Laying Biblical Foundations

by Daniele P. Pasquale

Daniele serves as the IBEI Principal in Italy.

The last 30 years have been an exciting time for Albania and for God’s Kingdom in the region: from virtual isolation to global interaction, from forced atheism to diverse pluralism, from brutal dictatorship to hopeful democracy, from a handful of believers to a growing and active church. Italy was able to contribute significantly to the cause of the gospel there due to its geographical proximity. Motivated by an evangelistic enthusiasm, Italian assemblies sent missionaries who planted several local churches.

One of these is in Shkodër, where in 1991, local men and women heard the gospel for the first time right after the fall of communism. At that time, as in many other cities and villages of Albania, hunger for the message of the Bible was great and many came to a living faith in Christ Jesus. Help came from churches in the UK and by the end of the 1990s, when the Italian founding missionary, Tommaso D’Andrea, left Shkodër the assembly was firmly established and elders were recognised.

Meanwhile, the Italian Evangelical Bible Institute (IBEI) had been training new believers for the work of the ministry at a national level – especially through Fares Marzone, who was President of OMEFI1 and then Principal of IBEI; the late Ron Diprose, a New Zealander and IBEI’s Academic Dean; and Salvatore Corcelli, the first Italian missionary to Albania. An initial programme, in cooperation with other assembly workers, was held in the capital, Tirana, in 1996-97 and then a second year was added in 1998.

A few years later, within the Albanian church eldership and IBEI, the idea to start an Extension School programme in Albania was born. The aim was to allow believers in a fast-changing society to be equipped without foregoing family life, secular work and local church involvement. This mode of delivery was already well developed and tested by IBEI in Italy: for every subject, a teacher goes to a local church and holds intensive sessions of classes over two weekends. Students gather from surrounding churches to attend the interactive lectures, learning from the teacher and from fellow students. In this way, holding ten weekends of lectures a year, covering five subjects, students can receive the Certificate of Theology in four years of study.

This model was slightly adapted for Albania and translated from Italian into Albanian. After some discussion with local leadership and considering several issues, it was decided to start the programme hosted by the assembly in Shkodër. The church had just completed an impressive building project and had all the requirements for a functional and comfortable Extension School. Moreover, great effort had been put into place by the coordinator and other volunteers to translate learning resources to complement the classroom lectures. In 2014, twenty brothers and sisters from Shkodër, Lehzë, Tirana, and as far as Vlorë, enrolled and began their training. All of them were already involved in ministry in their local churches and had similar goals.

A Desire for Maturity

Edi – ‘Since the first days of my conversion to follow Christ, I have had a great desire to read and to study the Word of God. I also had the same strong desire to help Christian young people to know the Scriptures and our God better through His Word. I devoted myself to this ministry for many years but I noticed I had some significant deficiencies, especially in biblical foundation: I had some doctrinal foundations but without strong conviction or critical thinking about them. I noticed I was not maturing anymore and it was the same for my fellow youth group members. As soon as I was informed about the Extension School in Shkodër I applied without hesitation because it was exactly what I was looking for.’ – Edi, an elder in Lehzë assembly.

At that time, as in many other cities and villages of Albania, hunger for the message of the Bible was great and many came to a living faith in Christ Jesus.

Gentian – ‘I needed to deepen my knowledge in certain biblical subjects, which was important for my ministry of the Word in my church. I did not have the luxury of taking time off work to attend the residential school in Rome. The Extension School in Shkodër was ideal for my situation.’ – Gentian, an elder in Vlorë assembly.

Alma – ‘I was strongly encouraged by my husband, Edvin, and we both enrolled at the same time. It was our desire to understand more from the Bible and get to know the Lord better. When I graduated, I said something that had resonated within me for many years: “The more I know about God the more I love Him.” I am also involved with the youth ministry in our local church and having a better knowledge of God’s Word has helped me to disciple and mentor them. Occasionally, I speak at our women’s meeting and the studies have helped me prepare and deliver better messages.’ – Alma, a sister from the Shkodër assembly.

Positive Results

Colin – ‘The first group has shown good results and all are involved in Christian ministry within their churches. The newly recognised church elders in Lezhë have both benefitted from the training.’ – Colin Stephen, Shkodër assembly.

Edi – ‘The Bible School helped immensely in three main ways. It completely changed my mind-set and biblical understanding of God, the church and myself. It helped me to build good biblical doctrinal foundations. Now they are my own convictions and beliefs and not those of others. All this has greatly transformed my ministry of the Word in the church.’ – Edi, Lehzë assembly.

I, personally, as a teacher, have been in Shkodër several times and truly enjoyed not only the classroom interaction but also the fellowship with other believers in various churches. The believers were hungry to learn and warm in their hospitality. In 2018 the graduation ceremony was held. It was a time of celebration to the Lord for His help and grace during the process.

Given the length of the programme, many of the students’ life situations change and we experience a significant dropout rate. However, in Albania this was comparably low. The graduating students persevered with joy and determination, expressing gratitude and appreciation.

Due to this encouraging feedback, it was decided to immediately start a new cycle, with about 20 new students who came from as far as Gjirokaster in south Albania and from Kosovo. Blison, a young man from Tirana said, ‘The reason why I decided to enrol at the school was to grow more in knowledge of and relationship with God and to serve Him in the local church in various ways. While studying and increasingly knowing more of the Word, I grew in my relationship with God. After the first year, I saw a difference: I was able to better study the Bible, to preach at the church, to help with church maintenance and to lead the youth ministry.’ Diana from Shkodër wrote, ‘I wanted to know more and more about the Word of God, and I needed Him to transform me by giving me the necessary wisdom to face life’s challenges. It also motivated me to take on new tasks in the church, such as summer camps for children and evangelisation of the teachers of the city.’

The Covid-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the training and some students dropped out. However, this break allowed for a fresh start and improvement in the educational experience using virtual learning. A new coordinator was appointed, Edi, who organises various aspects of the programme with the help of alumni Edvin and Elida.

Triggered by heavier use of online communication and the need for more flexible training for new students in Tirana, we recently launched the part-time online programme in Albanian. There was already enough material in Albanian to start. Building on the experience and learning resources from the Extension School, we are working on translating some courses and Christian books in Albanian, which are becoming more available. We hope to have more students in the next academic year.

Praise the Lord for His work in this country. Pray for the growth of the Albanian church, for IBEI as it provides training, and for the evangelistic and missionary efforts to the unreached people of this region.

1 Opera Missionaria Evangelica dei Fratelli Italiana (OMEFI), an Italian mission service agency.

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