Churches in Albania: Preserved and Maturing
After near extermination under Communism, the church in Albania has grown in numbers and maturity. Albanian Christians are growing in applying to gospel to all of life, even as they work to grow in ownership of their churches.
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This year marks 200 years since God began shining the light of his Son in Albania. In 1816, the British Albanian Society arrived to bring the gospel to Albanians. Albania was then under the Ottoman Empire and Islamic influence. Yet God began a great work in the city of Korca. God saved a young man named Gjerasim Qiriazi, and used him to share the gospel not only in Korca but throughout Albania. Tragically, Qiriazi died of pleurisy at 35.
The church continued to grow until its dissolution under Italian occupation during World War II. After Italian and German occupation ended, Communism came to power. In that year, there were only 100 known believers in all of Albania, even though the population approximated 800,000. Under Communism religion became illegal, and in 1972 Albania became the first constitutionally atheist state. All religions were banished, and most believers were persecuted and killed.
At the end of 1990, Communism fell. At that time, only two known believers had survived Communist persecution. These two became the first members of a restarted Albanian church, a new phase of God’s work.
Before the Italian invasion, Albania had been 70 percent Muslim, and nearly 30 percent Catholic or Orthodox. As evil as Communism was, it seems as though the Lord used it to rip up the roots of these other religions. Such hardships have prepared the way for the gospel in Albania.
Because of all this history, the Albanian church is fairly young. Our nation now has a population of nearly three million and about 180 to 200 churches. The average church is about 30 to 40 people. This might sound small, but in reality it’s astounding. From 1816 to 1944 there were around 100 believers, but in the last 25 years we’ve seen about 8000 come to Christ. We praise God for his work in Albania.
GROWING INDIGENOUS LEADERSHIP & OWNERSHIP
We also praise God for sending us missionaries from America, South Korea, and Great Britain. In 1997, it’s believed there were about 800 missionaries in the country. That year, riots caused the missionaries to leave for six months.
Sadly, Albanian churches weren’t prepared for their departure. After all, missionaries led most if not all of these churches—so many simply stopped meeting. This was a setback, but God used what happened to help missionaries train Albanians to lead the churches themselves. Gratefully, many churches now are led by native pastors and elders—or at least are moving toward Albanian leadership.
Nonetheless, a good number are still led by missionaries, so it’s not uncommon for Albanian churches to reflect traditions of foreign missionaries. Because of this, there’s no uniform pattern for church leadership here. Some churches are led by a pastor and a committee, others by a pastor and deacons. Still others are congregational or elder-ruled. In Albania, you’ll find the whole spectrum of evangelical church tradition, as so many churches have adopted the practice and traditions of the missionaries who founded them.
NEED FOR GREATER INDIGENOUS LEADERSHIP & OWNERSHIP
Yet even as some churches have raised up Albanian leaders, too many pastors remain unfocused on training the next generation of leaders; too many seem content to stay where they are.
Furthermore, many churches have much to work do in establishing their own doctrinal statements and philosophies of ministry. It’s unclear if some pastors and churches hold their current doctrine because they really believe it or because a group of missionaries told them to believe it long ago.
Albanian churches could also do a better job in financially supporting their leaders. Churches have been supported from the outside for so long that congregations haven’t had to own this responsibility.
Generally speaking, the church in Albania has steadily grown. But in the last few years growth seems to have plateaued as churches struggle to take the initiative in evangelism. Most churches were started by missionaries who had little to no formal training or experience in church planting and discipleship, and unfortunately over time this lack of training has been reflected in too many Albanian churches.
APPLYING THE GOSPEL TO ALL OF LIFE
Perhaps this lethargy in evangelism is because many Albanian churches are still learning to understand, believe, live, and preach the gospel. Most Albanian preaching is topical, and few pastors practice expository preaching, despite many conferences and seminars on its importance. Even churches that seek to practice expository preaching have much to learn.
As churches grow in their understanding of the gospel, legalism, moralism, pragmatism, and the prosperity gospel need to be resisted. Many churches focus on people’s material and felt needs rather than their condition before God or their need to respond in repentance and faith. Gratefully, there’s much focus on the love of God in Christ but not as much on his holiness or justice or wrath. Because of this, preaching rarely emphasizes the need to be born again and repent.
Discipleship and church discipline are two other areas where the church in Albania needs help. There’s a great desire to see people saved but not focus is given to discipleship after conversion. Church discipline is too often ignored because it’s seen as old-fashioned and outdated. Worse, among the churches who do practice discipline, it’s often abused. Many churches consider covenant membership as an extra-biblical idea, so this neglect of discipline is unsurprising.
Although the church in Albania has much room for growth, God remains faithful. He is without question building his church in Albania.