Albania is a very unique place. The openness toward Americans, pride in their religious tolerance, and history of radical communist atheism make it very easy to have a conversation about faith. There's an interest and hunger for spiritual discussions that provide ample opportunity to experience the unique blend of Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Secular Materialism, and Paganism that exists in various parts of the country. Understanding that blend, and how it drives their culture and is driven by their history, can open up amazing opportunities to sharing the Gospel.
I once heard someone describe the culture of Haiti as 60% Catholic, 30% Protestant, 100% Voodoo. That pithy phrase gives insight into the fact that so many (even of professing Christians) turn to the local witch doctor for power over things they can't control. For Albania, we could almost give a similar description: 70% Muslim, 30% Christian (Catholic & Orthodox), 100% Atheist.
Tip #1: Don't argue with an Albanian about Islam, because you probably know more than he does. I can't number for you how many professing Muslims I have met in Albania who have never gone to Mosque, never read the Koran, and have no clue what the Five Pillars are of Islam. It's similar with those who are Catholic and Orthodox, despite the giant Orthodox and Catholic churches in the center of Tirana. This is amazing to me because everyone I meet is ready to discuss faith: they want to have the conversations, they just have no idea how to think about faith.
Their atheism stems from the almost 50 years spent under the iron thumb of one of the most brutal Communist regimes that ever existed. In 1967, the dictator Enver Hoxha declared Albania to be the world's first officially Atheistic state. All religion was outlawed. Churches and Mosques were shut down, priests and imams expelled (or worse). To practice religion in any capacity carried severe penalties. For the most part, Albanians forgot their faith.
When the regime fell in 1992, thousands gathered for the first services of the Catholic church in Shkodra. They packed the church out the door. Similarly, the first showing of the Jesus film in the center of Tirana drew crowds spilling out of the conference hall into the street. People were hungry for this thing that had been denied them for 50 years. This strange concoction--50 years of enforced atheism and a sudden reopening to faith--bred the fertile ground for the Gospel that Albania enjoys today.
Tip #2: Be Bold in opening up the faith conversation. It also bred a strange hybrid culture. One that recognizes religion as central to its identity, but has no idea how faith works in practice. Once it was legal again to publicly practice faith, people began to look back in their history and see, for example, that their grandfather was an imam, or that they come from a Catholic region of the country. "Therefore I must be Catholic, or Orthodox, or Muslim..." So goes the thinking. "... And to deny that would be to deny my family and my heritage."
Faith as Cultural Identity
Many of the Cru staff in Albania have experienced this union of faith with cultural identity in unfortunate ways. As Christians, we are taught that we have a new identity in Christ; "The old has gone, the new is here!" (2 Corinthians 5:17). But for a Christian's family watching this transformation occur, it can seem that they are turning their back on their family heritage. This is especially true if a new believer comes from a Muslim background.
"Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn 'a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.' "
Tip #3: Be sensitive to what it might cost them. Ask them to trust Christ, not to become a Christian. Albanians experience the truth of this claim by Jesus in a way that, as Americans, we simply can't understand. For Americans, faith and cultural identity are not linked. I am an American regardless of whether I am Christian, Muslim, Atheist, Buddhist, whatever. But an Albanian often will be judged by what village he or she is from. This will identify their family, heritage, religion, social status, and many other things. Albanians are also very proud of their heritage, and having a son or daughter who converts from their religion can seem like they are spurning that heritage and bringing shame on the whole family.
The Honor/Shame Dynamic
Albania is an honor/shame culture. This stands in contrast to America's guilt/innocence culture. Where we are more individualistic, Albanians prize familial connections. Where we focus on an internal sense of right and wrong, they place more importance on an action's potential for bringing honor or shame to themselves and their families. Actions like converting to Christianity have the potential to bring shame on a Muslim family, and shame on the individual.
Tip #4: Show them that Christ wants to honor them far beyond any shame that men could heap on them. When sharing the gospel in Albania, it's important to recognize the honor/shame dynamic in your conversations and to contextualize the Gospel for them. We Americans often talk about the Gospel in legal terms: God "cancelled our debt" or Jesus "took the punishment we deserve." But Jesus also took the shame we deserve. Our sins make us shameful creatures, not worthy of honor... worthy only to be turned away from in disgust. On the Cross, Jesus was shamed in our place. He hung naked and endured people spitting on him, turning their backs on him, mocking him. He was ostracized and condemned with the lowest of the low.
He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
And yet, God raised Him from the dead and bestowed honor and glory on Him. He freely invites us into that honorable place through adoption as sons and daughters of the King. We make that same transition from low-down, dirty, worthless sinner to raised-up, glorified and honored children of the King.
...He raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. ...And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus
Structures of Authority
Relevant in any honor/shame culture, but especially in Albania, is the cultural value of submission to authority. In America we are so individualistic that we have a tendency to rebel against authority. Not so in Albania--it's Haram (forbidden) and brings shame--to go against your father's authority. This is more prevalent in the Muslim regions, and in the Muslim world in general.
Nabeel Qureshi in his book Seeking Allah Finding Jesus describes a point in his life in which he had heard all the best arguments that Christians had to offer, and was beginning to be convinced. Yet, he still felt bound to his father and was certain that his father would have better answers. One day he brought his father to the discussion group, and was shocked and dismayed when his father began giving the already-debunked Islamic answers that Nabeel already knew. His trust in his father's absolute authority was broken.
Tip #5: Without questioning the character of their chosen authority figure, invite them to examine the Scriptures for themselves. I had a similar experience with a Muslim man with whom I had been developing a friendship. I had been reading parts of the Koran, and had some questions for him. He couldn't answer them, but he told me that certainly his imam (a Muslim priest) could do so. I asked to set up a meeting with all of us and his imam, but that never materialized. Unfortunately, he was not willing to discuss my objections himself, because he felt he must defer to the appropriate authority.
Reasoning via Stories
For most of human history people have reasoned together via shared stories. Stories convey moral truths that impact the soul in a way that reason cannot. It's only recent in human history that Reason has taken the forefront in our culture. Because of the Enlightenment, western cultures primarily reason together via facts and logic. But it's important to understand how recent a development this is in world history, and to understand that it's not shared by all the world's cultures.
Tip #6: Tell stories about Jesus... stuff He did and how people reacted. Then tell your story... what He did in Your life and how you responded. Facts and logic do have a place in Albanian culture. They won't deny facts. But far more important to reaching an Albanian is to tell a good story that conveys truth. All the facts in the world won't convince someone if you can't contextualize them in a narrative that touches their heart.
In the arena of storytelling, we as Christians are playing on our home turf! The Bible has a ton of great stories, and Jesus is the most compelling character ever to exist. When discussing faith with an Albanian, you might come up against some objections. Much better than arguing your way around those objections is to share stories of someone in a similar situation, and how that played out for them in the Bible. Examples could be Jonah, who ran from God. Or Peter, who was proud and had to be humbled by his denying Christ three times. Or the woman with the shameful flow of blood for many years, to whom Jesus showed kindness and said "Your faith has healed you." Ask them where they see themselves in the story.
You are also armed with your story. And your story, properly wielded, is a weapon. They want to know why you came to Albania. They want to know why you used the limited vacation from your job to come to their country, while so many of them want to leave for the "promised land" of America or the West. This is a huge opportunity to share the story of God's grace in your life, and your encounter with Jesus! After sharing your three minute testimony, ask them if they see any parallels to their lives. Now you're reasoning together via stories :)
I hope this has been a good primer for you on Albanian culture! I wanted to fill it with practical tips for sharing the Gospel with Albanians. After reading this, you may think that Albanian culture is so different that you'll never be able to reach them. In reality, though, Albanians today have been heavily influenced by Western culture and are a lot more like you than you may expect! So don't be afraid, God is with you!
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go."
Here is some more material on this topic:
- Islam in Albania Cheat Sheet
- The 3D Gospel: Ministry in Guilt, Shame, and Fear Cultures
- Seeking Allah Finding Jesus by Nabeel Qureshi
- The Albanians: A Modern History
Gordon Burgett is a Team Leader with the Team Albania ministry, focusing on young professionals. He has been leading discipleship trips to Albania since 2013. For two years (2015-2017), Gordon lived in Tirana, Albania as a member of Cru's STINT program, where he focused on developing the young adults/professionals movement.