Bosnia: A call to obedience
By Kirk Noonan
You did not want to live in Sarajevo in the 1990s. Mortar rounds rocked buildings, shattering windows, igniting fires and spraying chunks of concrete and debris. Snipers from hilltops mercilessly picked off citizens — even women and children. Thousands of residents escaped bullets and bombs only to succumb to malnutrition and disease.
Sarajevo was not the only crisis point. Nearly 200,000 people died and close to 3 million were left homeless throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina before the civil war ended.
Walking through the streets of downtown Sarajevo, the nation’s capital, it is not hard to imagine the terror citizens endured. Walls are still riddled with bullet holes. Rusty rebar juts like boney fingers from buildings where artillery struck. Bombed-out sidewalks have been repaired with reddish cement to serve as reminders of the war — as if such reminders were needed.
Despite a measure of peace in Bosnia since the war’s end, an uneasy tension remains between Serbs, who are predominantly Eastern Orthodox; Croats, mostly Catholic; and ethnic Muslims.
The division in the city of Mostar exemplifies the fragile alliance among two of the groups. Ethnic Muslims live on the east side, Catholic Croats on the west.
In such a complicated country there seems little room to add another point of view to the mix. But for several years a small yet resilient group of evangelicals have been painstakingly fulfilling the Great Commission, one person at a time. Two years ago the Assemblies of God sent missionaries Jason and Tracey Parnell to Bosnia to help the Evangelical Church of Bosnia and Herzegovina with the development of local and national youth ministries.
The Parnells’ story illustrates how God can bless a family, a fellowship and even a country when obedience to His calling transcends human perspective.
“I know where we’re going,” Michael Parnell, then 8 years old, said as he burst through the front door of the family’s home in Dayton, Texas. “We’re going to Bosnia!”
Jason and Tracey looked at their son. It was a warm Sunday afternoon in October 2002. For months the family had prayed God would show them where He wanted them to go as missionaries. They leaned toward Europe, but Bosnia was never considered.
“Michael, what makes you say that?” Jason asked.
“We learned about it in children’s church today. Our teacher said they don’t have any missionaries there. We’re going to be missionaries — so that’s it! That’s where we’re going!” responded Michael sincerely.
“They recently had a war there,” explained Jason, trying not to squelch his son’s enthusiasm. “I really don’t think there is any way they’ll send us to Bosnia.”
At that point, Jason and Tracey dismissed the idea and chalked up the discussion to Michael having heard a good missions story. But over the next few weeks God began to confirm what Michael said.
A few days later, Jason picked up the October 2002 World Missions Edition of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. As he read an interview with Greg Mundis, Europe regional director for Assemblies of God World Missions, he learned Greg was praying someone would step forward to go to Bosnia as a missionary.
“It seemed like it could have been a confirmation of what Michael said,” Jason admits. “But we still weren’t excited about taking our children to a war zone.”
At the end of October, Jason and Tracey traveled to AG headquarters in Springfield, Missouri, to meet with the World Missions Executive Committee.
Their lives would never be the same.
Four years earlier, God began putting His plan in motion. In 1998 an AG media team traveled to Bosnia with Greg to assess what could be done to support the 500 evangelical believers there. The team was overwhelmed by the physical, emotional and spiritual needs the civil war had caused.
Outsiders cannot adequately comprehend the historic conflict in Bosnia, wrote Randy Hurst, director of World Missions Communications, in the May 3, 1998, World Missions Edition. The former Yugoslavia was a complex country with six republics, two autonomous regions, and five Slavic nationalities. Three main religious groups were prominent — Serbian and Macedonian Eastern Orthodox, Croat and Slovenian Catholics, and Bosnian and Albanian Muslims. … The tension and animosity in this complex environment have risen and subsided but have never gone away. … This is a dark place. In contrast are the Christian believers who fulfill their Lord’s words, “Ye are the light of the world,” (Matthew 5:14). … Prior to the war that erupted in April 1992, only a few dozen born-again believers could be found in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the least evangelized country in Europe.
That last fact disturbed Greg. As the team visited a bombed-out apartment complex, he began praying aloud. He prayed for protection and provision for the people of Bosnia and asked God to send missionaries who would support the small but growing national church and help fulfill the Great Commission.
“That prayer burden lasted five years,” Greg admits. “I brought it before committees, put the need before readers in Today’s Pentecostal Evangel and preached it from the pulpit. I was deeply concerned we did not have a missionary presence in Bosnia.”
A few months after Greg returned from Bosnia, Jason and Tracey took their youth group from Old River Assembly of God to a South Texas District youth conference. Throughout the conference they prayed God would touch the teens’ lives and even call some of them into ministry.
During the last service of the conference, the speaker said there were 44 missionaries from the South Texas District. “Who is going to be number 45?” he asked.
The question gripped Jason and Tracey. They wept as they sensed God’s calling to world missions that night. They pursued the calling faithfully, but cautiously.
The following summer the Parnells took a missions trip to Equatorial Guinea. “It was such a difficult trip,” confesses Jason. “We came home hesitant about pursuing the process of becoming missionaries.”
Meanwhile, Greg continued to pray God would send an AG missionary to Bosnia. He knew the country was reeling from war. Breaking through the many cultural and religious barriers would not be easy for a missionary. Yet he also knew the people of Bosnia needed to hear about Jesus Christ and His love and redemption.
But no one answered Greg’s pleas or even expressed interest.
Two years after returning from Equatorial Guinea, Jason and Tracey attended a missions convention. During one of the services, they went forward to pray for AG missionaries.
“As we prayed, we wept and felt the presence of the Holy Spirit,” says Jason. “Once again God told us He wanted us to be missionaries.”
Within months the Parnells embarked on the formal process of becoming missionaries. Their only question was where in Europe God was sending them.
During several days of orientation, missionary candidates meet with the director of the region to which they feel called. Because Jason and Tracey felt drawn to Europe, they were scheduled to meet with Greg and his wife, Sandra. During the meeting the Mundises quizzed Jason and Tracey about where they thought they should serve. The Parnells shared their passion for ministry but admitted they were not sure where they should go.
“Is there anything else you can tell us that might help us to narrow it down for you?” Sandra asked.
Tracey tearfully told how Michael had come home from church and said they were going to serve in Bosnia. “As she shared the story, the presence of the Holy Spirit filled the room,” says Jason. Greg and Sandra were also moved by the story, but they wanted to be sure Jason and Tracey were positive the Lord was calling them there.
“I wanted to test them,” Greg says. “I told them they would be lonely, the national church was just developing, there were hardly any believers in the country, there was a lot of conflict and it was a very tense situation.”
He then told them of other opportunities in Europe, adding, “We never like to tell candidates where they should go, because when you get there you have to know God called you there.”
At the end of the meeting the Mundises told Jason and Tracey to pray about Bosnia and let them know what they felt. Later Jason confided to Tracey that his head was telling him to go somewhere else, but his heart was telling him to go to Bosnia.
“After we talked with the Mundises, the Lord gave us peace and confirmed in our hearts He was calling us to Bosnia,” Tracey says.
In January 2005, Jason, Tracey and their three children arrived in Bosnia. They have focused their ministry on reaching teens and 20-somethings with the gospel.
“When we sensed a calling to missions, we thought we would be leaving youth ministry,” Jason says. “But when we got here, all we could see was young people.”
Besides helping build a youth ministry, Jason and Tracey spend considerable time encouraging national church leaders and learning the complex language and culture.
“Jason is a great guy who is passionate about young people,” says Sabahudin, a Christian musician who works with youth. “He has a heart for the people of Bosnia. I pray God would give me a heart like that.”
Other leaders concur.
Sasha Nikolinovic, pastor of Evangelical Church of Sarajevo, has spent considerable time with Jason and admires the way he is adjusting to life in Bosnia. He says the Parnells have put forth much effort to build strong relationships with the nationals and learn the language.
“Jason and Tracey have determined to do what it takes to become established as missionaries here,” he says. “They have a future in Bosnia.”
Greg Mundis says during his time as Europe regional director he has learned obedience precedes miracles. Jason and Tracey were obedient, he says, in spite of their fears of taking their family to a difficult place. Now the time is ripe for a miracle in Bosnia — the kind of miracle that will see people commit their lives to Jesus Christ and forever change a country.
KIRK NOONAN is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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