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Albania: a land of contrasts

September 2018 | by Will Niven

View from Berat castle
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Albania, land of the eagles, is a place of great contrasts. It is full of possibilities for the gospel and yet it faces deep challenges also. The apostle Paul was the first to preach the gospel to the Albanians according to Romans 15:19.

Yet from apostolic times all the way to the 1800s, when the British and Foreign Bible Society sought to penetrate the Albanian people with the Word of God, there is little or no record of any evangelical life. A brief time of revival, limited to the area around the town of Korçë, before the Second World War, was quashed by the communists who took over after the war. The dictator, Enver Hoxha, declared Albania to be the world’s first atheistic state in 1967 and all religion was brutally suppressed.

Since the fall of communism in the 1990s there has been a considerable amount of missionary and evangelistic activity. Virtually every town in Albania now has some form of evangelical church. There are remarkable opportunities for the gospel unprecedented in the history of the land. Yet, despite more than 25 years of evangelism, church planting and various forms of humanitarian and educational work, the percentage of those claiming to be evangelical believers is 0.5 per cent of the population and some would cast doubt even on that figure!

The evangelical scene

The evangelical scene is divided between the capital city, Tirana, and the rest of the country. In Tirana there is considerable church planting activity. Tirana has around a million inhabitants, almost a third of the population, so it is understandable that many resources are being concentrated there. However, many churches are simply being filled with believers from existing churches either from other towns and villages or other churches in the city.

A great deal of ‘church hopping’ goes on so actually understanding how much the church is growing there can be quite hard. However, in many churches believers are little more than passive spectators while a committed few serve them. Considerable work is being done amongst students and there is a wonderful work being done amongst medics and medical students under the umbrella of IFES.

In the rest of the country the scene is very different. Churches struggle deeply with the continual loss of members. Droves of Albanians leave towns and villages for Tirana and for foreign countries. This leaves local churches in a constant state of flux and makes establishing churches incredibly difficult. Establishing church leadership is even harder.

Added to this is a sense of despair and hopelessness that hangs over the land. Rampant corruption, injustice in the justice system, Mafia activity, massive unemployment, rising prices and punitive levels of taxation all combine to suck the life out of the nation. Poor health care, falling standards in education and an utterly inadequate social care system add to this sense of despair. Though the tourist industry in Albania has begun to grow, ordinary people see very few benefits from it. Albanians say that, ‘hope dies last’. In the last few years hope has truly died here.

From missionaries to leaders

One great challenge for the church is the transition from missionary to Albanian leadership which has often been fraught with conflict and pain. The model of leadership in Albanian society historically has been overbearing, dictatorial and self-centered. The ‘strong man’ model may make things work but is quite the opposite to biblical values. It may be easy to sit and give orders to others to do the work but it is a far cry from the Suffering Servant who washed the feet of  his disciples.

It is hard for many indigenous leaders to break out of that model. Added to this, missionaries have often imported the problems of their own churches and denominations to Albania and complicated the situation further. Missions have tended to ignore the centrality and necessity of the local church.

However, another problem has been the departure of missionaries from an area leaving one Albanian leader to not only serve in one church but to help several others also. Many Albanian leaders are struggling to cope, as the requests for help from different churches far outweigh their capacity. Many leaders have limited theological training and whilst the lack of church tradition can be an advantage it can be a considerable disadvantage also.

There is no collective wisdom and experience to fall back on in a first-generation church. There are no examples to follow or precedents to learn from which makes it much harder to know how to put Biblical principles into practice. It is also not possible for most Albanian pastors to leave their situations for theological training. Many are bi-vocational to support their wider families or simply have no one to replace them if they were to go somewhere for residential study.

Biblical literacy in the church

Another challenge is in biblical literacy in the church. Large numbers of churches are under the sway of extreme Charismatic teaching or the prosperity gospel. Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen in particular are very popular. The quality of teaching and preaching in churches is generally very poor. Pragmatism, both in evangelism and church practice, is rampant with some quite alarming things being done in the name of the gospel.

Added to a widespread ignorance of the Bible amongst believers is the fact that many cannot interpret the simplest Bible texts. Social media and the internet, together with a falling standard in education, have left people largely unable to understand the Gospels let alone other forms of Bible literature. For people of the Book this is a considerable issue!

Fier town centre
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The town of Fier

We live in the town of Fier, in the south west of the country, which is Albania’s third largest city with some 140,000 inhabitants and serve in the ‘Way of Peace’ churches of Fier and Patos. These churches were the fruit of radio ministry by the European Christian Mission in communist times and church planting work by missionaries.

The churches are relatively small; some 40 to 50 people gather together in Fier on a Lord’s Day and 15 in Patos. Despite there being other evangelical churches in Fier most of the city is largely untouched by the gospel and there are many neighbourhoods without any witness or local church.

The population of the city has not only grown exponentially in the last few decades but has changed in nature. Villagers have flooded into the town and many of the old Fier families have emigrated; especially to Philadelphia which is known as Phila-Fieri. The activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons do not help the situation but cause people to be deeply suspicious of us at times.

Men for the future

As yet we do not have deacons or elders appointed in either church, despite them being in existence for over 25 years, but we have seen signs of encouragement of late. A great joy in the past year and a half has been to see the men of the Fier church beginning to take responsibility in the church.

With the help of Grace Church, Yate, we have been training these men. Training began on a church wide level in evangelism and then a group of men was formed to prepare for the future. It has grown from 9 to 15 men. Each meeting, one of the men must share something from the Word and both practical and theological issues are treated.

Since the start of the group the men have taken responsibility for the leading of Sunday worship, leading the Lord’s Supper and prayer meetings. Gradually we are teaching them how to handle the Word of God and we hope to have at least two brothers preaching and leading Bible studies by the end of the year. How we long to see elders, deacons and evangelists who will plant new churches raised up from within our midst!

Partnership with others

Another joy has been in our partnership with Albanian leaders. In the town of Patos, Bledar Lamaj has been serving full time together with us in the church. Bledar was raised in Patos, saved as a young teenager and has served faithfully in the church upon his return from university. Patos is a town of some 34,000 people which was built to house oil workers and their families. Industries around the town have disintegrated leaving widespread unemployment.

In fact, there is an unusually high proportion of women in work compared to men often in places like shoe factories. One believer who works in one such factory has great opportunities for the gospel. She often distributes literature to over 100 women colleagues and many ask for things like Bibles for their children.

A number of challenges

The church faces a number of challenges. One is to see faithful men leading their families and the church. They have had no examples as to what it means to be a Christian husband and father and most men split their time between work and the coffee bar so even secular examples have not been of help.

Work is often an oppressive place. Bosses are often verbally abusive, corrupt and pay their workers low wages whilst expecting them to work very long hours. Men often have to provide not just for their immediate family but the wider family as well. It is a struggle to pay off debts that they have had to take on either to buy a property or to provide medical care for sick parents.

Thousands of Albanians are in severe debt simply to provide family members with medical care or the medicines that they need. Temptations outside of work include gambling. Almost without exception, every coffee bar in Patos has a betting shop attached to it. There is simply nowhere for men to go in their spare time which does not have temptations associated with it.

Church planting

We also partner with Ylli Beqiraj, pastor of Vlora Baptist church, who divides his time between the churches in Vlora and Fier. Apart from ministering to the church in Vlora he visits the prisons both in Vlora and Fier each week to hold evangelistic Bible studies. He leads the church Bible study in Fier.

His great passion is to see new churches being planted and is assisting us as we seek to plant new churches nearby. Ylli is a particularly gifted teacher of the Word and is often in demand in other churches. He has been able to go around four times a year to the church in Gjirokastër to do seminars on topics such as Islam and hermeneutics.

Surrounding villages

One great challenge for us as churches is to reach out to the surrounding villages. The Fier district, second most populous in Albania, has some 106 villages of which only three have evangelical churches in them. God has opened doors for us in two villages.

To the south of Fier, about a 20 minute drive away, is the village of Ferras. Ferras has been devasted twice in two years by flooding. Crops, livestock, household furniture and appliances, and clothes have all been ruined or simply swept away. With the help of different organisations the Fier church, in partnership with Vlora Baptist church, has been able to help the community materially.

We have also been able to work with children and young people. Last Easter we decided to invite families with whom we have contact for a meeting to test the waters for further gospel work. The response was wonderful and since then we have been having Bible studies each Friday, in a defunct coffee bar that we rent, with some 15 adults plus young people and children.

In the village of Suk, to our north east, we have a family who have opened their doors to us and who soak in the Word of God. A family of a recently released prisoner who live close by are also open to the gospel.

Working with all ages

We have opportunities for gospel work with all age groups. On one end of the age spectrum we have access to a local old people’s home. There are less than 10 of these in the entire country as most elderly have been cared for by their families.

However, the number of elderly being left behind when their children emigrate abroad is creating an ever-increasing number of people needing such care. The old people’s home in Fier has some 60 residents. Living conditions, though much improved over the years, are poor and the standard of care is often scandalous. We have a monthly service there each month and are very well received.

On the other end of the spectrum there are real opportunities with children and young people. The same pressures that abound in the West are true for young people here. Teenage sex, pornography, recreational drugs and peer pressure all weigh heavily on them and believers face real dilemmas both at school and with their friends.

Prisoners meeting
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Opportunities in the prisons

The work in the prisons of Albania, headed by the Albanian Prison Fellowship, has been a great opportunity for the gospel. The Fier prison, second largest in the country with some 800 inmates, has allowed evangelical work to go on two days a week.

On Wednesdays there is a service for the men and on Tuesdays a course called “The Prisoners’ Journey”, based on Christianity Explored, has been run for nearly two years. Our last course had an average of 9 men. A follow up group was organised for those wanting to study more and has now reached 30 and will have to be split in the autumn! Where else would you find 30 men meeting to study the Word every week? The prisoners, who come from all over the land, are attentive, sincere and genuinely appreciative of our visits.

Another aspect of the work is visiting their families. When a man is imprisoned the Albanians say that his whole family is imprisoned with him. Particularly in the winter months it is hard for them to survive so we are able, with help from the Prison Fellowship, to give some basic help.

Ladies from the churches have been delivering food and fuel to some of the most vulnerable families and opportunities abound for gospel witness. Still the challenge is what will prisoners do on their release? Will they go back to short term ‘solutions’ to solve their problems that will land them back in prison? Will they stand firm for Christ when they return to friends and family?

Board of blind foundation
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The blind and partially sighted

Another opportunity for the gospel has been amongst the blind and partially sighted. A group of blind believers approached Geoff Townsend of the Albanian Evangelical Mission and Will Niven to form a foundation, ‘Light for the blind,’ whose aim is to reach the blind community with the gospel and to help blind believers integrate into the life and ministry of the local church.

Local groups, under the oversight of the local church, have sprung up in several towns. The number has grown from an initial 3 groups to 6. There are now requests to start groups in 5 more towns. We have started to hold seminars for local groups to teach them vital aspects of Christian truth. The first, with a group from Korçë, focused on the doctrine of repentance.

An annual camp, in the town of Ersekë has been a wonderful opportunity for the gospel also. Niko Hamzallaraj, a blind believer who is one of the elders of the church there, had a burden to see a camp for blind people established. Each evening is marked by a Bible message and singing and the next morning campers divide into groups to discuss questions related to the previous night’s sermon.

The foundation not only helps spiritual needs but seeks to help physical ones also. With the help of friends overseas we have been able to give out canes for the blind and apparatus for listening to the Bible. In Korçë we have been able to establish a course to teach blind people Braille and to open up possibilities for reading and understanding more. We also have a website in Albanian designed for the use of blind people with sermons and other Christian resources on it.

How Christians can help

How can you help? Above all please pray for us. How we need prayer for the work of the gospel. If the sovereign God does not work we truly labour in vain. Consider whether your church would like to partner with an Albanian church to help it come to maturity and reach out to its surrounding area. Consider supporting an Albanian worker. Why not even consider coming over here to help us?

For more information please visit the website of the Illyrian Gospel Trust at igtalbania.wordpress.com or the Albanian Evangelical Mission at aemission.org

Will Niven has been serving God in Albania for almost 20 years. He is responsible for two churches, in Fier and Patos in south west Albania.