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OCMC News - The Long and Winding Road: Empowering Disciples in Albania (Fall 2012 Magazine Article)

by Alex Goodwin (Posted 8/23/2012)

Peering out of the rain-streaked window of an overcrowded minivan from Tirana to Elbasan, rocks jut up from a lush sea of green that covers the mountains running through the heart of Albania. Low clouds hide the surrounding peaks, hanging patiently still and quietly stern, like old memories that won’t fade.

As quaint and simple a metaphor as this landscape would be for a place like Albania, the full picture of this land - known as Illyria in Greco-Roman historiography - is much more nuanced and complex. It is all at once incomprehensibly ancient while also refreshingly young, as much a product of outside influence as it is self-defined, having known great oppression yet brimming with vast potential.

It is amidst this extreme dichotomy that the saga of missions in Albania, much like the road that runs from Tirana to Elbasan, winds and bends. It began nearly 2,000 years ago with the Apostle Paul and continues to this day through the Orthodox Church. After two millennia, these endeavors remain of vital importance because, if Albania is anything, it is a crossroads - a place where past and present, old and young, east and west, faith and secularism meet, staring unflinchingly across from one another to present the nation’s population of more than three million people with an opportunity to declare who they are and to choose who they want to be.

Missions in Albania, like anywhere else, is at its core a presentation of the choice of a life in Christ. How is this choice articulated in a place like Albania? Is it possible to demonstrate the Faith’s relevance in a post-Ottoman, post-Communist, modern European context, where the motivation to accept a life in Christ is not necessarily in response to persecution, oppression, or extreme poverty?

The answer may lie with the Apostle Paul himself, who presented the Faith, not just as a response to something else, but as a way of life in and of itself – a sanctification of all things: the harsh, the beautiful, the profound, and the mundane. Though the light of Christianity shines especially brightly in contrast with the darkness of suffering and pain, it also gleams as the purpose and motivation behind that which is good and pure.

One of the greatest paradoxes in Albania at this moment in time may be that it is both unique and common. It possesses a wisdom and openness that can only be accrued by its distinct history, while sharing the same desires often felt by those in the developing or developed world. Indeed, the Faith has a unique opportunity to declare its relevance in Albania – a message that can, in turn, be shared with its European neighbors.

It is in sowing purpose - providing answers to the question "why?" – that the Faith in Albania can play a vital role. There is perhaps no one more capable of doing this needful work than an Orthodox Christian Albanian.

The idea of raising up indigenous people as a means of spreading the gospel is nearly as old as the missionary imperative itself. Guided by the Holy Spirit and its centuries of Orthodox history, the Church in Albania has continued this vital work since its reemergence from under the veil of Communism in the 1990s; and it is well equipped to do so. It is home to one of the oldest incarnations of the Orthodox Church in the world – an autocephalous Church with its own synod of bishops and growing ranks of clergy, many of whom receive their theological training at an Albanian seminary. Under His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios, several offices of the Church, administered by the Albanian faithful and those missionaries currently operating in Albania, coordinate ministries that serve the youth, the impoverished, the infirmed, etc. The potential for raising up even more Albanians to take the Faith to their fellow countrymen is immense.

The ministries of the Church are, increasingly, working collectively to serve as a means for individuals in Albania to come to, and grow in, a relationship with Christ. Many of these efforts are focused on the youth, but they minister to them in a very strategic way. For example, children are exposed to the Faith and catechized through kids' clubs from ages 6 to 13. They can then participate in an adolescent program where the bonds of a faith community continue to be forged through fellowship. At university, they can join the college ministry where the seeds of a life in Christ that will carry them in the future are watered. Such a model in education can be seen in the Protagonist School for elementary and middle school-aged children, Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy, and Logos University.

The challenge facing the expansion of the Church in Albania is one of numbers. It would not be an overstatement to call the growth of the Church in the past 20 years – the reconstruction and reopening of over 450 parishes, the establishment of ministries, the increasing body of believers – truly miraculous. Still, Albania is, according to most sources, only 17-25% Orthodox Christian. Many more Albanians identify themselves as Muslim, while the majority of them claim no religious identity whatsoever.

One of the greatest opportunities for mission workers coming from outside of Albania lies in partnering with the Albanian faithful so that the established ministries of the Church may begin to reach more people. To this end, and with the blessing of His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios, the Orthodox Christian Mission Center is planning on sending more short-term mission teams and several long-term missionaries in the coming years.

Specific tasks outlined for mission workers in Albania include providing catechism, program development, leadership training, teaching, administrative support, and outreach through established ministries like the Central Children’s Office, University Campus Ministry, Resurrection of Christ Theological Academy, Protagonist School, and Logos University. These efforts work to share the Faith both directly and indirectly. Orthodox Christianity is preached and taught through many of the aforementioned programs, but the Albanians who participate in these programs bear an even wider-reaching witness as the Faith begins to play an increasingly central role in their lives. They are proof that a life in Christ is possible and relevant in the developed world – that their faith is a source of joy and meaning, even in the face of the struggles and opportunities presented by modernity.

In the near term, OCMC will continue to sustain and support the four long-term missionaries currently serving in Albania, while training and deploying several additional long-term missionaries to further meet these immediate needs. Six people have already been approved as missionary candidates for Albania and are currently raising the support they need to begin their service.

In 2013 through a partnership with the Center for Family Care of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, OCMC hopes to send a short-term mission team comprised of Orthodox Christian families from North America to join with Albanian families for presentations and Bible studies that teach about family life in the Church. OCMC is also working to send teams that will offer a camp program at the Children’s Home of Hope in Shen Vlash. The Home of Hope provides housing and education to many children in need of a loving home. These teams will also assist in the daily activities and ministries of the Children’s Home of Hope and provide a visible witness of the Holy Orthodox Faith to the children.

Additionally, teams of seminary students from North America, organized in conjunction with the Missions Institute of Orthodox Christianity, will continue to provide an evangelistic witness while immersed in the life of the Church in Albania as part of a missions class and practicum on Orthodox missiology.

To be in Alba

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Prayer for Missions

God of truth and love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Hear our prayer for those who do not know You. That they may come to a saving knowledge of the truth, and that Your Name may be praised among all peoples of the world. Sustain, inspire, and enlighten Your servants who bring them the Gospel. Bring fresh vigor to wavering faith; sustain our faith when it is still fragile. Continually renew missionary zeal in ourselves and in the Church, and raise up new missionaries who will follow You to the ends of the world. Make us witnesses to Your goodness full of love, full of strength, and full of faith for Your glory and the salvation of the entire world. Through the prayers of all the missionary saints, Have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
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