us and acting as our Helper in making these things clear and helping us to do the right thing. Of course, in asking the question of what should we do in our lives, we must first ask what our lives are all about. 2 Corinthians explains exactly that: we no longer live for ourselves but for him who died for us and was raised again.
She further explains
In trying to answer those two questions, we started from the beginning, talking about the kind of God we have and our broken relationship with Him that has been repaired through Christ. We talked about what it means to live for Christ and not for ourselves and then spent a lot of time talking about the Holy Spirit and His fruits. This was a new idea for nearly everyone, so it was great to see them making connections.
The theme verse and times to study the Bible were important because it is not a common practice in Hungary for Christians to read and study the Word on their own. Melissa hopes that the modeling of how to do this will translate into the daily lives of the students.
Sarah says that she has already seen some of the results of the weekend coming to fruition in some of her students. She explains that each student received a notebook decorated with their names so that they could take notes about the theme verse and the Bible studies, do some prayer journaling, and more. Sarah has noticed that “the students use them still to write down ideas about faith and their relationship with God…some of them even bring them to school!” Furthermore, Sarah has seen the students who were at the retreat respond more to the Bible Study she leads once a week at her school. She says,
some students who were at the retreat also come to a once a week Bible study that I lead, and it’s been neat to see them contributing more and more to the study, asking good questions, coming to good conclusions, and being more bold in prayer. This year, we had six students attend from the same class at my school (one of the 8th grade classes). That was partly because one girl in that class has been witnessing tirelessly to her friends. I pray for more students to come to future retreats and Bible studies and to come to know Jesus, especially as these students reach out with the Gospel message.
For Melissa, two of her students confided in her what the retreat has prompted in them:
One of my students said after the weekend he is re-contemplating the idea of studying theology next year and becoming a pastor. He’s wanted to do the same thing since I’ve known him, so the event must have had a big impact on him. One of the girls told me that she feels better equipped to make decisions in her life because she can more easily recognize right and wrong by looking for “fruits of the Spirit” within a situation.
Melissa and Sarah plan to make the event an annual one if possible. They will also likely invite students from the third school once again. This year, students from Evangélikus Gimnázium Aszód were not able to participate, although some did attend the March 2013 retreat. There is not a teacher from the LCMS there currently. Additionally, Sarah and Melissa hope to plan an international retreat for this coming March 2014 with other GEO’s from the Eurasia Region (LCMS Eurasias also has GEO’s in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany).
One of the things that makes these retreats a success is the work Sarah and Melissa do to prepare, as well as the way they work together. Melissa says of Sarah, “Sarah speaks Hungarian really well. This was great, for one, because she could take care of making the arrangements with the place hosting us. I think this also has a positive effect with the students because when they don’t feel they can express themselves in English, they feel comfortable to talk to her in their native language.” Sarah says that
I think Melissa is less cautious than I am, which is a great thing. She will jump headlong into an important discussion that it would probably take me some time to start, and the kids really respond to her. She is bubbly and outgoing and really cares about our students. We work very well together and play off of each other when we present, when we discuss…it’s made me more and more sure what an awesome thing God did when He put us here to serve in the same area. And although we both sing quite well, she also keeps me on key.
Melissa adds that they work really well together because “we’ve both had the same theological training, and it’s like we can read the other person’s thoughts. If I forget something, she adds it and vice versa. We enhance each other very well in this way.” Melissa and Sarah are a wonderful example of the body of Christ working together to proclaim the Gospel to others. Through their gifts and talents, they are able to reach out to students who are not Christians (or are nominal Christians), as well as strengthen the faith of their Christian students by continuing to encourage, teach, and connect them with a support base.