Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Commencement (BBB Part Seventeen)


We were overjoyed to be back in Banja Luka and nearly fluent in the Serbian language. We were more than ready to at last commence our full-time ministry. Before I continue the narrative, I will answer a question that I am frequently asked: “Why did you go to try to preach the Gospel to the Serbs? After all, aren’t they a Christian people?” Well, yes and no. It is indisputable that the overwhelming number of Serbs consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians. Still, most of these are Christian (and Orthodox, I might add) in name only. In fact, of all the peoples of Eastern Europe, the Serbs rank near the bottom in the percent that attend church regularly. In other words, very few possess the living and active faith that all real Christians believe is necessary for salvation.

So, our aim was not to try to turn any pious, active Orthodox believers (of whom there were few in Banja Luka) into Baptists. Rather, our goal was to find people who were not active in church, share the gospel as we understood it with them, hopefully persuade them to accept baptism (in the Baptist fashion), and begin attending either the local Baptist church or at least a small-group Bible study.

Yes, you heard me correctly! There actually was a Baptist church in Banja Luka, although whether it deserves to be called a church is debatable. It had always had only about 5 active members, with a few other occasional attenders. The group was led by a young Serb couple from Serbia. The husband served as the pastor, and I ended up being the music leader by default. The service consisted of a brief opening prayer, a few songs led by me as I played my guitar, another prayer, a scripture reading or two, a sermon of about 45 minutes to an hour, and a closing prayer. Occasionally, a guest or two from out of town would give a testimony. The services were held on Sunday afternoon, because the group was renting the space owned by another church. The space was a small room with completely white walls. In short, the Baptist services were very different from an Orthodox Liturgy.

In addition to working with the Baptist group, I also did whatever I could to build relationships with locals, with a view toward sharing the Gospel with them. This I did with gusto; I quickly made many new friends and told them what I could about Christ, the Bible and the church. Most of them listened politely, and even agreed with much of what I said. Still, I saw no conversions.

We were blessed to be able to work as a team with another couple, whom I will call Bob and Melanie (not their real names, of course). They had served in Belgrade before the NATO bombing and had been given the opportunity to move to Banja Luka a few months before we did. They were wonderful people, and we became fast friends. Bob and I met once a week to plan and strategize, and all four of us met another time during the week to pray, read Scripture, and fellowship together. We took turns leading a brief devotional.

One time, when it was my turn to lead the devotional, I chose as my text 1 Cor. 9:19-22: “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” I discussed the fact that our organization had spent a great deal of money and manpower (12 adult missionaries had each spent 6 to 18 months ministering there prior to our arrival), trying to build up the Baptist church in Banja Luka, but with little to show for it. Our people had been able to lead people to make professions of faith in Christ, and had even baptized a few. But when they had challenged people to join the Baptist church, virtually no one had been willing. They were unwilling to leave the Orthodox Tradition.

I surmised that the problem was that our predecessors had perhaps been “too Baptist.” I suggested that if we could “become all things to all men,” which in our case meant being as Orthodox as possible while still remaining faithful to Baptist principles, we might be more successful. How exactly we were to do this, I wasn’t sure. But all four of us agreed that this was a good idea, and we all decided to think about it and try to figure out how. Clearly, however, the first step was to be more educated about Orthodoxy.

This devotional prompted me to entertain another thought. I asked myself, “What is it about this faith that makes the people here be so loyal to it? Few of the Serbs (at least here) ever darken the door of a church, and yet they will not leave their tradition. In fact, many have been willing to fight and die for it!” I resolved right then and there to study more about the Orthodox faith and see if I could solve this mystery.

Unfortunately, I only had one book, The Orthodox Church, by Bishop Kallistos, and one pamphlet, the one on the basics of Orthodoxy, by Archbishop Dmitri. I read them both and thought, “Well, that was interesting. We really have more in common with the Orthodox Church than I had thought.” Many of the Orthodox practices that had seemed so bizarre and “unbiblical” made a little more sense, even if I still did not agree with them.

But still, I had nothing else to read (at least not in English; I wasn’t quite ready to try to read any deep theological works in Serbian!). That is, I had nothing else until I received a phone call from Melanie. She said, “James, I have a book here that you might find interesting. It is about a bunch of guys that used to work for Campus Crusade for Christ who all became Orthodox.” I thought to myself, “Why on earth would anyone want to do that?” I had to read why.

I had absolutely no idea that this book would totally and irrevocably change my life!

1 comment:

Clint said...

ahh, yes. THAT book. I remember it well...