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 steady—eventually 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”