PRAGUE, Czech Republic (Sept. 6, 2018) – The Rev. Mark Hicks decided to live and work in Prague before he ever saw the city. He just knew it was the right thing to do.
After traveling to the Czech Republic for the first time in July, Hicks was even more convinced God is calling him to pastor the English-Speaking United Methodist Church in Prague.
“I didn’t know it, but it’s been a long time coming,” says Hicks, who will move with his wife, Heather Hicks, to Prague in December. This week (Sept. 5-18), the couple is on their second trip to Prague, planning for their future ministry.
“The stage is set in so many ways,” Hicks said. “A lot of seeds have been sown, and now maybe it’s time for harvest.”
Hicks is the third pastor from Holston Conference to lead the Prague church since its launch in 2011. Nestled in an European city with cobblestone streets and ancient architecture, the English-speaking church recently welcomed its first seven members.
“That took us seven years to get those seven new members,” says Hicks, who used Skype to lead the church’s membership class from the U.S. “It’s a very slow, painstaking ministry.”
Yet worship attendance remains solid at about 25 in the summer, swelling to as many as 40 during colder months. Thanks to the infrastructure- and relationship-building contributed by Hicks’ predecessors, the congregation is preparing to do its part to bring Jesus to a nation known for a high percentage of atheists.
“When you think about it, a typical congregation in the Czech has about 15 people,” said the Rev. Tom Hancock, chair of Holston’s Mission Ministry Team. Church leaders and mission teams have worked on developing a sanctuary and offering consistent worship for English speakers in Prague, attracting a committed core.
"They’ve opened up a great opportunity not only for the current believers but for others in an area that is highly atheistic,” Hancock said.
The road will be difficult for Hicks, just as it was for his predecessors, says the Rev. Petr Prochazka, district superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Czech Republic.
“Mark and Heather have to get used to another culture and a different lifestyle. If they want to preach to people living in Europe, they have to live the same way they do,” says Prochazka. “It is not easy.”
The Rev. John Redmond remembers the moment he knew, during a cross-country telephone conversation, that Hicks was going to be the next pastor for the English-speaking church.
“My heart was thumping in my chest and I was literally sweating,” he says.
Redmond has pastored the Prague church since 2014, following the first pastor, the Rev. Michelle McKinnon-Young. Hicks contacted Redmond earlier this year to offer support from his congregation, State Street United Methodist Church, where Hicks currently serves as associate pastor in Bristol, Virginia.
Early in his appointment, Redmond realized a person with gifts in teaching and discipleship was needed to lead the congregation to the next level. After serving three years in Prague with his wife, Denise, and their two small children, Redmond began searching for the next pastor.
“Our church is young, and we are getting new people all the time,” Redmond said. “Being able to have a person who can answer or know how to get answers to tough questions was important to me.”
Redmond felt Hicks had the education and experience to fit the congregation’s needs. “Most people want to take a mission trip over here for the fun and to see the city, but he was willing to teach online classes to help us out,” Redmond said. “There was a genuineness that came across over the phone.”
Hicks said he feels called to advance a ministry that’s different, and in some ways more challenging, than other missions. He has a doctorate in ministry from Asbury Theological Seminary and 19 years experience in serving United Methodist congregations and missions.
“We’re not building hospitals or digging wells or supplying school supplies,” he said. “The economy there is fine. Their health care is fine. There’s a poverty there but it’s not the kind of poverty we’re used to. Their poverty is spiritual. They don’t know Jesus.“
The Methodist Church has existed in what is now the Czech Republic since 1920, but Christianity took a hit when the country fell under an atheistic Soviet rule in 1948. The communist government failed in 1989, and the nation is still trying to recover from an era of repression, Hicks said.
“It’s the only place I’ve been that is a purely evangelistic mission,” Hicks said.
Today, the Czech Republic has a population of 10.6 million. Seventeen clergy are serving about 900 professing United Methodists in 25 congregations, including five in Prague.
A 2017 Pew Research Center study showed that about seven in 10 Czechs (72 percent) do not identify with a religious group. There is much work to be done, Prochazka said.
“The new pastor needs to feel support from his superiors and friends from the U.S.,” he said.
The English-Speaking United Methodist Church is fruit of a mission partnership started in 2005 by Holston Conference’s former Johnson City District (currently the Three Rivers District). In 2016, the Holston Annual Conference embraced the mission as its own.
Prochazka said he worked with the Rev. Randy Frye, former Johnson City District superintendent, to start a congregation primarily for English-speakers. The city is known for hosting a high number of internationals and tourists in its population of 1.3 million.
A year after its start, Prochazka and the first pastor, McKinnon-Young, were pleased to see the church attracted as many Czech natives as English-speakers. Attracted by the opportunity to learn English and to grow in their faith, “they wanted to be in fellowship with other Christians,” McKinnon-Young told the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in 2012.
This summer, the church included worshippers from the U.S., South Africa, Costa Rica, Nigeria, England, Slovakia, Finland, Nicaragua, and the Philippines. Some were visitors but many were residents.
“I’m looking at this church, and it’s like Pentecost -- people from all over the world coming together to worship,” said Michael Feely, a Holston Conference native who spoke at the church during Redmond’s summer vacation in the U.S.
Armed with lessons learned from previous pastors, Mark and Heather Hicks are planning new outreach programs including sports camps and concerts. They’re also learning the Czech language with an instructor focused on church and faith words that might not come up in other programs.
“Knowing the spiritual language is important in my kind of work,” Hicks said. “I need to be able to share words like ‘Holy Spirit,’ for example. The Czechs know their language is difficult, so they value someone coming in and taking the extra effort.”
Holston mission leaders hope to increase support for evangelism in Prague, where others have labored to bring the church to this point. This week, Hancock is in Prague with Mark and Heather Hicks to prepare for their relocation and also, to review Holston’s partnership with Prochazka and the United Methodist Church in the Czech Republic.
“Other mission areas [in Holston] have funds to meet immediate and emergency needs,” Hancock said, “but being a new mission opportunity, there are few resources and funds available. We need to broaden our base of support.”
Coming soon: Prague worshippers explain their faith connection
Contact Annette Spence at firstname.lastname@example.org
Send donations through the Three Rivers District (online) or make checks to "Johnson City District UMC" (write "Czech Republic missions" on memo line) and mail to: Three Rivers District, 100 Mary Street, Johnson City, TN 37615.
Another option, for Holston Conference members, is to write a check to your local church with “#716 English Speaking UMC - Prague” on the memo line.
Prague church reaches out to nation thirsty for Jesus (The Call, 3.1.18)
Prague church: Evangelism through the back door (GBGM, March 2012)
(1) The Rev. John Redmond, wife Denise, children Ada and Eli. (2) Greeting worshippers on Sunday morning. (3) Sunday worship. (4-5) Fellowship time before and after worship.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.