Spiritual groups gain in popularity

Prague, Czechoslovakia - At a Sunday night gathering of Christian Associates International, the mood is comfortably laissez-faire. Denim-clad parishioners sip beer and mulled wine as they lounge around cramped wooden tables in a Prague 1 pub. Children dart out from behind chairs, chasing each other through the crowded room.

Above it all, speaker Alexandr Flek’s sermon is more conversational than authoritative, as he compares the evening’s hodgepodge congregation to the shepherds and magi who visited the infant Jesus.

“Most of us are not from the same town or country,” he says. “Some of us are Christians; others choose not to think of themselves that way. Each one of us has a different walk or a different journey. What we’re trying to do here should be just one opportunity to perceive how God is working in the lives of others around us.”

While this is the organization’s first large-scale event in Prague (as opposed to smaller Bible studies), Christian Associates International is just one of several close-knit, alternative religious groups gaining popularity among natives and expats alike. Though this may surprise those familiar with the Czech Republic’s atheist reputation, experts say a trend toward small religious organizations — as opposed to powerful institutions such as Catholicism — has intensified over the past decade.

“Probably as a consequence of Czech history, most are extremely suspicious of social institutions, especially religious ones,” says Zdeněk Vojtíšek, professor of religious studies at Charles University. “Most Czech citizens build up their own independent attitudes to religious matters. … Small, new and alternative religious groups seem to possess better resources to overcome this common dislike.

”According to Christian Associates International team leader Craig Springer, his organization has received an enthusiastic response from the public, many of whom are eager to explore the Bible from a spiritual, practical and literary standpoint. The organization operates in 25 cities throughout Europe, and Springer helped found the Prague congregation in December 2006. The group currently has about 50 members, and meetings are held weekly, usually conducted in both Czech and English and often in the comfort of an organizer’s flat. The appeal of this format is that it fosters a sense of community that’s conducive to religious discussion and social networking, he says.

Religious networking

“Honestly, the level of spiritual curiosity and openness among most people I’ve met has been amazing,” says Springer, a Chicago-area native. “Here in Prague, it isn’t a cultural habit to go to church on Sundays, and certainly not weekly. For many natives, that mentality is foreign, boring and a burden. So we want to give people the freedom to live out their faith without being forced into an institutional model that, frankly, isn’t truly biblical.”

Similar groups specifically target the expat population. In 2005, Presbyterian pastor Phil Davis relocated from North Carolina to Prague with his wife Shanna and two children in the hope of founding a religious establishment to serve the city’s international community. His organization, Faith Community Church, began services in April 2007, and is still a work in progress. Establishing an organization within the transient world of Prague expats can be difficult, but his church currently attracts up to 30 attendants for its Sunday sermons and monthly social outings. While most are expats, the number of natives who attend services has been steadily increasing.

Davis admits that labeling a group as an alternative religion or church is risky, but also has several advantages.

“There are people who want you to be official and not a ‘cult,’ ” he says. “People often want to know that they belong to something specific, to have an authoritative faith. However, my hope is that we can establish a small spiritual community that will, in turn, spawn other communities throughout the city.”

According to Springer, the individualistic approach is considerably more akin to post-modern culture and spiritual mentality in the Czech Republic. “I think that’s why these network-based movements are really finding their place here,” he says. “They allow a community to explore faith among their friends and family, without the man-made infrastructure.”

Vojtíšek also sees the value in such a small-scale format.

“These minority groups can enjoy some advantages over older and bigger religious institutions,” he says. “They are not burdened by their history. … They can be perceived as attractive alternatives to what can be seen as old and worn out and they are better equipped to provide close, warm relationships.”