The best part of TeenStreet (TS) Balkan 2018 wasn’t planned, according to Director Abigail Griffith: “My greatest reward from TeenStreet this year was that three teenage boys gave their lives to Christ, and all of them had a Muslim background. That was it. Take out all these lights; shut it down.”
One of the newest international TS events, now in its second year, TS Balkan 2018 gathered 150 people this August in Podgorica, Montenegro—74 teenagers from Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo and Turkey, as well as a handful of international students living in Balkan countries; the rest of the attendees were volunteers, speakers and leaders. “God was really working; He was really present; He really showed me specifically that it doesn’t matter who comes, it matters the quality of what they receive, and that was Jesus,” stated Breanna Van Note, TS Balkan programming director.
One of the mornings during worship, Breanna said she felt God direct her to pray over a specific group of boys. That afternoon, she complimented the group leader on how well his boys had engaged with the session. In response, he told her that God had prompted him to talk about witchcraft during his small group discussion that morning.
A boy in his group said he wanted to give his life to Christ. “I really wanted to do that, but I’m afraid because of identity, because of who I am,” the boy shared. “This evil man, this sorcerer put a curse on me to be an evil man the rest of my life, and I’m afraid that even God won’t be able to help me with that.”
Breanna encouraged the group leader to bring the boy early to the worship session that evening so that all of the leaders could pray over him. “I was so excited; I just told everyone, ‘Come to the Main Hall; come to the Main Hall,’” she remembered.
That evening, the leader showed up with two boys. The other boy had come up to him at lunch and announced, “I’m doing it. I’m going to be baptised.”
“For 45 minutes, we prayed over these two boys. We prayed away this curse the boy felt heavy on him,” Breanna said. “Afterwards, it was amazing to see the behaviour change of these two boys from before that day and after that day. They knew what they decided, and they were going to be good men of God.
“That was my favourite part of the week. That was not part of the scheduled programming, but that was definitely part of God’s programming.”
Tensions still run high between Balkan countries, where borders divide not only countries but also people groups. OM leaders cite invisible walls of distrust that remain as remnants of recent decades of conflict.
“Last year, which was year one, there were two boys from Kosovo who were sitting in the audience, and a girl from Montenegro—a Serbian—was on the stage speaking, and they got so angry, they got up and stormed out,” Abigail recounted. “But I praise God for that because it was an opportunity to be able to talk to those boys. She continued to translate for the rest of the week, and they were able to sit there.”
“Our desire is unity amongst Balkan countries. We try to infiltrate that theme into every single element,” Breanna explained.
And it works. Beyond intercultural tolerance, TS Balkan builds intercultural friendships.
“We saw people from Turkey hanging out with people from Kosovo. Not only was there inter-country communication, but the Roma are treated horribly throughout the Balkans, and we had 15-something Roma from Montenegro who attended TS, and they were worshipping; they were included in groups… and those things are the things that are supposed to happen in TS Balkan,” Abigail said.
“One young [Montenegrin] lady from last year… said, ‘I am going to start learning Albanian because I met this friend, and I couldn’t talk to her, and I want to learn Albanian to speak to her.’”
“This group [can] grow up together and not apart,” Abigail emphasised. “It sounds huge, and it sounds ridiculous, and I know it can only happen with God. I know it can only happen through Christ that these teenagers, they see themselves as one, and the one they see is one in Christ.”
TS International seeks to mobilise a next generation of Jesus followers into missions. For teenagers in the Balkans, going to the least reached people simply means going home.
“This year’s theme was ‘Dare To Be,’” Abigail said. “Dare to be a worshipper, dare to be salty, dare to be a leader—all of these things are normal things. Dare to be who God called you to be right where you are.”
Ayla*, a teenager from Turkey, gave her testimony at TS Balkan about being at her school. Girls in her class had been tormenting her. Instead of retaliating, she responded with kindness. When they asked her why she was so different, Ayla answered, “Because I have Jesus.”
By giving the teenagers simple, tangible ways to show Christ—dressing modestly, being nice, not doing bad things when their friends are—they can go back into their communities and change them, Abigail said.
Using God’s gifts
When God calls you to an area in the world to do His work, He’ll provide a way—even if that work doesn’t exist when you arrive.
Neither Abigail nor Breanna had heard of TS when they joined their respective OM fields (Montenegro and Kosovo), though both had signed up to work with teens as their full-time ministry. Amidst their transition, settling into life overseas and trying to figure out ministry, in 2017, both were invited, separately, to planning meetings for the inaugural TS Balkan.
“I came to Kosovo to see teens be discipled,” Breanna stated. “From my perspective, here in Kosovo, being the only foreigner specifically here with OM to work with teens, and OM not having any established youth work, I knew that in order to connect with churches, I needed a bigger reason. In order to connect with the kids here, I needed a bigger reason. TeenStreet was that reason.”
Now, TS is Breanna’s main role. “Seeing TeenStreet as an opportunity to not only reach the teenagers in Kosovo but all over the Balkans, that just seemed really appealing, really what God had called me to Kosovo to do.”
Abigail arrived in Montenegro, expecting to join an established church ministry to teens. But Mosaic, the only evangelical church in the town where she lived (and for the surrounding 60 kilometres), didn’t have any teens attending. She volunteered once a week after school with a group of teens but faced substantial language, cultural and social barriers. “It wasn’t teenage ministry [how] I knew teenage ministry to be,” she acknowledged.
Then, she helped with the first TS Balkan, and a few months before TS Balkan 2018, Abigail was asked to take over its leadership. “I absolutely love it,” she said. “TeenStreet felt like me. It didn’t feel like I was doing what people wanted; it felt like I was doing what God wanted. It felt like I was using the gifts that God had given me.”
Finding the way forward
Besides the hurdle of bringing historically divided people groups together, TS Balkan also faces financial challenges. Whereas TS should be self-sustaining, earning income from teenagers’ and volunteers’ participatory fees, those in the Balkans struggle to come up with the money to attend, Abigail explained.
Each OM field involved in TS Balkan has assisted with the cost of sending teens from that country, depending on the teenagers’ ability to pay. But many teens cannot afford any contribution. After subsidisation, one group of Roma teenagers only needed to pay 5 Euros each, “and they didn’t pay it; their leader paid it—and he didn’t have it, either,” Abigail said.
TS Balkan leadership planned to sell snacks during free time at TS, but they reconsidered when they realised most teenagers had brought around 3 Euros pocket money for the entire week, and the teens wanted to spend that money on an ice cream in town, not snacks on site.
Overall, Abigail said the overhead costs for TS Balkan are very low. However, space this year was already tight—all of the workshop rooms were “bursting,” she described.
Next year, leadership hopes to invite teens from Serbia, Croatia and Greece to TS Balkan. “And we didn’t even reach out to Ukraine yet,” Abigail mused. “When you grow, the food and accommodation [costs] stay the same, but you need more space.”
“It will grieve me [if] it becomes more of a discussion about finances than about impacting the kids,” Abigail admitted. “I don’t want it to be so focused on finances that we forget the whole point of what we’re doing.”
Pray that the teenagers who started a relationship with Jesus at TeenStreet Balkan will continue to grow in their faith and share with others. Pray for real transformation in the lives of all who attended. Please pray that financial partners will step forward to fund this event in the future.
*Name changed for security
Nicole is a world traveller and writer for OM International, based in the US. She’s passionate about partnering with believers to communicate the ways God is working across the globe. In her free time, you’ll find her biking, paddle boarding or curling up with coffee and a good book.