Ministry serves the poor in hard-hit steel town
LORAIN, Ohio — This struggling Rust Belt city of 64,000…
STARŠE, Slovenia — Nina Lovse was giving up.
“Me and Jesus … boy, it was real, but it was just me and him,” she said. “There was no church. I was trying really hard, but slowly I went back into what I knew before, which was the party scene.”
She was reared in post-communist Slovenia, a small, Central European republic that once was part of Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia. Her parents didn’t go to church. Their comrades made fun of people who did, like her grandmother, a devout Catholic who hid Nina away as an infant to have her christened.
“I had wanted to go to church to kind of please my grandmother,” she said.
But “I did not find that personal connection with God. I feared him.”
Then communism collapsed, and the rules that had defined her parents’ lives suddenly were gone. Nina found herself, like many other Slovene teens, adrift. She worried constantly and suffered headaches, even seizures.
“They thought I was a lost cause.”
Everything changed when a young couple came to town from a ministry college in Austria.
They bore Bibles and guitars. They had church outside and sang hymns like “Jesus Freak” by DC Talk.
Nina was smitten. The darkness faded. The headaches disappeared.
“I have hope! I have hope!” she said.
Then the missionaries left. It had only been six months, but the 200-member church they envisioned hadn’t materialized. Members of an evangelical church in neighboring Croatia made occasional visits to check in. Nina and maybe one or two others would show up. The missionaries asked how they were doing, and they’d happily tell them about going to parties and getting drunk.
“God was working in me, but they didn’t see it,” she said. “They thought I was a lost cause.”
YOU FELL IN LOVE WITH JESUS, NOT ME
Nina started to believe it, too.
She took up with a boyfriend, a non-believer named Andrej. They were in love, but she told him, “The girl that you fell in love with is not actually me. What you fell in love with was Jesus in me.”
And Jesus was fading from her life. After two years of guilt-tinged romance, she decided to break up with Andrej. After that, she said, “I was going to go back to drugs to numb what I had done.”
She traveled to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, where Andrej was studying in medical school, to give him the news.
She never got the words out.
“Nina!” her boyfriend said, excitedly. “I’ve been reading that Bible you gave me. And I’ve been praying for us!”
Her reaction: “Yeah, whatever.”
“I’m serious,” he said. “I want to be a Christian.”
“Oh yeah?” she said. “That means you have to stop smoking, Andrej.”
“I know. I’m gonna stop,” he said.
“And you’ve got to stop drinking,” she continued. “You can’t party.”
“I know,” he said. “No more.”
“OK,” she said, bracing herself. “And we can’t … live together anymore.”
“Nina, I know,” he said. “We need to get married.”
EVERY CHURCH HAS REAL FOLLOWERS
Eighteen years later, Nina and Andrej Lovse are church planters in Maribor, a town of about 95,000 souls in northeastern Slovenia, just south of Austria. They live in a farmhouse a few miles out of town.
On a Saturday morning, the couple hovered over their kitchen counter preparing a heaping plate of cevapcici, Balkan sausage links, for the grill to feed their guests. Their two sons played noisily in the den.
Outside, their daughter groomed their horse, named Charlie Brown, as a sheep named Lenny meandered through the back yard. Most Slovenes keep their animals penned up, Nina said, but they like theirs to live “free range” (although, she noted, Lenny did eat her flower bed recently).
The Lovses work with Josiah Venture, a ministry launched in 1993 by three couples that now has 300 staff working in 15 European nations. Workers host camps for teens and plant churches through disciple-making movements, training believers to plant churches and spread the Gospel.
The Lovses have interacted with a variety of faith-based groups, Andrej said.
“One thing that God showed us through that is that he has his people in all churches,” he said. “Every church has people who go there who are not really followers, and every church has people that are followers.”
Some of the Christ-followers who have blessed them the most, he added, are from Churches of Christ.
CHURCH OF CHRIST ‘EMBRACED US’
The Lovses were baptized and married in the town of Cakovec, Croatia, where they worshiped with Calvary Chapel. In Zagreb, nearly 90 minutes away, they struggled to find a church family.
One day, they saw two men handing out flyers in downtown Zagreb. One of them, a minister named Vlado Psenko, gave them an invitation to a poetry night hosted by members of his congregation, the Kušlanova Church of Christ. One of the artists performing was from Calvary Chapel.
Eager to connect, the Lovses attended the poetry night — and visited the congregation for worship.
“They are what you might call poster children for what the institute hopes to produce: men and women prepared with practical tools for ministry to reach their own people for Christ.”
“We just went, stepped through the doors, looked around and said, ‘Oh, we’re never coming back here,’” Nina said. The church didn’t use instruments. It was different.
“But then the people embraced us like never ever before anywhere,” she said. Church members invited them to lunch and back to worship.
They also introduced the couple to the Zagreb Bible Institute, housed in the church’s building. Nina started taking classes. So did Andrej, who began skipping his medical school classes to attend. Soon, he gave up medicine to focus on ministry.
The institute’s founder and then-director, Tom Sibley, and his wife, Sandra, adopted the couple. Over the next six years, the Lovses coordinated the church’s youth group and helped with summer camps. The church encouraged them to try new approaches to reaching the young.
“My dream was happening,” Nina said. “I was exploding! I found a home! We just came into this environment of amazing possibilities of growth.”
FINDING PURPOSE IN ZAGREB, ABILENE
Steve Taliaferro, a Church of Christ member from Texas who has worked in Central and Eastern Europe since the 1990s, said that the Lovses were part of his motivation to move to Zagreb and work with the Bible institute.
“They are what you might call poster children,” he said, “for what the institute hopes to produce: men and women prepared with practical tools for ministry to reach their own people for Christ.”
After graduation, the couple traveled to Texas to study at Abilene Christian University. They lived with Jack and Jeanene Reese, who both taught in the Bible department.
The Reeses treated them like family, Nina said. So did the folks who worked at the grocery store.
“Even there people are saying, ‘Hi, honey. How are you doing?’” Nina said. “When we came to Abilene, there was an old, beat-up car waiting for us. ‘Here, you can use this.’ In Slovene culture, you hold your belongings tight. Through moments like these, God was taking us and shaping us.”
They both earned master’s degrees in Christian ministry. (Nina outperformed the guys, including her husband, in Bible professor Curt Niccum’s class.)
Before returning to Europe, the Lovses traveled with a group of ACU students to Waco, Texas, to attend a ministry conference. They gathered in groups to pray for their home nations.
“I was crying,” Andrej said. “Really, God was just breaking me for missions.”
And he knew the task ahead.
SNOWBOARDING AND SOWING SEEDS
Back home, the Lovses minister to a generation that grew up entirely in a post-communist world.
Their parents and grandparents “were raised with all these rules,” Andrej said, “but they weren’t able to get anything. So they said, ‘I’ll raise my kids with no rules and I’ll give them everything I can.’ And it’s not working.”
Although researchers and demographers call Europe “post-Christian,” statistics don’t tell the true story, said Trisha Wynn, an American who works with the Josiah Venture in Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana.
“I think it may be post-Christian, but it’s not post-human,” she said of Europe. “All young people are asking the same questions: Who am I? What is my life about? Is there something bigger going on than just me?”
The ministry seeks to show young Europeans that, “Hey, there’s more than just all these beautiful churches around that are empty,” Wynn said.
Having the Lovses — two authentic, committed Slovene Christians — as part of Josiah Venture lends credibility to the work, she added.
In Maribor, the Lovses operate youth camps for everything from English learning to snowboarding. They also teach CrossFit exercise classes and guitar lessons as entry-point ministries to build relationships.
But they don’t keep those relationships on the surface. The couple hosts small-group, in-depth Bible studies that focus on what it means to obey the Gospel and make disciples.
They continue to work with Churches of Christ, assisting with summer camps in Croatia, said Taliaferro, who recently left the Zagreb institute to focus full time on youth ministry initiatives.
The Lovses “take time to invest with us in the lives of youth in Croatia,” Taliaferro said. “They have also agreed to serve as a resource and advisers to us in new, similar ministries to youth that we are launching in Croatia.”
The couple has befriended American Christians including Don and Donna Millican from Tulsa, Okla., who have become supporters of their ministry.
“This is hard work. It is farming. It is sowing seeds,” said Don Millican, an elder of The Park Church of Christ in Tulsa. “It will be years before the full impact of their work will be known. But it is already paying dividends as young people are turning to Jesus.”
MINISTERING WITH ‘A LOAD OF MERCY’
“Why do I need to go to church if I’m OK with Jesus?”
That’s one of the questions young people in Slovenia ask, Nina said. After two decades as Christ followers, they try to to see “the question behind the question” and answer “not just with information and a bunch of laws.”
“You were made for fellowship,” Nina tells the young believers. “You gain, and you give. We need each other to fight through hard times.”
It’s a lesson she’s lived.
Although she and her husband get discouraged sometimes, she refuses to give up or see her country’s youths the way missionaries once saw her — as a lost cause.
“That’s why I have a load, a load of mercy for the youth,” she says. “When they’re going out and doing the stuff that they’re doing, I don’t despair. I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s a season. It will pass.’
“That does not mean that God is not doing a work in them. Because he was doing such a work in me.”
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