Instead Mladen and his wife, Dragica, are completing their third decade as Christians, pillars of the church in Croatia.
And this year marks the completion of their 20th year working under the sponsorship of the Bammel church, Houston.
Their work in Croatia has spanned the delicacies of working with a Communist government, establishing the trust of a people whose confidence had to be gained slowly and carefully, and surviving four years of war which followed the breakup of Yugoslavia — all the while providing massive relief to the Croatian people.
In the church’s early years, the Jovanovics were self-supporting, and Mladen served as an exchange professor for the University of Warsaw.
Today, Mladen is editor of a Christian radio program broadcast over eight Croatian stations. He is the pulpit minister for the Kuslanova Street church, Zagreb, and is a faculty chair with the Institute for Biblical Studies in Zagreb. He writes and translates Christian literature.
The Jovanovics have three grown children and two grandchildren.
How did you come to accept Jesus Christ? What was the most compelling aspect of the Gospel message?
After graduating at the University of Zagreb, Croatia, in summer of 1969, I was offered a teaching position at the same school. My first set of students came to Croatia as exchange students from other universities. Two of them, Bud Pickle and David Gatewood, came with the purpose to do mission work, but the only way to obtain an entry visa was to register as exchange students. I liked all of my students, but I was really puzzled with these two. They were religious in a different way than all the others I knew before.
My first reaction, as the good educator I wanted to become, was: I must help them not only in learning my language but teach them out of believing in myths and legends. They were very patient with me, showing love to me I had never experienced before. Eighteen months later, in December 1971, Bud Pickle baptized me.
The most compelling aspect of the Gospel message for me was their faith in the eternal. I knew well what to do with myself in this life, but I didn't have answers about eternity.
When did you begin your work in Zagreb? Did a church already exist?
There were two or three converts in Croatia before Dragica and I became Christians. There was not a church as we understand it. Few of us with some friends of the church were meeting in our homes.
How did you deal with your government’s oppressive policies toward religion?
Our homeland, known at that time as Yugoslavia, was a Communist-dominated country. Religion was tolerated, but in no way encouraged. The school system knew only one valid ideology and that was dialectic materialism. To be religious meant to be primitive or backward.
Building the church was a slow and delicate process. There was no place for aggressive evangelism, but rather meticulous building of reputation.
It was hard for us to understand why these missionaries were so pushy. What were they rushing to? Later we learned that their supporting congregations expected reports on conversion.
We were struggling with that. We knew our people had to get to know us, had to begin to trust us first. We needed books dealing with Christianity in an intelligent way. We needed radio programs, where people could listen in the privacy of their homes about God and His love.
We tried to do our best to present the Church of Christ as a Croatian church, and not as an imported religion. The language of the church had to be Croatian, and leaders of the church had to be natives. We invested time to find historical traces of New Testament Christianity on our soil. The discovery of the 9th century baptistry in Dalmatia was a great joy.
When the Zagreb church built a new building we placed a replica of it inside the worship hall. This became a great proof that we don’t belong to a new religion. We wanted to give the best proofs to our government that Christians are not a threat, but a blessing to any society — Communist included.
How have the Zagreb church’s efforts as a relief center in the 1990s influenced the development of the church?
After the fall of the wall, social tectonic changes shook all Communist-dominated countries. Yugoslavia went through the most painful process of disintegration. The big civil war erupted in 1991. Four years of war resulted in 210,000 lost lives.
Churches of Christ, two at the beginning of the war, decided to put the light of the Lord on the top of the hill.
Two humanitarian organizations were formed. The decision was made that all workers, foreign or national, would stay in the country at all cost. The Peace on Earth Church of Christ humanitarian organization became a recognized and well-esteemed relief group.
Croatian Christians ministered to more than 3,000 refugee families. With the assistance of American church of Christ humanitarian organizations and churches from many countries of Europe, more than $3.5 million worth of food, clothing, sanitary and medical supplies were distributed to those in need.
Christians in Croatia became known as the people of the Book and of action.
What is the status of the church in Croatia and of your congregation?
There are seven congregations of churches of Christ in Croatia today. They are rather small in size, between 50-100. All of them have Croatian leaders, and only one full-time American missionary couple. Churches of Christ have an Institute for Biblical studies in Zagreb, which recently became a part of the University of Zagreb.
Dragica and I serve with the congregation at Kuslanova Street in Zagreb. This is one of the three Zagreb congregations. Most of our members are Croats, but we have a good number of ethnic Serbs. We are a dynamic congregation with a clear sense of evangelism. There are more than a dozen ministry groups working inside our congregation.
Does Croatia continue to need involvement from U.S. churches?
Our great desire is to plant a congregation in every city above 50,000 in Croatia. The reputation of the Lord’s Church has become known to many during the work with refugees. So, our greatest need is workers. We need involvement of American churches, either by sending workers or by supporting national workers.
What is the climate for proclaiming the name of Jesus in Zagreb?
The climate is great. The country is rebuilding after war damages. Many have lost their homes, the unemployment rate is high and the economy is in bad shape. This is the best time for evangelism. When people can not put their trust in the material, they search for spiritual answers.
You have been called by some “the father of the Restoration Movement in Croatia.” What is your response?
I would never consider myself being a father of anything beside my three children, whom I am very proud of.
However, I believe that Croatian churches go through a restoration movement, a Croatian restoration movement. I have read books by Campbell and Stone, but beside some principles, I don’t see Cro-atian churches as a product of that movement. My conviction is that the Restoration Movement is a process that began on the day when the Lord’s Church was established in Jerusalem. It is an ongoing process, not a one-time historical event.
What are your thoughts, from your vantage point, on the Iraq situation?
Iraq’s present regime is not only a threat to the United States, but to the whole world. We see Saddam Hussein as an evil-doing dictator. As Christians we pray for peace, and we pray for the Iraqi people. Saddam will hide himself in a well-protected bunker, but innocent people will suffer. Croatian Christians have seen a war. I led two funerals, for two young men killed in this war just six weeks apart. At my side there was the same woman at both funerals, a mother of these two.
I believe that all Christians should pray for peace. We should pray for the best political solution. I personally became a member of the President’s prayer team as soon as he was elected. I trust that he talks with the Lord in prayer before making any decision. There are no anti-American sentiments in Croatia, but there are anti-war sentiments.