What follows is a three-stranded interweaving of my Ministry Manifesto, the Legacy of Viktor Poloha, and the quiet calling of the Savior on each of our lives.
Before 1989, when communists still ruled Central and Eastern Europe, we in the West prayed that God would help the saints in those countries persevere through the persecution they faced in daily life.
There are thousands of examples of faithful people that held strong in their faith. Some smuggled Bibles through Slovakia to Ukraine, some shared their faith with their classmates or colleagues, others taught the Scriptures to youth, and still others attended forbidden Bible studies.
My father-in-law, Viktor Poloha, is a saint from Slovakia. As a teenager he attended a high school several hours from his home. Despite the ridicule of his classmates and the scorn of the administration, he would kneel beside the bed in his dorm each day and pray to a God who can shut the mouths of lions and squelch the sting of fire. He gained a reputation as one who would not compromise his faith. As a result, the administration took away his privileges to leave the dormitory on nights when the local Baptist youth group met. But even that did not deter him; he snuck out of the dorms in order to faithfully attend those meetings. For some in that youth group he became a hero and they also learned to have a courageous faith. As for Viktor, even though he was one of the best students in his class, the administration refused to recommend him to a university.
Because of our prayers here in the West and because of the faith of the people behind the iron curtain, communism wasn’t successful at weakening the faith of believers. But one area where communism did succeed was in severely limiting opportunities for theological education. It’s hard for us to imagine a church with untrained pastors, with no Bible colleges, and with almost no commentaries, guides to pastoral leadership, church administration, or small groups; but that was the reality behind the iron curtain.
Viktor’s dream was to become a pastor. Since his options were limited he became a faithful servant of the church as an elder and youth leader. He frequently preached on Sundays or during the week at smaller fellowships in the countryside of Eastern Slovakia. He studied the Scriptures every day and took every opportunity he could for further training. He knew that if the faith was going to continue in Slovakia it depended on the teachings of Scripture being passed from one generation to the next.
Sometimes we think of theological education as academic book knowledge. Theology is like philosophy, we think, and theologians live at universities in ivory towers. But really, theology is what we do in everyday life. It guides our decisions about how we educate our children, what kind of career we choose, how we behave toward our neighbors, or what political views we hold. Whether you realize it or not, you can’t go through one hour of your day without making a decision based on your understanding of Scripture.
Theology is especially important when we face changes in the world around us. How do we respond to same sex marriage, global warming, or new church growth methods?
When communism fell in 1989, the church in Slovakia faced a wave of cataclysmic change.
All four of Viktor and Anna’s children grew up with a faith like their parents. Their older children were part of an ambitious group of young people in Slovakia who decided to take advantage of their post-communist freedom. In 1991 they formed a music group that played praise songs and rented out a theater in the center of town. After only a couple of months, more than 200 young people attended each week. They came to meet friends, listen to the music, and hear a gospel presentation. Most of them had never heard anything like it.
Since then the ministry has become the countrywide Youth for Christ Slovakia. They hold an annual Christian music festival and prayer and praise events throughout the year. In the clip below the band (it’s called Timothy) and guests are singing the theme song of the 2007 CampFest festival, “May Your Kingdom Come”.)
In part because of the lack of solid theological training, the church in Slovakia wasn’t sure how to react to all these new changes. The denominational leadership wasn’t providing a theological framework for a response. Factions developed within single denominations. Energy was wasted solving problems within the church instead of reaching out at a time of unprecedented openness. The church, which was a beacon of resistance under communism, changed into a symbol for an old regime.
The elders of the church weren’t sure how to respond to the young people’s outreach. Some felt uncomfortable with the music and what seemed to them to be the influx of secular culture and charismatic tendencies. The pastor felt his authority was being threatened and he responded by censoring their activities. As far as he was concerned this ministry was being carried out against his will.
In his sermons and teachings at youth meetings he tried to rein in the young people. The problem was, he had no plan of his own for outreach and he could not respond to their questions on theological issues like the gifts of the Holy Spirit or what proper worship is like. The youth began to look outside their own tradition for more coherent responses to their questions and this only made the tension increase.
In the end, the youth outreach was hampered and there was needless division in the church, partly as a result of the leaders’ inadequate theological response. I’m thankful that my father-in-law was one of those who served as a bridge between the youth and the elders of the church and played a part in the healing that would come over time.
The leaders of four evangelical denominations in Slovakia recognized the need for theological education. Like them, I believe that every culture in every time needs theological leadership that can guide the church through the unique changes faced in their context and to train the next generation of leaders. In 1993 the leaders of these denominations founded an evangelical seminary in Banská Bystrica–the same one where I currently teach. Since then, this seminary has been training pastors, teachers, and missionaries for Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Romania, Africa, and elsewhere.
I met Jana and her family on my first day in Slovakia. I worked side by side with Jana and others to start a campus ministry in her town, with her youth group, and with the ministry of that band. Jana and I fell in love and after one year I asked her to marry me. When I asked Viktor and Anna for their daughter’s hand in marriage he said something to me that I will never forget. “I always hoped that one of my own sons would become a pastor but I never dreamed that my son-in-law would also be a minister of the gospel.”
When Jana and I return to Slovakia, where I will teach Old Testament courses at the evangelical seminary, we will also work alongside Jana’s brother who is the pastor of the church in that town.
I’m doing my best to fulfill the legacy of Viktor Poloha–not so much for him as for the Lord he served and because of the passion that he has laid on my heart.
My passion is to study, live, and teach God’s story in Slovakia. I have a passion for theological education that equips every believer for life and service in the church. Both Jana and I have a passion for the 99% of the people of Slovakia who do not know the salvation of Jesus Christ.