Shaun Thompson, of the Albanian Evangelical Mission in Gjirokastër for 20 years, reflects on the needs of Albania today.
The opening up of Albania, and later Kosova, to Christian missions, was rightly hailed as a great opportunity for the gospel. When Albanians emerged from that notorious atheistic dictatorship, many showed an interest to learn something about religion, previously a forbidden subject.
During 1991-1996 hundreds of missionaries moved into Albania, evangelising freely and opening churches in every town. It was a good start, but in many cases it was interrupted by what I consider the biggest challenge to the Albanian church in the last 20 years — mass emigration.
The effects of this emigration have been felt throughout the whole country, though most acutely in provincial areas because of an accompanying internal migration towards the capital, Tirana. Nearly everyone I met during my early years in Albania now lives somewhere in Western Europe, North America or the Tirana metropolis.
The reasons are fairly straightforward: poverty, unemployment and instability. Albania was without question Europe’s poorest country in 1991. The danger of starvation was real and probably only prevented by an EC emergency food aid programme.
The anarchy and near-civil war of 1997-98 shattered most people’s hopes of a brighter future. And the ongoing corruption and political chaos have done little to improve the situation today.
That being said, one of the most encouraging things that I’ve seen during the last 20 years is the decision by numerous Albanian Christians to commit themselves to gospel work among their own people.
God has raised up national Christians to serve as pastors and evangelists, for which I wholeheartedly rejoice. In many cases, these Albanian leaders have had opportunity to emigrate too — some have even been offered places in Bible schools in the West.
But, thankfully, they have chosen not to leave, because they feel called to devote themselves to preaching the gospel to their own people while the window of opportunity is still open.
In our own area of the country (the south west) we rejoice to see men like Geni pastoring the church in Memaliaj, Reni pastoring the church in Delvinë and Petrit as an elder of the church in Gjirokastër. Perhaps the single most important thing that I’ve done in my years in Albania is to invest time in encouraging these brethren to ‘fan into flame the gift of God’ that is within them.
It would be wonderful to see God raise up others, so that these brethren are not labouring on their own; but also to see Albanian leaders emerge in some of the other towns where we are working, such as Tepelena and Ballsh.
Largely due to emigration, a number of churches planted in the 1990s closed in the last decade, leaving some towns with no church at all. On that note, the addition of men in their 20s to our team in Gjirokastër over the last five years has been a great encouragement.
It wouldn’t be far wrong to say that there are really two Albanias. On the one hand there is the Tirana-Albania, which incorporates the main port of Durrës; and then there is the rest of the country.
Tirana certainly provides opportunities difficult to find anywhere else. So, in a sense, it is no surprise that so many people have moved there — including national Christians.
The result is that the church in Tirana is flourishing, at least in numbers. There are about 50 evangelical churches there (all planted in the last 21 years), mostly led by national pastors; some with large congregations, all of which have benefited from the influx of Christians from the rest of the country.
But there is also a focus of mission projects and missionary personnel in the metropolis, which sets it apart from the provinces.
What I see in Albania today — and I am most familiar with the scene in the south — is an urgent need to reach the next generation with the gospel. Much good work was done in the 1990s and beyond, but we need to keep sowing and watering the seed of the gospel in the hearts of men and women, and especially children and young people, if we are to expect God’s kingdom to take root in what has long been a spiritually barren corner of Europe.
After 500 years of Islamic conquest and 50 years of Marxist dictatorship, Albania has just experienced 20 years of potent Western materialism. So we are up against a challenge!
It must be pointed out that there are not the opportunities that there once were. When I first came to Albania, it was easy to get into conversation with fellow passengers on the bus. Now people are more interested in their telephones and looking out of the window than talking to a foreigner or with each other.
I used to hold a weekly Bible study in the boys dorm of the university, until the guard told me I wasn’t allowed in anymore. We used to do door-to-door work, until the JWs and other cults made it a nuisance to people.
I once taught an English course in a local secondary school using the gospel as a textbook, but there is no way that would be allowed now. Neither would one be allowed to use school premises for a Christian meeting, even outside school hours.
However, there are still many opportunities to be had. We run youth and children’s clubs and these often provide inroads in towns that otherwise have no gospel witness. These have largely come out of our numerous summer camps.
We hold special events around the Albanian calendar, including Christmas and Easter, but also using Women’s Day and other anniversaries. We do open airs outside schools, especially in rural areas, and sometimes run summer cinema events in the open air with Christian films.
Every year we distribute thousands of evangelistic newspapers and gospel calendars, not door-to-door, but shop-to-shop, and office-to-office, as well as giving out other Christian literature.
We’ve put 14,000 shoe box gifts into the hands of children in schools in southern Albania in the last two years, many of whom also took a Christian book and heard a gospel message.
In addition, showing hospitality, giving English lessons and rubbing shoulders with local people during everyday life, creates natural opportunities to talk to people about things in general and one’s faith in particular.
The traditional religious communities in Albania (Sunni Moslem, Shia Moslem, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) have placed a great emphasis on church building as opposed to church planting!
Although it is natural that religions with an emphasis on the external should make a priority of bricks and mortar, there are of course practical advantages to having a building — especially in a country devoid of community halls and where religious groups are denied access to school facilities.
The construction of churches by evangelical congregations would allow them to do a lot more in terms of community outreach. The main difficulties in accomplishing this are financial and legal: churches outside Tirana are generally poor, and finding land which is not embroiled in ownership problems can be difficult.
A lot of humanitarian work has been done by missions in Albania in the last 20 years, much of it commendable. But I believe that no greater good can be done for the Albanian people than to bring them God’s Word, especially if it be done in a winsome and culturally appropriate way.
Edited from Congregational Concern, Summer 2013, with kind permission