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Rocky Terrain and Deep Roots - Croatia Spotlight

The Mediterranean landscape of the Dalmatia region in Croatia is postcard-worthy. Each summer, tourists flock to the beaches and enjoy hiking and cliff jumping, rock climbing and off-roading. This rocky terrain may make for a perfect vacation spot, but John Hinger, JV’s team leader in the country, says it’s also a suitable metaphor for the nation’s spiritual ground.

Croatia makes a solid first impression, with a cultural tradition of Roman Catholicism and a people who say they believe God is real. Yet digging deeper reveals that the gravel makes it hard for seeds of the gospel to truly take root. The barren land is not conducive to long-lasting growth or life-changing transformation. Called the “missionary graveyard,” Croatia is a place where many Christians visit and few stay.

Can things change? Will we see people come to know Christ? Is God actually moving in this place? These are the kinds of questions John and Amber Hinger have found themselves asking since they moved to Croatia at the end of 2014 in order to develop a Josiah Venture team. Good thing that, as John says, the Hinger family is “up for the trailblazing adventure-style deal.”

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Different Than Expected

From the beginning, God worked in different ways than the Hingers expected. While the couple knew when they got married that they wanted to do overseas missions, they didn’t realize they’d stay Stateside for 12 years first. After having four kids and spending years doing youth ministry in the Chicago area, their time finally came.

John says the decision was clear for him after talking with a Croatian pastor on a survey trip to Croatia. “I’d said that we have a heart for young people and want to help serve the local church and I don’t know if that’s even needed here. And he said, ‘We’ve been praying for people like you, because I work a full-time job and I’m the pastor and I’d love to do things with young people, but I literally just don’t have the time or the ability to do that.’” On that trip, John explains, “We saw a need and we said we want to be there and we want to fill that need.”

The family arrived in Croatia without a team or a church to partner with, but hopeful about the future of ministry. 8 or 9 months later, their first teammates came and a youth group was started. Since then, through prayer and dedication, the team and the youth group have both grown and interaction between churches that were once divided has opened new doors.

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The Short-Term Challenges

John says one of the main challenges is still that life in ministry doesn’t go the way you think it will. “Over the last three years, it’s been a lot of trying to show who we are by the way we are serving and loving the local church.” Since the church in Croatia has experienced missionaries come to help before, only to leave, the JV team is working to change this stereotype. “We’re trying to prove the fact that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. That’s honestly half the battle.”

As the team, now made up of 10 adults (from Croatia and the States) plus some kids, have worked to show they can be trusted, their prayer has been that people wouldn’t just know about Christ, but that they’d have “a transformed heart of repentance and faith and belief and a desire to follow Christ and all that that means.”

John’s wise words, “Life transformation sparks more transformation.” He explains, “Some of the best evangelists are young people who know nothing about the Bible, but they know they’ve been forgiven and were blind but now can see….No amount of sitting in a class or learning how to lead people to Christ is going to be more effective than someone who is just going, ‘Alright, God changed me and this is good stuff!’”

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The Long-Term Perspective

Maybe the most surprising thing is that as the team is faithful to God’s calling, God is faithful to move. The church the Hingers attend in Split has doubled in regular attenders. Every month, the churches in the area now do a city-wide youth event. More leaders are thinking about the next generation of believers and young people are making their faith their own and starting to disciple others. And this summer, two young people accepted Christ through the camp ministry.

Planting olive trees and vineyards in Croatia is hard work. A lot of rock needs to be cleared out to make enough space for a tree to grow. John says the ministry is like that too. “That’s where we’re at. We’re working on those things. Planting the seeds.” The best part about it is that olive trees are known to last for hundreds, even thousands of years. John and the team are keeping this in mind. “It takes a lot of work to get some seeds planted and to see growth and fruit, but that’s a plant, a tree that will last far longer than what we’ll ever see.”    

As JV’s team in Croatia continues to clear rocks, plant seeds, and see God make things grow, please pray for eyes to notice where God is working and wisdom to know how to step into those areas and bring support. Pray for perseverance for the missionaries on the field and those preparing to come. Pray also for the young Croatians who came to camps this summer, that the seeds of the gospel that were planted then, would be tended to this fall and would be able to grow roots that last.



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