Nis, Serbia – Simon Percy and Bruce Jenkins with David Ide – June 2015

This was a first visit to teach at the Balkans Theological Seminary in Nis, southern Serbia, the birthplace of the Emperor Constantine.

The seminary was established only two years ago, and is being guided and taught by Simo Ralevic (pastor, elder statesman among Serbian Baptists, and prolific author), his brother Cedo (pastor of the Baptist church in Nis), and Cedo’s son Emanuel.

They are developing their curriculum under the guidance of Dr Garry Williams, and supplement their teaching with other local men and with visiting lecturers from abroad. They are in discussion with European Missionary Fellowship, and other organisations, as they seek to teach a full range of subjects.

The premises are shared by the Baptist Church, and are situated in a pleasant, tree-lined, urban street. Nearby is a Serbian Orthodox Church with gorgeous murals and superstitious worshippers, and it serves some of the approximately 90% of Serbians who are Orthodox. The church rents the premises from the municipality in an arrangement that began in 1999. Over a period of two and a half months in that year parts of Nis were destroyed by NATO bombing. The church gave humanitarian aid to the refugees resulting from the devastation, and in appreciation the city leased the property to the church at a low rent. As time has gone by this arrangement has become less secure.

David Ide introduced us, and over five days Bruce taught a comprehensive introduction to the doctrine of Scripture in the mornings, and Simon gave instruction in the afternoons, on Philippians, interspersing direction on how to prepare sermons with teaching on the main themes of Philippians. He also spoke on selected passages in Philippians to model expository preaching. A number of the students could converse in English, but all lecturing and discussion was carried out through interpreters. Notes had been translated into Serbian by one of the students in advance, and this significantly enhanced their understanding of the material.

There were 11 students, a small number which encouraged personal interaction. They were a mixture of ages, ethnicities, and aspirations:

  • Braca, Dragaan, and Sasha are Roma gypsies. Sasha is the son of a pastor, and is preparing to pastor his own people.
  • Stefan is Simo’s grandson, preaches regularly in Simo’s church, and values the rigorous crits he receives from his grandfather (“Can’t you say anything good about my sermon!”).
  • Jacob has a talent for languages, translated our notes, interpreted, and has an aspiration to be a missionary preacher among people who have never heard the gospel. He has done the EMF School of the Bible course in Welwyn.
  • Neven will further his studies in Romania, and then return to work with Child Evangelism Fellowship.
  • Branimir is already a pastor in Lacarak, has previously completed theological studies, and is refreshing his knowledge.
  • Vladimir is a twinkly-eyed ex-amateur actor, and a qualified electrician. He recently married a Russian lady, is learning Russian, and is seeking to join her in far eastern Russia where he hopes to do evangelism.
  • Sinisha is a professional photographer who videoed our sessions, and described his vocation in broken English with complete clarity as “click-click for money”!
  • Misha has suffered a brain haemorrhage, lost the ability to speak for a year, and is now fluent again, also conversing in near-perfect English.
  • Dushan has been in the church in Nis for 20 years, is an engineer currently doing a management course, and his greatest immediate concern is to witness to his extended family.

The students appreciated our teaching, interacting in a lively way during the sessions, and we were able to have good personal conversations with them. Our hosts were warm-hearted, and would like to have us back for their next cycle of students. We enjoyed exceptional hospitality, and copious quantities of delicious food. There was meat with every meal, and cream with most, all followed by cake. And that was only lunch! Coffee was on tap. The locally grown salads were a necessity, “for collateral damage”!

The seminary is evidently in the process of development, and of clarifying such matters as curriculum, accreditation, sourcing of lecturers and lecture materials, and admissions criteria for students. It also has meagre resources, and operates in an economy with very low wages in relation to the cost of living (“In Serbia we spend 500 euros per month, and only earn 250”). The lure of Germany, and significantly higher wages, is strong.  Students are encouraged to accept invitations to preach in churches in neighbouring towns but are often unable to meet the cost of public transport to get there.

It was a very great privilege to be in Serbia, to serve these men, to sense their warm appreciation, and to enjoy the generosity of their hospitality.