Monthly Archives: September 2013

In Remembrance: Part 3 of an Interview with Mladen Jovanović

Click HERE for Part 1     Click HERE for Part 2

For Mladen and Dragica,  Yugoslavia in the early 1980s was a time of beginnings—and they began by looking at the intersection of need and possibility. All over the communist world, people were listening to short-wave radio.  So in 1980, Mladen began a radio ministry, preparing 15-minute messages and broadcasting from places like Portugal. Using his former contacts earned through his days as a professor, he and Dragica began to hold Bible classes in their home.  He realized there was a lack of Croatian Christian literature, so  he translated two books and numerous pamphlets.

According to Mladen,  radio programs and Christian literature  were “door-knocking” evangelism. “The books we published—they spread because there were not such books. But it doesn’t mean that all the people who read the books were converted and became Christians. In times of Communist Yugoslavia, we had a database of several thousand listeners [for our radio programs], but this doesn’t mean we had several thousand  converted Christians.”

Evangelism was—and is—tricky in this part of the world, and Mladen remained adamant that personal relationship through one-on-one evangelism is the best way to demonstrate the Christian life.  “All the Slavic nations in Eastern Europe have a very low-level of trust because of our historical background—we have been betrayed many times…people were fed promises and words, empty words.”

Communism itself became proof that you cannot even trust someone who is supposedly speaking on behalf of the people.

“So we should be aware that when we come with sweet stories about the brotherhood of people and a God who loves us and will take care of us, people filter that message in two ways:  Why would someone love me unconditionally?  And second, we just don’t have a positive, historical example of the Christian Church ever being fair to people. So when we tell them about Jesus and the Good News, they are reluctant and say, ‘that is nice, and you are nice and kind people,but that is not for us.'”

So in the beginning,  they did one-on-one evangelism among students and even some professors, hosting small group Bible studies where questions were asked and discussed, and formed community by sharing meals together.

Growth was slow but steadyeventually a small nucleus of committed Christians formed. In 1985,  Mladen registered a new church with the police (standard practice at the time), located in the center of Zagreb. Still, there were many discouragements.   In the beginning of their church growth, they had around 50 brilliant young people—both men and woman—whom they sent over to the States to be educated…but  only a few came back.

“And they are not to be blamed because they got an education and lived in that society—and saw it was much easier to live..and sometimes they found a spouse in the States.”

The war, beginning in 1991, changed the dynamic of their ministry—they began working through humanitarian services to help and serve the thousands of refugees pouring into Zagreb.

“When people get into trouble, when they lose all their possessions, they turn their eyes and ears toward God,” Mladen said, noting how radically different the spiritual climate was before and after the war.

“So, we do not pray for times of crisis of course,” Mladen carefully clarified.  “War is terrible, I would never want to go through something like that again in my lifetime,  but surely you can see that people listen better when the times are tough.”   Between the years of the war, 1991-1995, they established several Churches of Christ throughout the new country of Croatia, and when the refugees eventually returned to their homes, they found they had contacts and friends throughout the region.  Now(as of 2011)  13 Church of Christ congregations exist throughout the country.

“When I say congregations, I don’t mean thousands of people…sometimes there are only 30 people,” Mladen explained, showing little interest in trying to impress me with inflated numbers or exaggerated stories.  “We are fully registered with the government, we have full freedom to do what we want to do…prohibited only by lack of finances…and we have very good cooperation with other church groups in Zagreb.”

Cooperation among different churches was a new phenomenon in Mladen’s generation.  “In the generation before, ” Mladen remembered, “it was not pleasing for churches to mix together too much.  If a Baptist man would meet a Pentecostal girl it was…almost impossible for them to get married. One of them would have to switch churches.”*

During the war and in Croatia’s first years as an independent country, many Protestants realized that it was important to work as a united front in order to secure religious freedoms and rights in a Catholic dominated country. In 1992, Mladen was one of the founders of the  Protestant-Evangelical Alliance (PEV) of Croatia, acting as Secretary General at the time of his death.

“We worked together not on a denominational level, but on an alliance level…so that brought us together.  Personally, I hope it will stay this way…we can have our own traditions and love our traditions, but we should be centered on Christ and think more of the thousands of people around us that don’t know him.  And very often, they will make the decision for Christ or not for Christ by looking at us and how we live together and whether we are a good example of what we preach.”

Of course, there are no guarantees for the next generation.  “Someone once wrote,” Mladen chuckled, “that God doesn’t have any grandchildren, only children. There is a need to be renewed in every generation.  If we help the next generation to become children of God, then we are successful.”

Click Here for the Conclusion of this interview series.

*For more on Mladen’s thoughts on unity in Croatia, see the following article, available in either Croatian or English: “The Evangelical Perspective on Unity and the Contribution of the PEV to Christian Fellowship”

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In Remembrance: Part 2 of an Interview with Mladen Jovanović

For Part 1, click HERE

At the time of Mladen’s conversion and baptism, the church in Poland was more or less an underground church—but because Mladen was a visiting professor and worked primarily with the youth, no one paid much attention to his activities.

“Sometimes I tease that I was one of the only missionaries of Churches of Christ that lived and worked in a communist country—and was paid by [a] communist government!” Mladen said with a laugh.  “As a visiting professor I had a nice, large apartment with several rooms in the center of the city so I could invite people over and [along] with my wife, have Bible meetings.”

Mladen and Dragica stayed in Poland for a formative eight years, learning and working and “growing in Christ.”  At the end of that period, Mladen felt he had a decision to make—should he return to Yugoslavia and continue with being a professor or do something different?  He had a desire for more theological education, and knew that he was somewhat limited by the fact that although it was not forbidden, professors were not supposed to be religious.

“Since my heart was with the church, with Jesus,  I went to my boss and told him about the change in my life. He was not very happy because he thought after 10 years of working with the university he would have an assistant who would become a regular professor one of these days and replace him.”

Thus began a new chapter in their life. He and Dragica left for Texas, where after two years he acquired a Masters in Theology.  There was never any doubt in their minds that they would return to their country—a fact that confused some of their well-meaning American friends.

“Many times people would ask me, ‘Are you sure you want to go back?'” Mladen said, noting that Dragica was pregnant with their daughter at the time.   “We were with a wonderful church family, right on the campus of the University of Texas. The church ladies would say, ‘Dragica, stay here, have your baby here, things are rough in your country.  You never know…you are Yugoslav citizens and if things get worse, you might have a basis of getting American citizenship if your baby is born here.'”

But as much as they enjoyed America, they were not at ‘home’ there.  “This advice was friendly, not some CIA plan,” Mladen said, smiling.  “Most Americans in the 1980’s didn’t really know what communism was all about.” Because it was so out of the realm of the American experience,  and because of the political climate of the 1980’s, it was hard for people to imagine that one could be happy in a communist country.

“But if you love your country and know how to live in your country, you want to be in your country…you have your family and neighbors and friends,” Mladen mused thoughtfully.

And so they returned to Zagreb, with the intention of serving their people and starting a church—and the religious climate of the times allowed opportunity for this.  Yugoslavia was the most free of all the communist countries, with a liberal passport system that allowed people to live, work, and travel outside of Yugoslavia.

“The religious climate was not bad because the authorities didn’t really care about religious groups as long as they stayed in the frame of the law,” Mladen noted.   Being in the “frame of the law” meant that public evangelism wouldn’t be allowed, but meeting together in one’s own group was permitted. “We never had any problems with the authorities…They were more interested [to see] if we had any contacts with Croatian nationalists…”

As Mladen thought about the early work in Zagreb, he mused on the larger question of how people respond to God.  “I think all over the world people are responsive to God, sometimes we don’t present them with a message that they could respond to in a proper way. It  probably takes the same amount of time, effort, and love to convert a Croat as to convert an American.  It really doesn’t make much difference…There is always time for every generation and God speaks to every generation in [a] different language, and people respond differently.”

Mladen had a keen sense of being able to craft ministry in ways appropriate to the Croatian culture as well reflecting on questions and perspectives in a more global sense—one of his unique contributions as a minister and thinker in this region.  Undoubtedly,  he gained such contextual and global perspectives from his 40 plus years of ministry,  and this demonstrates a valuable characteristic for any leader—being a ‘lifelong learner’ in Christ.  As he puts it,  “The longer I serve the Lord, I find myself learning a lot from people [from whom] I didn’t expect to learn [anything]. And that is great.”

Such a humble learning perspective would serve him well as he began both a radio ministry in the early 80’s and house groups that would lead to the first Church of Christ in Croatia.  Part 3   Part 4