Seeking Slovenia

by John Aitken

Slovenia is a challenging mission field. It has been said, ‘The soil is so dry that, if you spit on it, you make a difference.’ Globally, it is one of the countries with the smallest percentage of believers; there are more believers in Bristol than in the whole of Slovenia.

Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and in 2004 was the first Balkan state to join the European Union. A Slovenian will tell you, ‘Although the country’s blood is Balkan, we prefer to look to the West.’ Slovenia is a modern, relatively prosperous nation with good infrastructure, and its population of 2 million people are open and welcoming. There is religious freedom: 55% of the population are Roman Catholic, of which 5-10% attend church and only 2% are devout. Slovenia’s 70,000 Muslim people are active. Eastern religions and New Age beliefs are increasingly popular. Divided through war and culture, trust needs to be rebuilt in some segments of the population.

The Roman Catholic Church

Catholicism dominates Slovenian society and culture, and the Catholic Church is very conservative. There are 500 active parishes but some are small or facing closure, particularly where financial and safeguarding scandals have led to a loss of confidence in the church. Although the Catholic base is eroding, its world view pervades the Slovene mindset and even atheists still carry baggage from that background.

The Evangelical Church

There are 40 evangelical churches of all descriptions, the largest with 100 members. The average size of a church is 30 to 40 members, with the total number of evangelical believers numbering between 1,500 and 1,700 people – less than 0.01% of the population.

There are only two Brethren fellowships: one in Maribor, which has merged with two other struggling fellowships to form the Maribor Evangelical Christian Church (EKC Maribor); and a small fellowship of eight women and one brother, whose health is poor. Gospel- preaching churches of different denominations include a number in the northeast, two or three in the south, three in Maribor and five in Ljubljana, the capital city. A key prayer for evangelicals is for unity. Historically, churches have done their own thing. However, believers are beginning to work together for the lost, especially younger leaders and first-generation Christians who have a gospel focus.

…believers are beginning to work together for the lost, especially younger leaders and first-generation Christians who have a gospel focus.

Slovenian Ministries

Students – Among 80,000 students, there are only 200 Christians, a figure that includes both high school and undergraduate Christian students. The International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES) ministry in Slovenia is chaired by a national believer. Due to the separation of church and state, Christian students cannot use rooms on the university campus so they meet elsewhere. Maribor is strategic for student outreach, as it has the highest concentration of national students. IFES invited John Lennox to deliver lectures in 2019, and they continue to work hard to evangelise their fellow students.

Bible Society – Having carried out a strategic review, the Slovenian Bible Society (SBS) has a new mission strategy: ‘To help people engage with the Word of God and encounter Christ.’ SBS promotes new initiatives to connect people with the gospel. After the current Pope said that every Catholic should have a copy of the Gospels in their pocket, the SBS produced and printed 7,000 pocket Gospels. They sponsored a 24/7 marathon public reading of the Bible in Ljubljana, with smaller events in churches, publicly reading through a book of the Bible, such as Mark or John. As a result, people have expressed a desire to study the Bible further.

Trubar and the New Testament – Primoz Trubar (1508-1586), a prominent figure in Slovenian culture, is considered to be the father of the nation. A converted priest, he became a key protestant reformer. The first Slovene book, written by Trubar, was a catechism. The opening statement says, ‘To all Slovenes, grace, peace, mercy and the true knowledge of God through Jesus, I pray for you.’ Trubar’s disciple, Jurij Dalmatin, translated the whole Bible into Slovene in 1584. Over nine years, Slovenian workers Benjamin Hlastan and Vinko Ošlak translated the New Testament to coincide with the Reformation commemoration in 2017. Many people helped distribute 50,000 copies, which is remarkable as Slovene authors typically print just 300 copies of a new book. There were TV and newspaper interviews about this project and even atheists requested copies.

Since Slovenian culture respects Trubar, evangelists produced a teaching programme for schools about Trubar and this New Testament. They emphasise that Protestant does not mean ‘to protest’ but ‘to witness for,’ stressing that Trubar witnessed to two things, the Word of God and the Lord Jesus.

Three Slovenian Towns

Maribor is home to three evangelical churches. The EKC Maribor has four elders and currently needs a full-time worker with a heart for students.

Ptuj has a population of 25,000 but retains a village feel. German commended workers, Christian and Ute Bender, have been in Ptuj for 11 years. They have built excellent contacts, hold a Bible study with eight people and are praying to see a church planted. Traditional Catholic people find it difficult to understand that salvation is by grace alone, but they are still hungry to study.

Kočevje is a town of 9,500 people surrounded by a huge mountainside forest. After the war, Kočevje was a stronghold of Yugoslav communism. People were sent there to be ‘re-educated’ as a punishment. In this area, between 1945 and the 1980s, 8,000 to 30,000 people are said to have disappeared. As a child, one church leader’s parents would say, ‘If you don’t behave, I’ll take you to the forest.’ Kočevje is a place of trauma.

A young man came to Kočevje in 2001. It was five years before anybody came to faith and a church was planted. In 2016, Bible studies started in Trebnje, 50 minutes away, and a new church began in 2018.

The mother church is media-savvy and has a good relationship with the mayor. Last year for Independence Day, they hired a local quartet and staged a cultural and gospel programme titled ‘Hope is born’. They sang national and Christmas songs, and the church leader gave a ten-minute talk on hope for the country and eternal hope.

Hope for the Future

Slovenia is wide open for the gospel but Christians are wary of missionaries. Some church planters have come, bringing money but requiring local people to follow their strategies. One elder used the phrase, ‘We are not for sale.’ Humble, patient mission workers are needed to plant churches in unreached areas. The ideal worker for Slovenia is a pioneer, who will take a long- term view. Mission service must be in partnership with the indigenous church and new workers should have a good understanding of the Catholic world view.

Pray that the local church and mission workers will serve together to reach the 2 million Slovenians who have not yet heard the gospel.

Sebastian’s Story

At 17 years old, Sebastian heard of a church in Ljubljana and visited with his mother, who was Czech and a strong Catholic. Sebastian was impressed by the joy and contentment in those he met. After three months they were both converted. While Sebastian served in the army for nine months, God put a burden on his heart for the youth of his country. He was involved in youth work in his local church in Ljubljana while working as a postman. He had been shy but his work transformed him into a more outgoing person. As a young man Sebastian had a brain aneurism. The medics said they could promise nothing but, amazingly, he fully recovered. This has been a great witness to his non-Christian friends.

Sebastian met and married Gloria in 2002, after which they spent two years at Belfast Bible College training to be equipped for God’s work in Slovenia. When they returned, they moved to a new town, Radovljica, to start a youth ministry. From this group they planted an evangelical church in an area where there were no believers. Sebastian and his wife have a heart to reach the northwest region of Slovenia, home to 200,000 people.

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