Croatia is a deeply Catholic country. 85% of Croats identify as Catholic, and about 15% are active. (For comparison: in America, about 40% of the people attend church regularly. In France and the UK, less than 5% are regular church attenders.)
By comparison: evangelical Christians make up only 1/10 of 1% of the Croatian populace. That’s .001 of the population, 1 out of every 1,000 people. In a country of 4.5 million people, there are only about 4,500 active born-again Christians.
Many Croatian Catholics are extremely nationalistic (“You’re not truly Croatian unless you’re Catholic”), superstitious, biblically illiterate, and sectarian. Many Croats think of evangelical Christians the way American evangelicals think of Hare Krishnas, or Branch Davidians.
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “In a place where everyone is a Christian, what the Bible calls ‘Christianity’ doesn’t exist.” He was commenting on the effect of the state-sponsored Lutheranism had on Christianity in his own country, Denmark. In such a system, citizens are assumed to be “Christians” without any personal choice or commitment.
Croatia proves Kierkegaard’s observation. Centuries of state-sponsored Catholicism have made Croatia a place where everyone has just enough Christianity for most of them to think that they’re Christians, or that they understand Christianity, regardless of personal faith, participation, or discipleship.
As you might expect, Croatians who are nominal Catholics can be very slow to listen to the gospel. Several years ago, a church planter working in suburban Zagreb interviewed 80 Croatian born-again Christians to ask them about their conversion from Catholicism to evangelicalism.
One of the questions he asked was in regard to how much time elapsed between the first time they heard the gospel and the time they gave their public testimony and were baptized. (Croatian baptisms almost always follow a public testimony.)
From his interviews: in Croatia, the average conversion from Catholicism to born again Christianity took SEVEN YEARS.
In Croatia, the process of growing people into a public commitment to personal, biblical faith in Jesus Christ is an extremely slow process. It usually moves through the same stages:
- Hearing the gospel multiple times.
- Becoming convinced to read the Bible.
- (The two most important influences in a conversion from Catholicism are 1. The influence of born-again family member; 2. Reading the Bible and comparing what they read there to what they see in the Catholic church.)
- Reading other evangelical books (such as The Purpose-Driven Life or Billy Graham’s Peace with God).
- Becoming comfortable spending time socially with evangelical Christians.
- Joining a small group that DOESN’T meet on Sunday (week night Bible study, prayer, or doing humanitarian work), related to an evangelical church.
- Visiting an evangelical church on Sunday (going inside a non-Catholic church on Sunday is a HUGE step for Croatian Catholics).
- Developing enough trust in the evangelical congregation to be willing to build new social and support ties there (since they may lose those things if they officially leave the Catholic church).
- Making a commitment, giving public testimony, and baptism.