Short Term, Long Term: Youth Discipleship in Albania (from Modern Reformation)

MRarticleart
This article originally ran in the September/October 2012 issue of “Modern Reformation” magazine.

Albania’s youth becoming rooted, grounded and “plugged in”

© Marie Notcheva

The other night, I called my sixth-grade son from work to check up on him. “Um, actually I’m chatting on Skype right now…with one of your Albanian friends, Marko,” he confessed.  Knowing fifteen-year-old Marko, I realized he was probably witnessing to my son. Nevertheless, maternal concern won out: “Miro, it’s midnight in Albania. Marko has school tomorrow. Tell him I said to get offline and go to sleep.” While such exchanges in my home are commonplace, just a few years ago they would have been unthinkable. It has only been in the past three to five years that most homes in Albania have internet connection, partly due to the growing popularity of online games and social networking sites. Today, electronic media is also greatly increasing the long-term impact of short-term missions.

From Paul to Qiriazi

While most in the West are familiar with Albania’s recent history as an isolated, atheistic state, fewer are aware of the country’s early ties to the Gospel. Romans 15:19 records Paul’s preaching ministry in Illyricum, and Byzantium established Christianity as the official religion until the 14th century. Five centuries under Turkish rule left the vast majority Muslim. Yet  Albanians generally have never associated national identity with an “official” faith as do their Balkan neighbors. “In some ways,” notes one American missionary, “this makes evangelism easier.” Nominal Muslim teens freely share Chris Tomlin links on Facebook – unlikely in a truly Islamic nation.

The Protestant movement began while Albania was still under the Ottoman Empire, during a period historians refer to as “The Balkan Reformation.” In 1890, Gjersaim Qiriazi, considered the father of Protestantism in Albania, began his evangelistic ministry and founded a school and church in Korce. In 1892, the Evangelical Brotherhood began, with the primary purpose of spreading the Gospel and developing literature in the Albanian language. Protestantism was driven deep underground even after Albania’s liberation from Turkey in 1912. Missionaries were expelled during the fascist occupation of World War II, after which the Enver Hoxha regime (1944-85) plunged Albania into a dark period of religious repression and isolation from the rest of the world. In 1991, Western missionaries of every stripe began flooding the country.

Bible Camp — Done Balkan-Style

Paul Davies, director of Albania Evangelical Mission, a UK-based ministry formed in 1986, says there are relatively few conservative or Reformed congregations in Albania. His team’s Gjirokaster church plant has close and supportive relationships with two churches (in Tepelene and Delvine) formed by Dutch Reformed missionaries. During their summer camp program, teens from several towns spend a week improving their English, hearing the Gospel, and having fun – under the leadership of Albanian and AEM ministry and a team of short-term volunteers. Staff lead small group discussions on real-world topics designed to introduce a biblical worldview, such as friendship, superstition, and cheating. Evening programs include Gospel presentations and films on Reformation heroes such as Luther and Tyndale. Recreation leaves ample time for interested teens to pursue private conversations with the staff (although impromptu folk-dancing is also not uncommon!). Camp director Shaun Thompson, who has served in Albania for 21 years, notes that cultural differences demand a less expository and more relationship-driven approach to evangelism and discipleship. “I have seen missionaries try to do Bible camp here just like they would at home (in the US or UK), and it doesn’t work,” he said. Few in Albania own Bibles, or are familiar with Christian terminology.

For many, camp is their first exposure to the Gospel and some respond with the same enthusiasm they show on the volleyball court.  Eight months after conversion, 17-year-old “Dritan” was working his way through R.C Sproul’s Reformation Study Bible. “It’s a huge book,” he said. The AEM team, along with Albanian pastors, teach year-round at their weekly English club, but many campers are  unable to attend either due to geographic reasons or parental disapproval. Their only follow-up comes via electronic media, often by staying in touch with short-term missionaries.

“Teach me to pray!”

When “Alma” turns 18, she has a goal: to read the Bible.  Several weeks after attending camp, she begged, “Would you teach me to pray? I really want to belong to Jesus…I want to believe, and I will!” Following an explanation of the Person and work of Christ, she made a profession of faith – via Facebook chat. Like many Albanians of their generation, her parents disapprove of religion – anything that could interfere with studying and a lucrative career path can often be seen as a distraction, says AEM missionary James Clarke. Forbidden to attend church or read a Bible, Alma’s only source of edification comes via phone and online.  “My parents can stop me from going to church, but they can’t stop me from believing,” she types. She reads Scriptures from her phone – thanks to Biblegateway.com’s online Albanian translation.

Her friend “Arjeta” tells a similar story. A week at camp left her with questions, but with the help of a Facebook friend and a multi-lingual apologetics site, she learned of grace. Two days later, Arjeta declared that Christ was now her Lord – but barred from Christian activities, she now completes semi-weekly Bible lessons online with a pastor in Wales.   She says, “When I first told my parents, they strongly disagreed with me. But Jesus was calling me from the bottom of my heart, inside me, so I kept believing in Him without letting them know. One day I wanted to go to church and also take Bible lessons. They behaved so badly with me; I tried to explain what I felt, but they were afraid…I asked if I could take a Bible home at least, but they denied that, too. I try to read the Bible online but I have to do it carefully.”

“The internet age is definitely facilitating evangelism and discipleship,” says Besiana Rajta, an Albanian staff member of Campus Crusade for Christ.  “Keeping in touch with people from short-term mission trips has influenced me and helped me grow in my faith.” In November 2011, her ministry completed an online interactive quiz for students. Although there are still not many online resources available in Albanian, most teens are fluent in English.

Marko was also drawn to the Lord at summer camp, several years ago. At fifteen, he has never been outside of Albania, but he and his friend Xhoi remain close friends with the teenage missionaries who brought the Gospel to their predominantly-Muslim town. For these Christian youth, Skype and social networking sites provide fellowship and a global perspective. His friend Tea agrees, noting that there are few Christians in their community and even fewer in their school. Living for Christ is “difficult, but not impossible,” she says. “I’m just glad that God chose me.” Their group takes evangelism seriously. “Our pastor got permission for us to visit a hospital and share the Gospel with patients,” she said. She was surprised to learn from online friends that such an activity would be highly unlikely in the United States.

The Limitations of “Online Discipleship”

Using electronic media for teaching and discipleship is convenient, but there are some drawbacks. Relationships cannot develop naturally, as interaction is usually limited to small talk and answering specific doctrinal questions. Even when using a webcam, body language and tone are hard to read. When personal problems arise in a youth’s life, cultural differences and the limited amount of data one can gather make specific counsel extremely difficult. Explaining the broad biblical principles that apply to the situation, in the simplest terms possible, is advisable.

For short-termers returning home, the temptation to assume too much too quickly exists; for young truth-seekers, it might be to tell these new friends what they think they want to hear. Clarke warns, “[In Albania] If you ask someone, ‘do you trust in Christ’, ‘are you a believer’ or ‘are you following Christ’, they might just say ‘Of course I am!‘ even though they don’t have the slightest idea what these terms really mean.” Thoroughly explaining key doctrines is crucial. Just because a teen may have attended a picnic with Reformed ministers or spent a week at camp does not mean he is regenerate.

The most important lesson of “online discipleship” for short-term missionaries is keeping in close contact with the local church staff. Those on the field have already built close relationships with the teens and their parents, and are best able to gauge what kind of interaction is appropriate. The biblical model for teaching and discipleship is through the local church. When a teen’s contact with ministry personell is curtailed, however, an online connection may be his only source of encouragement. Local ministry leaders and correspondants abroad can work symbiotically by keeping one another updated on youths’ progress, struggles, and significant developments.

Short-term missions are impacting lives like never before, and nowhere is this more apparent than in rural Albania. An entire generation has been born, grown up and become techno-savvy since the end of the Hoxha/Alia regime in 1991. Although it is no replacement for face-to-face contact, mentoring via the internet is one way to help new believers grow spiritually after a one-week mission ends. Arjeta now writes, “I keep believing and praying each night. In Jesus I found true love; He loves me more than anyone, and He loved me before I was born. He never lets me down.”  AEM operates their camps below cost, and their greatest need is for financial support. (For more information about Albania Evangelical Mission’s ministry and how you can donate, see their website: http://www.aemission.org/.)

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