Albania is a beautiful country, situated in South-eastern Europe bordering Montenegro, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, and Greece. The population1 within its border is only three million, but in an ethnically rich region known as the Balkans, there are up to six million Albanian-speaking people. Tirana, with a population of more than one million, is the capital and is the centre of business, education, services, and governance.
Following fifty years behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, Albania saw the dawn of religious freedom just thirty years ago, when the light of the glorious gospel arrived again in the country, making true what the scripture affirms, ‘The people which sat in darkness, saw great light’, Matt. 4. 16. Since then, although the population is loosely divided as 70% Islam, 20% Orthodox, and 10% Catholic, the number of evangelicals has risen to 0.5%, significantly higher than the neighbouring countries which had much more freedom during the communist years. The main concentration of believers is in the greater Tirana area, with more than sixty evangelical churches scattered across the city, varying from large churches with 300 members, to small house groups.
The assembly testimony started when missionaries from the Italian assemblies arrived in Albania in November 1991. A team of a dozen, led by brother Salvatore Corcelli, immediately started a pioneering work in the main cities and towns, while receiving regular visits by other brethren from Italy, UK, and elsewhere. Later, other missionary couples from Italy, Australia, and the USA joined the original team to help with outreach and to disciple new believers. Soon a work was established, and outreach efforts commenced in neighbouring villages. Today, there are around fifteen assemblies in Albania, which are led mostly by indigenous believers, as most missionaries have now left. The assemblies are actively involved in their local communities and with ministries such as a children’s home, prison work, two radio stations, a Bible school, and several student ministries in universities.
The assemblies are also involved in producing high-quality Christian literature, and translating Bible commentaries and other books, which are highly appreciated by the entire body of Christ.
Sylvia and I were both saved in 1991, at an early age, and were actively involved in our respective local assemblies. I moved to Northern Ireland in 2004 for our wedding and in October 2008 we were commended to the work in Albania and Kosovo by the assembly at Ballymagarrick.
We made our base in Tirana, and, with an exercise to do outreach in the local area, we commenced a weekly Bible study in our home the following spring. Within a few months, the first couple that started attending were miraculously saved by God’s grace and there was good interest from others attending. In September 2009, we found a place close by to rent and started a weekly gospel meeting in addition to the regular Bible study. The Lord was blessing the work and souls were being saved.
In May 2011, following much prayer and consideration, and in fellowship with other local assemblies, we gathered for the first time to break bread in accordance with the biblical principles of a New Testament Church. The joy of that meeting and the establishment of a new assembly was overwhelming, despite the many challenges that lay ahead.
Soon we had the first baptisms and new additions to the little fellowship. Presently, there are twenty-five believers in fellowship, with an additional group of students who fellowship with us during term time. Unfortunately, we have lost three couples and their families due to emigration over the years. We feel the loss keenly but are encouraged to see others taking on responsibility and stepping up to fill the gaps that have been left by their departure. Prior to Covid-19, between forty and fifty were in attendance for the preaching of the gospel each Lord’s Day. Due to restrictions, we cannot facilitate this at present, but the smaller Bible study groups continue throughout the week.
Following many months of research, editing and design, the first Albanian Bible Exhibition was completed a few years ago. It is composed of approximately forty panels and alongside them are glass displays containing replicas of manuscripts, scrolls, artefacts, a model of the tabernacle, and some old Bibles. As this is just part of the ministry, we are only able to put on a limited number of exhibitions each year. To date, thousands have visited the exhibition and we have had many profitable conversations with interested individuals about ‘the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus’, 2 Tim. 3. 15.
Printing is another aspect of the ministry, albeit a very time consuming one. Over the years we have been able to: translate and print a dozen Emmaus courses; design and print thousands of calendars which are distributed freely around the country each year; write and print thousands of gospel leaflets for our weekly Saturday morning street work as well as other outreach activities throughout the year; translate excellent Christian books by various authors, such as David Gooding, John Lennox, Ronald Diprose and Ralph Shallis.
We continue to be involved with the children’s home in Gjirokaster. There are eleven children in care at present and a lovely sister from the assembly in Vlore manages the work there, liaising with government officials, managing the staff, and seeking the best interests of each child.
As well as bringing up the children and helping with various aspects of the ministry, Sylvia volunteers as a General Practitioner at the ABC Health Foundation, where she is also the Medical Director. The foundation runs a fully functioning Primary Care Health Centre with medical doctors, treatment room, community nurses, physiotherapists, a speech and language therapist, an audiologist, and administrative staff. In 2018 they were recognized by the State as a licensed accreditation centre for medical education, which followed the accumulation of many years of hard work and effort by the staff in their quest to be a beacon of light in an otherwise corrupt and bureaucratic system. Two years ago, they opened and furnished an outpatient palliative care centre. This is an area of medicine that is much neglected here, but one where holistic care is essential, and it not only addresses the physical needs of patients but also the emotional, social, and spiritual needs. With no limitation on religious expression, the staff can openly discuss their faith with patients, and pray with them during the consultation.
The recent pandemic has affected the assemblies here as it has elsewhere, placing the Lord’s people in a challenging position, as they felt they could not fulfil the role for which they were called, Acts 2. 42-47. Some believers were infected with Covid-19, and some have gone to be with the Lord because of it, but we look to Him for guidance and protection as we try to encourage the saints, and witness to unbelievers around us.
As first-generation Christians, the Albanian believers face a number of different challenges - the lack of experience being a significant one. Although mission workers carried out a great work, passing on ‘all the counsel of God’, Acts 20. 27, there are still many areas in which local Christians have to take decisions according to their own convictions and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The average age among the assemblies is mid to late thirties, but life experiences have made them grow quickly, and cling more to the Lord and His word.
Migration is another challenge. The local churches outside of Tirana face constant waves of emigration, especially as young people leave to study in the capital and then settle there, while churches in Tirana experience a constant haemorrhage of those emigrating abroad. At times, local peripheral churches struggle to maintain a testimony and continue the work, though it appears that there is more openness towards the gospel in these areas than in the capital.
Presently, the Albanian church appears to be going through a phase of consolidation. Local elders need wisdom in finding a balance between Bible teaching and pastoral care, while not losing sight of a renewed and fresh vision for the lost.
As we have seen from history, where God is at work the enemy is active also. In order to leave a legacy for the next generation and a continuing testimony for Christ here in Albania and the surrounding Balkan area, it is vital that we all endeavour ‘to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, Eph. 4. 3.