John Hinger was a beloved and effective high school and young adult pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel Naperville when he and his wife, Amber, started talking about possibly going as missionaries to Croatia. Their oldest son, Eli, then 8, was strongly opposed.
Then one day last year at school, Eli asked his teacher to show him Croatia on the map. He came home and announced, "I think we're going to Croatia," adding that he would teach kids there how to speak English and to play American football.
"It was a total shift in one day," Hinger recalled. "We looked at each other and we were like, 'that had to be God.'"
It was just one more signpost along the way that led the Hingers to decide a year ago that they would move with their four children to Croatia. Since then, Hinger has resigned his position at Harvest Bible Chapel that he had held for six years and the couple recently closed on the sale of their Warrenville home. On May 2, they and their children set out for a month of language and cultural training in Colorado.
A few days before he left, Hinger said the kids already were picking up Croatian words faster than their parents.
"This is a whole family deal," he said. "We're all part of it."
Hinger, who has been chronicling his family's journey on his blog, lifeofamissionary.com, will be the national leader in Croatia for Josiah Venture, a Wheaton-based mission organization dedicated to working among young people in Central and Eastern Europe.
But first, the Hingers must finish raising support, an amount of $35,000 for one-time costs such shipping and Visas, and $6,500 a month of ongoing living expenses and ministry outreach. At this point, they have about 50 percent of their one-time costs and commitments for 30 percent of their monthly expenses.
Hinger admits it's a daunting goal, but said he is finding support among churches and individuals wanting to partner in the ministry.
"One of those steps of faith is trusting God is going to provide," he said. "The goal is to be over there in the next three months."
Another step of faith for the Hingers has been taking their four children -- Eli, now 9; Eden, 7; Griffin, 5; and Flynn, 3. Griffin was born with a heart defect and has undergone four surgeries in his young life. But Hinger said Griffin's doctor at Lutheran General Hospital has assured him that Griffin is doing well and that he would be available if the Hingers need to consult with him. And the doctor admonished Hinger, "Don't use his heart as an excuse not to go."
"I was kind of shocked that he used that kind of language," Hinger said. "Knowing that has been a real relief."
Move to Croatia
The Hingers will be living in Split, Croatia's second biggest city and home to a large population of young people. Born after the fall of Communism and Croatia's war to gain independence from what was once Yugoslavia, Croatian young people have known freedom that offers them opportunities for both good and bad, Hinger said.
In a country that is nominally Catholic, he will work with Croatian evangelical churches to develop an outreach to youth.
"What overrides that (denomination) is, how do we bring the love of Jesus to those people," he said. "I want to show them that there's something greater, something wonderful and exciting."
Staff and young people at Harvest Bible Chapel said Hinger already has proved his ability to do that in his ministry there.
"John Hinger is the best youth group pastor the world has ever seen," said Maria Zhdan, who was a student in Harvest Chapel's high school and young adult ministry. "His presence and energy makes every single student feel welcome, engaged and loved."
Nikki Randall said she first attended Harvest Bible Chapel with her family when she was a sophomore in high school. She knew only one other person in the youth/young adult group, but Hinger made her feel welcome.
"Pretty much, the only reason I kept going for the first couple months was because of John," she said.
John and Amber Hinger also comforted and supported her when she had a friend in the hospital, Randall said.
"They're very genuine people, and I think people really respond to that," she said. "If I have a question or (need) prayer, I know I can go to John."
Paul Zhdan, who also was a student in Harvest Chapel's high school and young adult ministry, said Hinger wasn't afraid to have fun, but always pointed the students to a deeper spiritual commitment.
"John had the ability to relate and connect with the wild and free part of students. He would never miss the opportunity to participate in any sports activity that the students were playing," Zhdan wrote in an email.
"After intense and crazy gaming, John would never fail to refocus our attention on the Lord. He desired each student to have a relationship with Jesus. This one-two punch of love of God and love for students made John incredibly effective at disciplining and working with students."
Dan Lidstone, creative pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel, said Hinger and his wife are tech-savvy people who used social media to connect with students as well as opening their home to them.
"You have to go where students are," Lidstone said. "They're just gifted at showing God's love to people and they do that in so many ways."
Hinger said he is told his personality will make him a good match for Croatia. On a trip his family took there last year, he found the people social, friendly and warm.
"My wife and I are very outgoing and social people," he said.
Among friends and acquaintances here, Hinger said reactions to their decision to go to Croatia have ranged from "you're crazy" and "I could never do that," to people saying he and his family have inspired them to take a step of faith.
"We're called to be missionaries no matter where you live," he said. "It's not about where you are but what you are doing."
The work in Croatia, which the Hingers see as a commitment of at least 10 years, will fulfill a long-held desire of the couple to do mission work. A native of Canada, Hinger met his wife -- who grew up locally -- when both were doing mission work in Australia as young people.
"Ever since then, we've always had the desire to go back and do missions of some kind," he said.
Amber Hinger, the daughter of a pastor, said she grew up going with her family to Czech Republic every summer with Josiah Venture and her mom now works for the mission organization. While she has concerns for her kids, she also sees it as a great adventure.
"I think it's a really cool thing as a family to widen their world view," she said. "It's really exciting to see our family grow together."
Still, both Hingers admit they have moments of doubt. They'll leave family, friends and the familiar behind and enroll their children in Croatian schools. Ultimately, they need to build a team of Croatian nationals to work with them.
"It's both incredibly exciting … and incredibly terrifying all at the same time," Hinger said. "My hope and my prayer is that we would see a move of God among young people in Croatia."
The Josiah Mission is named after an Old Testament king who became the ruler in Jerusalem as a child. Leaving the evil ways of his father and grandfather behind him, he called the Jewish people to repentance and back to service to God.
"What I really hope to see is young Josiahs that would grow up," Hinger said. "That they would see their country changed as a result."
Lidstone said Harvest Bible Chapel will be behind them.
"We're going to lose an amazing couple," he said. "I know they are going to do amazing work there."
Anyone wanting to follow the Hingers' story or contribute to their mission to Croatia may visit John Hinger's blog at lifeofamissionary.com.