Serbia Then & Now
Amy Nickerson | September 2014
“I’ll tell you who I think God is,” Ljubisa, a young man in his late teens, said as he and missionary, Steve Brown discussed the evening program at an English camp in Serbia last summer.
“Our village has two Serbian Orthodox priests,” he continued. “On our village’s saint day, these two priests came to the intersection, we only have two main streets, and one was supposed to go to the right and one to the left. They would bless each house on the saint day and each house would pay the priest. Well, one street had more money than the other, so the two priests got into a fistfight, got arrested, and made national news.”
The teen looked Steve in the eyes. “If that’s who God is, I want nothing to do with him, but if there’s something else, tell me.”
The hope and openness in this conversation is only a small glimpse into what JV Serbia sees God changing in their country today. Bojan Ostojic, the country leader, describes it excitedly, “God is moving. Sometimes you feel the barrier there and other times you just feel open roads. We are feeling a lot of open road lately.”
Not long ago, these conversations were scarce.
Ministry in Serbia is not easy, and it never has been.
As I, along with some others on JV’s communications team, recently crossed from Croatia into Serbia to visit a camp, it was like I could see time shift. The Westernization of many other JV countries is not felt in the same way here. I was immediately transported back to my childhood in Poland and the days when you could still easily point out the direct effects of communism.
If this is Serbia in 2014, I can only imagine what it must have been like when JV began partnering with youth leaders in Serbia back in the year 2000.
When Steve and Tanja Brown joined JV in 2006, the team was still very underdeveloped. In fact, one Serbian man made up its entirety. The Browns came to help him develop what was already happening and bring order to what hadn’t been organized before.
At the time, Serbia was incredibly closed spiritually. Of the eight million people living in Serbia, around 85% were Serbian Orthodox because that was their national heritage before communism. Anyone identifying as something else was considered a traitor.
Bojan describes the situation saying, “A lot of baggage comes with the word ‘church.’ There is a great deal of prejudice against Evangelical churches in Serbia. They are perceived more as organizations that you join and become a member of, than as a living body of Christ or something that is beyond anything earthly.”
This being the case, there is a lot of distrust. Steve says, “People use the word ‘sect’ or ‘cult’. On a list, Serbs put Baptists and Satanists side by side. That’s how they viewed us eight years ago. If you would say anything about God, there would almost instantly be a negative reaction.”
Steve says that moving things forward in ministry back then was also difficult because, “having tried a lot of things in the past that failed, the culture had the mentality of ‘why even try?’ So, from the beginning we were fighting an uphill battle.”
Although the process has been slow, Steve and Bojan believe the culture is changing.
When asked why, Steve responds: “I think there’s a hopelessness in Serbia that has been here since the fall of communism. But the youth we’re working with today weren’t even around during the Civil War. They were babies, most of them, during the NATO bombings. They don’t know the hardships. They don’t know the junk that’s happened in the past.”
“So they hear all the hopelessness, and I think they’re looking out to the rest of the world, saying ‘why should we be hopeless?’ They’re looking for something. They look for hope in the wrong places, but they’re looking for it. Eight years ago, I didn’t see people looking.”
To help people find true hope, the JV Serbia team now has five members, four of whom are nationals. Each is serving faithfully in their local churches, one even pastoring a new church plant.
This summer, the team led three Evangelistic English camps for Serbian youth, partnering with local churches, including a new one they hadn’t worked with before.
As fall is officially here, Steve says they face the challenge of regrouping to figure out what direction God is wanting them to move in and with which key churches they should be partnering in the coming months.
Whatever this may look like, it is clear to Bojan that “discipleship needs to be a priority.” Through follow-up with students from camp and focusing on investing in small groups of leaders, Bojan prays the JV team will impact the masses like Jesus did when he discipled the 12.
“My hope is that in the future we will have a generation of young leaders who can trace back their DNA to Josiah Venture in Serbia. That it would be something that can be recognized and Christ-like. That we would have that kind of influence on the country.”
This is already happening today. With more students open to hearing the Gospel, God is using the JV team to change the lives of people like Ljubisa, who prayed to receive Christ at the end of camp last year and spent this year meeting weekly with Steve to study Scripture.
Please pray that God would continue to move mightily in Serbia as the team walks alongside young leaders to help change people’s views of church and offer the hope of Christ.