It is almost impossible to imagine that a bar known for making and dealing drugs could be transformed into a loving church full of light and hope, but that’s exactly what happened in Sliven, Bulgaria.
When Sliven Reformation Church was started in 2019, the community probably didn’t expect their place of worship to be in a bar that was notorious for its criminal activities. The full extent of the building’s history and reputation weren’t known to the church until after it was purchased. Sliven’s Nadejda (Nuh–Dye–Duh) community now has a building they can use as a safe haven for worship and fellowship. Only God could perform a miracle so hard to fathom; it is fitting that God would use a bar to teach the gospel. He uses imperfect people to spread His word, so why not use such an imperfect place to change a community?
Sometimes, I find it easy to take God’s miraculous works for granted and forget what He is capable of. Then, a story comes along like this one, bringing everything back into perspective, reminding me of God’s awesome power.
Even though I live in the same rural area where I grew up in Suffolk, Virginia, I’ve seen my fair share of churches. Most of the churches near my house are plain, white buildings with a steeple and stained-glass windows. To a lot of people, this might be what comes to mind when they think of a church, but churches come in all shapes and sizes. One of the first times I realized this was when a small country store right down the road from where I live was converted into a church. I remember people in the community being skeptical and making negative comments about it because they didn’t bother to paint over the Coca-Cola painting on the side of the building. To this day, the Coca-Cola painting is still on the side of what is now a thriving church.
Can you envision a meth lab in your hometown converted into a thriving and healthy church? Even to most Christians, this would be difficult to grasp.
Today, Sliven Reformation Church is a non-denominational church that has added 15 members to their original 95 members. Four of those new members have been baptized since moving to their new building. To date, the church averages 25 participants in their weekly Bible Study. These numbers are impressive when you think about where the church is located — in a poverty-stricken community in desperate need for the word of God. Sliven is a working-class, blue-collar city of about 83,000 people, known for being a center of industry in Bulgaria for its textiles, machine-building, glassmaking, and woodworking.
The Nadejda community alone has a population of approximately 14,000 people. The next closest church is too far for the Nadejda community to travel to. In some respects, this helps the community come together and help grow the church, making a more tightly knit group of believers. This is personified in a testimony from a man who was healed of five tumors in his head after members of the church fasted and prayed together for three days.
Sliven Reformation Church is also providing for the children of Nadejda. They are building relationships with one another, in an environment created especially for them — young Christians who may feel led to serve in the ministry. A healthy church in the Nadejda community provides an opportunity for the youth to experience a loving community of believers. This gives children a strong positive influence and an example of how to follow Christ in an area where Christians are exceedingly rare.
Many of the churches that are built in Bulgaria through ICM are also accompanied by a Hope Center, which focuses on children’s physical, spiritual, and educational development. This gives them a place to gather on the weekends and sometimes even during the week. The staff at these Hope Centers help the children with their writing and reading skills as well. Because of the financial problems that many families face, children are sometimes pulled out of school, putting them at an educational disadvantage. A Hope Center gives children in Bulgaria an opportunity to get the education they need while introducing them to Christ. This plants a seed for them to grow in their knowledge of Christ and teaches them essential skills they can use later in life.
Aside from the educational benefits, churches and Hope Centers also give the youth a way to stay busy and out of trouble. Crime runs rampant among the population in the Nadejda community, where it is common for young teens to become involved with drugs and prostitution. Having a church nearby can steer adolescents away from these criminal activities. More importantly, the children are bonding with true role models in the church that they can look up to. The Children’s ministry is held weekly where they gather with staff members and are taught how to pray and are told Bible stories to introduce them to scripture.
However, children are not the only ones who benefit from a church in their community. The church holds daily and weekly activities that are more geared toward adults such as: screenings of Biblical movies, a weekly Bible study class, vocational training, prayer ministry, and of course, a Sunday worship service. With a variety of activities available for the members, believers no matter how young or old can participate at the church in some way while growing closer to God.
The church pastor, Asen Biserov, was raised in a Christian home with his grandmother. He attended church regularly. At 15 years old, he dedicated his life to Christ and became involved with the worship services and music ministry at his church. Now, he is able to provide the same opportunities to the children of Sliven Reformation Church that he was given at such a young age. By age 20, Biserov decided he wanted to begin preaching and ministering God’s word. With very few pastors in Bulgaria able to go to Bible College for training, most must go through leadership and pastoral training in local churches to become a pastor. This is how Biserov gained 13 years of experience before becoming the pastor at Sliven Reformation Church.
Bulgaria was previously under control of the Soviet Union; however, the aftermath of communism is still present in the country. Since breaking away from communism, living conditions and the economy have improved, but a substantial portion of the population still struggles financially to make ends meet. This is a hurting country with a great need for the gospel, but there is hope.
One of ICM’s partners in Bulgaria, Pastor Ivan Hazarbassanov, started a ministry in Bulgaria while the country was still under Soviet control, and he has also founded the Faith Christian National Denomination in Bulgaria that oversees over 30 churches, including Sliven Reformation Church. In January’s ICM Live: Field Update, Hazarbassanov said, “The community of the Roma people has been very open, and we have started over 20 churches in just the past 4 years. Even through COVID, we were starting and establishing church plants.” As a history buff, it’s fascinating for me to see churches flourish in a country that has been oppressed by communism for so long. ICM is just now establishing more of a presence in Bulgaria, and there are people like Pastor Hazarbassanov to help lead the way. Whether it’s a small country store or somewhere as extreme as a place that sells drugs, a church can be planted anywhere.