Saturday afternoon I spoke to the Young People's Meeting (high school and college). They are just starting the year and only a couple of teens were present in addition to five leaders who are all in their early twenties. The young couple whose wedding I attended in Gjilan on October 9 are volunteers - I didn't recognize the woman until she told me her name and I realized this was the bride. They were both pleased to see pictures that I took at the wedding, especially of some of the women dancing a traditional dance.
Lirik is from Gjilan, Kosovo; Christina is from Shkoder, Albania where she and her sister attended "The Brother's Church" as they call it here. That is a Christian Brethren Assembly in Shkoder, which is the kind of churches Laura and I came out of when we planted Grace. They met in some combined church events. I learned on Sunday that this is only the third time Christina has been at the church in Gjilan. Now that they are married and living in Gjilan, she is a member along with her husband.
The official name of the church that Gregor started in Gjilan is "Bashkesia Ungillore Dyert e Hapura" or Open Door Evangelical Fellowship - in Kosovo, they avoid the word Church since it is used for the Serbian Orthodox Church, the long-time "enemy" of the Kosovar Albanians. The building is close to where Paulin & Violeta live so I was there a number of times for various meetings.
Sunday morning I spoke to the church. There were about 40 people present - though this number included five missionaries with two children and five men who are a part of a drug rehab center that one of the missionaries runs in a nearby village. I was pleased to meet Hysen's brother, Eduard. I didn't know that he was in the rehab center but learned that Gregor helped him to go there.
Drugs has become a serious problem in the Balkans. Under Communism there were no illegal drugs; one was imprisoned for even being in a house in which drugs were found. The end of Communism has brought an end to that kind of A great deal of marijuana is grown in Albania and then smuggled into Kosovo and other Balkans countries. Heroin has followed and now there is quite a serious problem with it. The center accepts men with any kind of addiction and is unique at this point in the Balkans. The leader, Curt (from Switzerland), has influenced many of those in the program to come to faith in Christ.
The rest of those in the meeting were from the church; not all are members, some are visiting or learning. There are a number of very strong young men in the church. Paulin (the pastor) has started a deacons group with eight young men. They are meeting twice each month for prayer and study and he is allowing them to help make certain decisions for the church. This seems quite well thought through and we should pray that it bears fruit.
Sunday evening I went out to dinner with Paulin & Violeta. I am so impressed with the maturity that I see in them now and their commitment to the men and women of the church.
Today, the Albanians have been meeting with the missionaries for continued discussion and reconciliation. I have been working on a number of things in preparation for my return to the US on Wednesday.
Friday, October 21, 2016
Today, Gregor came to Gjilan and the Albanians (Paulin, Violeta, Geni, Gregor) were planning to have a series of meetings with the missionaries. Since I knew they would all be tied up in conversations today, I decided to go to Prishtina (the capitol, about one hour away) to visit Hysen (pronounced Hyoo’-sen — Hussein in Arabic) & Esmeralda Kanani. Esmeralda and Hysen are both from gypsy (though not Roma) families in Albania. He has been on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (“Cru” in the US) for ten years and is the “campus director” at the University of Prishtina.
For those who have never heard me speak of Esmeralda, she grew up on Shkodër in extreme poverty; for a time, she lived in a cave on the mountain where Rozafa castle overlooks Shkodër. Gregor’s parents (Roza and Zef), who became believers through Gregor in 1993 met her when they were ministering to Gypsies in the city — something unheard of in Albanian culture. Her mother left her with two other children and moved to Italy. When her father died, he asked Gregor’s parents to adopt her. On my first trip to Shkodër in 1996, I met her when she was nine years old. Roza and Zef were at that time having trouble with her grandmother who was, I think, trying to get money from them to adopt her.
Eventually she was adopted and raised by Gregor’s parents. She moved with Gregor, Kela, and Roza to Gjilan, Kosovo in 2004 (Zef died in 1997) where she finished high school and then attended the University of Prishtina. I have never met a more gentle, loving soul in my life. Her life should be a Hollywood movie.
Hysen met me at the bus station and took me to the beginning of their staff meeting. There are seven staff at the University of Prishtina — he asked if I would lead a Bible Study with them. I met with them from 10:30a – 12:00p. Mostly I told them about my time on Campus Crusade Staff at Virginia Tech (1976–1978), about starting our church, meeting Gregor in 1991 in Athens, and the relationship of our church with Gregor and his workers.
Interestingly, I didn’t need a translator because they all spoke better English than Hysen & Esmeralda.
I asked them about their ministry and learned that there is only one Christian student involved in their ministry. They have about forty other students who are coming to various kinds of meetings during the week. In Kosovo, despite the fact that most people are nominally/culturally Muslim, there is little opposition to sharing their faith. However, for a student to make a decision to trust in Christ and follow him is very difficult. They cannot make “individual” decisions — rather, they have to consult their family for any change of that nature. Most are supported by “a rich uncle.” Usually, this is someone in the family, possibly outside the country, who provides for them while they are at the University. To change religions is not something that would be wise because they will most likely lose this support and then not be able to go to university.
I asked them how they maintain their encouragement in the face of so little fruit (in terms of conversions to Christ) from their work. They all spoke the importance of their staff team, of the encouragement of their church in the city. They told me about a village of 50 people in Kosovo where the men decided that they were sick of Islam and wanted to become Christians (they had met some Christians in Albania during the Kosovar crisis). So they contacted the pastor and asked him to come — all fifty people came to Christ. They are looking forward to moving of God’s Spirit among students like that!
So, I led them in a brief Bible Study from Psalm 25.14,
and he makes known to them his covenant."
In my life- and ministry-experience, Esmeralda is the greatest example of God’s sovereign grace — grace that reaches to the most unlikely places and people, lifts them up, grants them his life, and transforms them into something beautiful for his own glory. A gypsy girl, despised in her culture, made the daughter of the King of kings. Ephesians 2 says,
Wednesday, October 19, 2016
My trip with Edi from Shkodër to Gjilan on Tuesday was uneventful. It took about five hours through the Balkan Alps. A very good road (superior to Michigan roads) has been built in the last ten years which goes through the mountains and makes the trip quicker.
We arrived shortly before Gregor came from Tetevo. I realized that Edi wanted to come in order to be part of a discussion about how to handle the difficult relational sitation (see post from Tuesday, October 11). Since I knew they needed to have a long discussion, I encouraged them to speak in Albanian while I did some work and to include me if they wanted my input. That was helpful because they moved faster than trying to speak in English and I got some work done; a few times, they filled me in on discussion and asked for my input.
The problem is difficult and Gregor was preparing to meet with some parties about the relational difficulty — one at a time — on Wednesday. The discussion, however, lasted from 6:00 pm until after midnight. I ended up going home with Geni to sleep in a real bed (Gregor and Edi slept on couches), but I found out today that Gregor, Paulin, and Edi continued to talk until 1:30 am.
There is not much to report about today. Edi has a bad cold and is staying one more day. Gregor had his meetings and then returned to Tetovo. The day was mostly relationship building and discussions over endless “coffees” (basically a small cappuccino) about church life and ministry.
Tonight, however, I led a Men’s Bible Study in Paulin’s house. The church has three small groups with three leaders. This summer they all met together on Wednesday evenings. In September and October, they divided into Men’s and Women’s Groups, and beginning in November (and through next May) they’ll meet as small home groups.
There were thirteen men at the group — mostly young (ages 19–32), unmarried men. The groom from the wedding was there. He acted as my translator, since he lived and worked for three months in Chicago to earn money to get married. About half the men are those who came to Christ through Gregor and Paulini during their respective leadership ministries here (Gregor: 2004–2011; Paulin: 2011–present). The others are those whom Geni led to Christ.
I was told to lead on any subject I wanted. I chose the words of Ephesians 4.25:
I talked about the context (vv 17–24) being the grace of true conversion with all of the internal changes the Holy Spirit makes to our natural darkness. It’s on that basis that verse 25 says, “Therefore….” It’s difficult to lead a discussion when you are in a situation in which everything must be translated. I asked some questions about examples of certain kinds of “lying” which is common in all cultures.
When I was done, it was uncomfortably silent for a minute… and then Geni spoke a little and a rousing discussion happened for about 25 more minutes. He was making specific applications to the kinds of dishonesty people experience in Kosovo. I couldn’t follow it all (except when Lirik translated) but I could tell that it was at some points funny and at others quite serious. I actually felt good about this because I knew I was adequate mostly to bring up a topic, explain it in its context, and make some general applications — it was necessary for someone to take it further.
Monday, October 17, 2016
The statue of Isa Boletini represents the city of Shkodër. He was the hero of 1912 who is credited with starting the rebellion against the Ottoman Empire that ended Turkish rule in the Balkans after 600 years. When we first came, in 1996, the van driver was instructed to drop us off at "Isa Boletini" which was near Gregor's parent's home. We called him "John Wayne" for many years.
In the 1980’s, Shkodër was also the place where the democratic movement which toppled Communism began. There is a wall with relief figures in the city center which represents that fact. They are proud of their antiquity, independence, and leadership.
The stature represents in so many ways the fierce independence of the people here. Those who become Christians and are publicly baptized and well-taught often become fervent and faithful disciples. Hence the name of the church: Kisha Nxënesit e Jezusit, "Disciples of Jesus Church."
The church today is smaller and stronger than when I was last here. There are about twenty-five members with their children. The worship meeting today had about twenty-two adults and their children. Some of those who have stopped coming in the last two years have stopped because the standards of discipleship were stressed in a way that made it less comfortable for them to come. There are five or six families — including both husband and wife with their children. The rest of single adults or married people whose spouse does not attend.
The meeting yesterday for worship was serious and worshipful. After an opening (by Serjani), there was about twenty-five minutes of singing and prayer, which included the offering; then a five-minute exhortation and introduction of Devin and me by Serjani (who is the only one to have been here when I first came in 1996) and then I preached for about 35 minutes with translation. After this, Edi prayed for us and for Grace Church, there were a few announcements (on PowerPoint!), and I closed with a blessing from Hebrews 13.20–21.
I saw some whom I have not seen thus far on the trip — Ridi (who has been struggling in his relationship with God and in his involvement in church), “the other Bardha” (meaning, the woman named Bardha who is different from Edi’s wife), and Lida.
What a privilege to have a relationship with people who have come to trust in Jesus and to love him and his people. They look to us at Grace Church as a source of great blessing and encouragement because they are such a small band of Christians in a large and active city that pays so little attention to them.
(The picture did not include everyone who was at the meeting)
This morning I met for coffee with Serjani. I met Serjani on my first visit in 1996 -- I remember the elders up being with some of the teenagers at the time at the castle outside Shkoder. We looked over the city and prayed and wept.
Serjani (pronounced 'Sar-ee-an-ee") Mitku in 1996.
And today, with his wife, Sara
Serjani had a good job for eleven years managing a large gas station, hotel, coffee bar on the road into the city. Yet he felt increasingly that he was required to do questionable things. Finally, toward the end of the 2015, he quit, not knowing what it would mean for his family. Yet today he can testify that God has provided and his pride in providing so well has been modified to appreciation that he can provide as he is able.
At present some men in Michigan are working with him to consider a business venture that would provide jobs for people connected with the church and would provide a needed service in the city. He is working hard to gather all of the financial and architectural work necessary to have a full proposal for funding.
I spent my time encouraging him in his personal spiritual life and his ministry in the church - he is the most mature and long-time believer in the church.
After Serjani, I met for coffee with Edi Gjonaj (pronounced 'Joan-aye'), the pastor of the church. More and more I am impressed with his maturity and wisdom. Like me, he seems to take seriously the fact that Jesus command to "make disciples" is what our real work is about... and that it is hard, slow, intensive work.
We were able to talk about how Grace Church and CEA and can best help them in the future.
All in all this has been a most fruitful trip. Sometimes I wonder if ministry trips, in which we bring five to seven people to Shkoder and help to lead a day-camp for students or adults, is worth the effort and cost. But he stressed to me how much help it is: It provides them with great encouragement to engage in the basic work of evangelism and discipleship and it provides them with contacts that they can follow up on for months after we leave. In fact, he said to today that there are four or five people in the church who would not be there if our teams had not come in 2014 and 2015.
Tomorrow we leave at 10:00 am for Gjilan, Kosovo, about a six-hour trip. Edi plans to stay overnight to meet with Paulin & Geni. He stressed to me that I can be of encouragement to them in their difficulty with the missionaries. I feel inadequate to help much but I'm praying that God will use me to do that.
Saturday, October 15, 2016
Our days have been filled with conversations and meetings. Most of them have built on the observations I made in the last update so there is not too much more to report.
On Thursday and Friday, we attended two of the small groups — one led by Edi and the other by Sam Goldsmith. The groups just picked up last week for the school year. Both were small but lively discussions. I can see some of the strengths and some of the needs for the small group ministry. Just like at Grace the biggest challenge is to multiply leaders. At this point (unlike at Grace) there are enough groups for the number of people connected to the church. But Edi leads two of them. I am planning to meet with Serjani tomorrow for coffee and want to challenge him to step up to leading the group that meets in his home (the one Sam leads now). Part of the need is for regular mentoring and it’s difficult to know exactly how that happens here.
Saturday morning there was a children’s meeting and a student’s meeting — Devin taught at the student’s meeting. Here are a couple of pictures from the day:
Playing card game with the children - I think they were making up the rules as we went along because I kept losing.
Devin face-painting. He was quite a hit.
Thursday, October 13, 2016
I felt today for the first time I was able to have a good conversation with one of the workers about their ministry. Devin and I took Edi & Bardha Gjonaj out to breakfast and spent about two-and-a-half hours talking about their life and ministry here.
Churches need to start in the energy and freedom of the Spirit of God to be effective in any culture. But, as the church develops, form and structure needs to be added to it for it to become more effective. Some people don’t like this and feel it is “quenching the Spirit.” But the fact is, any group of people (business, family, or church) needs some structure to function and, the larger it is, the more structure is required; the key is to maintain the focus on the function rather than on the structure. Structure for the sake of structure is simply a time-consuming external focus. Structure that contributes to healthy functioning is freeing and empowering.
This applies to how elders and staff teams function, to how small group leaders are organized, trained and mentored, and to how worship services are conducted.
Edi seems uniquely qualified to organize the church beyond the “fellowship” stage. This morning we discussed.
- The legal aspects of the church building — who owns the church building, “incorporation,” filing papers, etc. In the early years of my involvement here, the demise of communism and the rise of democracy had left many of these details uncertain. Laws have clarified these things in recent years, so Edi is working at bring things “up to code” so to speak.
- Developing church leadership — growing and empowering elders, dividing responsibilities and lines of communication, etc. They presently have a leadership team of two couples and a single woman and a single man. Those on the leadership team have recognized roles in the church. They see this is as a temporary team designed to raise up elders and deacons.
- The nature of church membership — who is a member, how is one recognized as a member, what are the responsibilities of membership, etc. They are working through a process this year that will make clearer for the church members what their scriptural roles and responsibilities are.
- The ministry of Small Groups —training and mentoring leaders, starting new groups, philosophy and strategy of group life, etc. They have three groups and have good thoughts on training new leaders but have not gotten very far on that (only Edi and Sam Goldsmith lead groups at this point).
- Edi & Bardha’s needs and plans for the future — living space, transportation, etc. If they have another child, they may need to find another living place as their apartment will be too small. They also have a need to get a larger car that has more seatbelts because there is a new law that if you drive people who are in a seatbelt, you will be subject to a $1,500 fine and loss of license (!). Their present car can carry their family, but no one else which can be difficult in this culture.
All in all I was happy with the information I gathered. Edi is doing a good job at pastoring the church. There are a few areas where I feel my mentoring could be helpful and many where encouragement is needed to just keep moving in the same direction.
Wednesday, October 12, 2016
Today at breakfast, Devin and I were joined by Edi, Serjani, G., and Sam Goldsmith. They asked me about my retirement plans. I told them I originally thought I might step down from the lead pastor role at the church in my mid-sixties and then work for the church (either as unpaid staff or for a small salary) in some role, such as small groups, teaching classes, and/or missions. But, it’s possible that it won’t happen that quickly. However, I don’t think it would be healthy for the church if I were continue in the lead pastor role past seventy.
Afterward, I was reflecting on that subject.
Afterward, I was reflecting on that subject.
I am not overly-concerned for the future of Grace Church. If I am able, I would like to make a wise and steady transition to another lead pastor, but if I were to die tomorrow, the church would continue well. People would be sad, but we have a strong elder team (the strongest since I started the church) and a close staff team that is working in harness together in every area of church life. The church would move to recognize a new lead pastor—either from inside or outside the church. While there might be a difficult time, I’m confident the church could weather that and continue to move forward.
What I am more concerned about is the ministry of Church Expansion Albania (CEA). This ministry which we have started as a church, supports three national missionary families who are serving Albanian communities in the Balkans — the Ms in Tetovo, the Gjonajs in Shkodër, and the Veleçikus in Gjilan, Kosovo. Each family has three children.
There are functioning churches in Shkodër and Gjilan. They are small (25–35 adults in attendance) but they have growing leadership, functioning small groups, and children’s and youth ministries. In both Albania and Kosovo, the “evangelical” churches are accepted now as faith communities (alongside the Roman Catholic, Albanian Orthodox, and Muslim faiths which have historic cultural identity) and they face little opposition. There is still opposition from the three long-standing faiths that most people identify with; this means people who embrace the evangelical faith will face family pressure, perhaps being forbidden to attend meetings or a mistreatment at home. But in society, there is no real suppression of biblical Christian faith.
Yet the two churches are still in the process of seeing a whole generation embrace the Christian faith, raise their children in it, move into old age and die, leaving a second generation of Christians in their place. The Christian families here are all first generation — none of them had evangelical Christian parents so the whole concept of the family impact of Christian faith is something still being experienced… and experimented with. I am privileged to see some of the high school students I met here in 1996 now married and raising children but there isn’t anything older than that — G. & K.’s children are the oldest children in Christian families that I’ve met.
In Tetovo, the situation is completely different. The only Albanian believers in Macedonia are either missionaries or two or three Christian students studying at the university in the city. The cultural opposition is intense. When G. went to Kosovo in 2004, he met a Christian owner of a television station and started broadcasting short messages on the Bible in the town. Now, he says, even if he had the opportunity, he would need to think carefully about whether that would be wise because Islam is much more deeply rooted in the culture — radical Islam is rare, but serious Islam (which is anti-Christian by nature) is very strong. No one knows yet what will happen if Christians begin to evangelize openly so all the missionaries are treading carefully.
These three families are almost completely dependent on the resources we send them through those who have contributed to CEA. When I come here I realize that CEA is, at this point, completely dependent on my leadership — the elders are supportive and the church has been willing for me to spend some of my time doing this. But if I were suddenly not available… I don’t think CEA would be able to continue. Clare Holden tracks the donations, sends receipts to the donors, and produces a balance sheet yearly for the annual meeting. She (and the elders) have accepted this as a part of her job so she and I together comprise the whole of the CEA “administration” at this point.
Then, when I come here and I meet with the workers, I realize how important CEA is AND how paltry my contribution is. I really need to be able to spend more time on Skype with the workers building relationship with them and keeping abreast of their needs. I need to be having them work on quarterly and yearly plans and give written reports of progress — not to “control” their work but to have a “paper trail” as a tax-exempt, non-profit ministry that we really are keeping track of people on the field and not just sending them money.
The real power of CEA is that we are able to support national “missionaries” to their own culture in an unreached area of the world. They do not have to learn a language or cross a wide cultural boundary. Yet, in order to be effective, we need to give them more assistance than simply financial support. We need to provide the guidance, assistance, and encouragement they need to continue to apply biblical principles in evangelism and discipleship in their own setting.
Yet I know my calling is to be the lead pastor of Grace Church. I am not in doubt that that is the primary thing God has appointed me to give myself to. What I struggle with is the need to bring others alongside and impart and vision for what we are doing through CEA so that it can continue into the future to be a part of establishing churches among the Albanian people both inside Albania and outside of Albania. I anticipate that CEA will need to continue beyond my availability to lead it.
So that is what I am thinking about tonight in Shkodër, Albania.