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Lessons from a Croatian Summer Camp

December 5, 2023

Teen Camp in Croatia

Teen camp in Varaždin, Croatia

“By integrating strong academics with spiritual formation and practical experience, we will prepare you to serve Christ’s mission in the world with integrity and truth.”

Don’t let the future orientation of Lipscomb’s College of Bible & Ministry’s mission statement fool you. 

“I’ve been convicted by many people – specifically my professors here at Lipscomb – to see all of life as a ministry for God,” says Gina Nored (‘23). “If we just wait to serve God until we’ve prepared ourselves for four years, then I have to question if we’ve really been preparing at all. The preparation is living it out now. God calls us to things every day. If we wait until we have a full-time ministry job, then we miss out on opportunities now that will form us for the future.”

In 2022, Nored and senior CBM student, Gabby Brandner (‘24) said yes to one such opportunity with a nonprofit organization called Next Generation for Christ.

“I first heard about Next Gen as an online internship opportunity when I was a freshman,” says Brandner. “They create and distribute Bible studies to ministers around the world and draw people to Christ through English learning.” After interning with them online for over a year, Brandner was invited to join a summer team with Nored in Croatia.

Nored says, “We [Next Gen] have been partnering with a church in Varaždin, Croatia for about five years offering English learning camps for adult community members. Last year, the church decided to expand their summer outreach to include children. They invited us to adapt the adult study materials so they could be taught to kids in more of a summer camp format.”

Gina and Gabby

Gina Nored & Gabby Brandner

Nored, a ministry and elementary education double major, and Brandner, a theology and children’s ministry double major, jumped at the opportunity.

“I am passionate about children’s spirituality and helping connect kids to God, so this was totally tailored to my interests,” says Brandner. “Through my courses at Lipscomb with Dr. Holly Allen, I’ve developed an understanding of the value children bring to our faith communities in the ways that they interact with God. I’ve learned that children’s curriculum should not just be “I’m going to teach you this story from the Bible,” but “we are going to teach you this story to help you connect with God and experience God.” 

So, in collaboration with their Croatian ministry partners, Nored and Brandner carefully deconstructed the adult materials into something more kid-friendly. Nored explains, “our perspective was that this is an opportunity for them to get to know God. What do we want them to come away with? That they felt loved, cared for and safe at camp and that God is the same way. We made a concentrated effort to introduce God beyond surface religion.”

“A big challenge was that you don’t realize how much your own culture plays into it until you try to write something with no cultural references. Even small things like giving an example in a lesson or making a coloring sheet with a Bible verse on it,” says Brandner. Nored agrees, adding, “ We had to constantly ask ourselves, ‘Will this work in Croatian culture or is this just an American thing?’ Plus, we were juggling three languages: Croatian, English and, because the church has helped war refugees resettle in their area, Ukrainian. You have to remember that a two minute speech will actually be four minutes with translation.” 

“It caused us to lean into not just verbal activities but to utilize all of their senses,” says Brandner. “We wanted them to know that God spent time and thought into making all of creation, including each of us, unique.” To help them experience that idea, Brandner and Nored set up sensory stations for the children to interact with creation in different ways. They smelled flowers, touched stones and made joyous sounds with noise makers. At the sixth station the children were presented with a mirror “so they could see how God made them with their own unique beauty,” says Brandner. “The best part is the teen Croat volunteers are the ones who actually led the activity since they could speak the language.”

child draws what she thinks God's kingdom looks like

A child draws her answer to the question, "What does God's Kingdom look like?"

Another activity did not require much language at all. “We had them draw what they think the Kingdom of God looks like. They didn’t have to verbalize it or describe it; they just got to draw. Seeing all the different parts they highlighted was special,” says Brandner.

“We had done so much work writing these lessons together and asking ‘what is this theologically, pedagogically saying?’” she continues. “‘Is it developmentally appropriate?’ Actually implementing it was really cool – to see what worked and what didn’t. We got to test it out and it wasn’t theoretical. It was real.”

In all there were around 20 kids at the camp. “Then,” says Nored, “we invited all the parents to come to an adult camp the next week, which averaged around 40 participants each day. The church itself  is only 30-40 people, so a large portion of those involved were community members.”

“It’s beautiful to see this church’s heart for their community,” she says. “They have been working with and teaching many of these people who came to camp for over 10 years. And to see that they really care about each other and it’s not just saying ‘well, let’s get you baptized!’ and then you never see them again. These are really deep, lasting relationships that the church is fostering with people.”

Brandner finds the generous way the church welcomed Ukrainian families seeking refuge from war as a particularly meaningful example. “They sponsored seven families in need and brought them over. They found them places to live, provided food and got their kids into schools. They are communicating the love of God through actions. It’s beautiful to see this small church being the hands and feet of Jesus. Hospitality and generosity was the theme in the church, and that will stay with me a long time.”

local teens help kids with a craft at Croatian kids' camp

local teens help kids with a craft

One Ukrainian family had arrived just a week before the kids' camp began. Their six-year old daughter came to camp every day and on the last night, when all of the kids and parents celebrated with a cookout, that little girl’s mother approached Nored and Brandner. “She said that her daughter had seen so many horrible things in the war. Camp was the first time she’d seen her daughter laugh and smile and run around like a kid in a long time. I’m so grateful for that; that this was a space where her child felt safe being a kid. That’s what showing God’s love is about. She felt safe and welcomed and loved enough to be okay. She may not remember all the Bible stories and memory verses, but she’ll remember feeling safe after a traumatic time. I’m sure God will take those seeds that were planted and let them grow,” says Nored.

“Relationships take priority there,” Brandner adds. “You need to be willing to adapt and alter your own plans in order to be with people. God blessed me so much with these relationships and the reminder to be open to letting the spirit work through you.”

“My family and I spent my sophomore year in Varaždin doing mission work and living life with the church and the community,” says Nored. “That’s long enough to fall in love with the area and its people. Being a part of their church began to shift my perspective on the purpose of church. The church’s role is to show God’s love to people with their lives and actions. That can be done in so many different ways. But when a church is insular, it defeats the purpose of its gathering. If you’re not willing to let what you learn be lived out, then what you’re learning is no longer important. Because Croatia is very catholic culturally, the members of this church live distinct lives from the rest of their culture. It makes me think how my faith is transforming me, how it makes me distinct and how I show love. Am I just thinking about my personal relationship with God or am I letting that relationship flow out of me to other people? Because if not, then it’s just a self-help thing that’s not really helping anyone.”

Not only has Nored’s perspective on church shifted, but also her approach to education. “It’s easy to get bogged down in the trenches in some classes – how do I figure out this certain idea and what if I don’t know what the answer is. But being in a different context and seeing faith in action made me realize that some of those things don’t matter as much as we think they do. It’s not wrong to engage with them, but we should keep our focus on what loving people in community looks like. I now see my ministry classes through the lens of ‘these are all wonderful, great things. I love thinking about these things. But how do they play out in the real world?’ I need to recognize that I have a great privilege here and a responsibility to show love to my neighbors.”

Sara and Gabby

Sara & Gabby

Brandner echoes that idea. “My time in Croatia put into terms what I’m learning. It made it more real. Sometimes when you sit in a classroom for a semester it’s easy to get trapped in theological debates, but being able to take a step back and see how what I’m learning in my courses is actually impacting the way that I minister to people has been amazing. These ideas that may have been really hard for me to figure out are helping me connect someone with God.” 

“Let me tell you about Sara,” she continues. “She was a teen volunteer at kids’ camp and went to adult camp. Afterwards, we continued to meet every day for the next week. She has a very busy schedule and wanted to study what the Bible says about rest. We did some spiritual disciplines together and spent time just listening to God and resting in his presence. The last day we met we sat in silence for five minutes. Then she said to me, ‘I have to tell you about this experience I just had with God.’ She ended up deciding to get baptized! She was open to God and God didn’t hesitate to step into her life and allow her to experience him and form a relationship with him. It was a beautiful thing.”

“What I’m learning in my [CBM] classes matters. Being able to go to Croatia with Next Gen in the middle of my education at Lipscomb has revived me. It’s reminded me of why I’m doing this and will help sustain me through the next two years!"

Bible and Ministry Blog
Tags: Lipscomb Missions, College of Bible & Ministry, Croatia, Children's Ministry