“I felt like a Bible study machine doing one after the other,” recalls Rachel Olney, who is involved in arts ministry with OM in Vienna, Austria. The first weeks of the coronavirus lockdown in Austria left her feeling drained of life after she filled her days with online Bible studies, online German teaching and recording music for church services. “Doing virtual Bible studies has led to more people attending than normal. It’s not the same as meeting face-to-face, but people are still growing spiritually,” she says.

Before the coronavirus, Rachel had planned an Easter outreach event, involving musicians, dancers and actors coming from various countries, and performances of the Easter story. “Alongside this we hoped to train the partnering churches on how to read Mark’s Gospel one-on-one with their friends. We also had a church event called ‘Home’ planned for June, which would have included visual arts, dancing and music, all exploring where our true home is,” she describes.
When the country went into lockdown to limit the spread of the coronavirus, all her plans fell through. Despite technology allowing her to continue ministry, Rachel began to struggle.

Three passions

“God has given me three main passions of evangelism, languages and music,” Rachel explains. “I love it when I have the opportunity to combine these three things.”

Born to British missionaries in France, Rachel gave her life to Jesus as a young child. As a teenager, she was highly driven and chasing after academic success, resulting in Jesus not always being the number one priority in her life. This changed when she was around 17 years old, when Rachel recommitted her life to the Lord.

Growing up, Rachel had developed her passion for music, learning to play violin and piano. When she studied modern languages at university, she was given an instrumental award, which gave her access to some free music tuition and opportunities to work with other musicians. After graduating and spending the next year as a ministry trainee in the UK, Rachel moved to Vienna, Austria. The following five years were split between working with students, teaching English and German, and doing outreach with her local church.

Rachel always enjoyed combining her passion for music with her other passions of evangelism and languages. After attending Bible college in London, she returned to Austria to be involved with church planting in a small town, and this is where she had contact with the OM team. Rachel had also previously been on a short-term trip with OM in Romania and knew the organisation worked with artists internationally. In August 2012 she joined OM to do arts ministry in Austria.

“My role focuses on two main areas of ministry,” Rachel explains. “The first is evangelism and discipleship with musicians, artists and arts students. I do regular Bible studies for those involved in the arts, both in small groups and one-on-one. The second area is evangelism through the arts, including many one-off events.” She has also been involved in organising many outreach concerts and events, including in elderly care homes, shelters for homeless people and a massage parlour! “We did one concert in a fitness studio,” shares Rachel. “Afterwards, the manager, who is a lady from our church with a passion for evangelism, had 22 people to follow up with!”

Currently, two trainees are working with Rachel, fulfilling one of her other passions. “I enjoy investing in them with Bible studies, and reading books about arts, faith and mission, as well as doing outreaches together,” she says.

Coronavirus changes

Before the lockdown, Rachel had been asking God many questions about what the focus of her future ministry should be. She had been questioning the value of music and her spending energy on it and on musicians. When lockdown came, she found herself not playing any music, apart from recordings for church services. However, feeling inspired by the uplifting music available in various online services led her to begin playing the piano more for herself. “This made me feel more human, and I realised afresh that I am not a Bible study machine, and that music is a gift from God. I have also noticed anew how God touches other people through music,” she says. For Rachel, lockdown confirmed the value of music.

Last month (May 2020), the lockdown restrictions in Austria were partly eased, with people now allowed to meet, provided they abide by the social distancing rules and wear masks in enclosed spaces. Following this loosening of restrictions, Rachel and her two trainees visited a local park to perform music and dance. “We had really positive feedback, including one lady commenting, 'These are moments when you think life is worth living,’” and I was able to get into deeper conversation with her,” Rachel remembers.

When lockdown restrictions are lifted further, Rachel hopes to get back to doing other outreaches and ongoing ministry. “It’s great to begin doing Bible studies in person again,” says Rachel. “I’m hoping that we can reschedule the ‘Home’ event, and I have more people interested in joining me as trainees!”

Rachel’s vision is to use music and dance as a catalyst for evangelism and to support church planting initiatives. “One dream is to go to the surrounding villages of a particular church plant in northern Austria to play music, speak about Jesus and invite people to events at the church,” she shares. “I have a heart for the arts, and I believe music is a non-threatening way to give people glimpses of God’s beauty and love!”

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