A Reason to Stay

by Colin Stephen

Most young people want to leave Albania for a ‘better life’ in Western Europe or the USA. Something needs to be done to reach the young people in Albania. In order to socially transform this needy country and get rid of the corruption and lack of care shown by politicians, the Albanian people need to be personally transformed. Young people need the vision to live for God’s Kingdom and serve Him within Albania.

When I first came to Albania in 1995, the average age of the population of 3.1 million was 24. By 2021 the population lowered to 2.87 million while the average age rose to 36. If this trend continues, in 25 years the Albanian population is expected to be 2.5 million with an average age of 47.1 Our local university reported a 40% drop in applications for next year and a recent study found that in the last eight years 16% of those living in our city have left to live abroad, the highest level in Albania.

In the next 25 years, almost 85% of the population are expected to live in the cities. Tirana, our capital, is the third fastest growing city in Europe.2 This is due to its many universities and foreign NGOs, and better work opportunities. Areas that do not have a university struggle as youth leave to attend university elsewhere and rarely return home. However, in cities like Shkodër that do have a university, believers have the tremendous opportunity, privilege and responsibility of reaching out with the gospel to the young people. Many have great success with student groups and sports activities that bring the young people together regularly. The church in Vlorë has an active programme for teenagers and students. Their football outreach is a great success as is their training up of young people to serve in the local church.

Church Networking

Tirana is by far the biggest city in Albania. It has over 50 evangelical churches but many have small numbers attending with little unity or networking to encourage each other. Encouragingly, the youth who serve in these churches will likely know many other young Christians like themselves from other churches in the city through university outreach and friendships. In our own city of Shkodër, we have better networking of churches. We held joint evangelical youth meetings with five other evangelical churches and are planning future similar events.

Smaller towns and villages in Albania have the advantage that, with little to do, youth events at the church are a major attraction and some have large children’s and youth groups. However, the reality is that most will leave for university or to work in Tirana or to live abroad. Cities with universities have the advantage of working with students.

Up north, in Shkodër, things are a little different. We are unique in that our population is almost equally split between Roman Catholics and Muslims. This creates an atmosphere in which people are very defensive of their own religion and in many ways more of a challenge to reach with the gospel. We have had a little success with a small number of youth and students attending who are not from a Christian background. But many attend for one or two weeks and don’t come back, leaving us working mostly with children from within our own church.

Reaching the Youth

My wife, Elida, and I run the youth group and it is good to see many of our own young people serving and helping in the running of the holiday Bible club each summer. Some are also involved in the music ministry and serve in the church.

We have a nursery for 50 children that runs Monday to Friday in our church building. When they start school at the age of six, most of these children go on to attend the children’s meeting each week. Our challenge is to encourage the teenagers to attend our youth group. The youth receive weekly teaching and this year we plan to go through one chapter of Acts each week. Discipleship is done in groups and also one to one with the 13- 18-year age group. We have found that the earlier we can start the discipleship process the more response and interest is shown.

…it is good to see many of our own young people serving and helping in the running of the holiday Bible club each summer

It is remarkable to see how new people come when we put up a volleyball net in our church yard or set up table tennis in the hall. Sport can be a major obstacle as many have training every night for their team so they are unable to attend youth group or arrive late. However, sport can also be used to bring young people to the church where friendships are made and gospel conversations follow, and hopefully this creates interest to attend regularly.

Camp work is another area we want to focus on. We are thankful for two camp sites in Albania, one in Tirana and one in the south, both of which actively reach out to young people. For many years, we helped organise a youth camp in the south but, at over seven hours away, it is a long way to go for a camp. We have recently run a camp closer to home and we hope, God willing, to have our own local youth camp next year. That will give our young people the opportunity to invite their friends and to serve, which has not previously always been possible due to limited space.

Our holiday Bible club typically had 60-70 attending each summer but when the weekly meetings restarted, the numbers kept falling until Christmas when they dropped off to almost only our own children attending. So, about five years ago, we changed our focus and began working on a new programme. We started running the weekly meetings in a similar way to the holiday Bible club with a lot more games and a lesson one week followed by a related craft the next week. As a result, we have since had regular numbers of over 50 children each week, aged 6-12. What we did not plan, was that mothers of these children would request to stay while the meeting was on. Some good friendships have developed with the Christian mums, which led to a conversational gospel study taking place, pre-Covid, with around eight mothers.

A Better Life

Corrupt leadership, poor education and low wages are among the reasons that many Albanians want to leave the country. It is not just the young people but professionals with good jobs who are leaving due to being disillusioned with life in Albania. They want better lives for themselves and their children who are growing up.

The youth work is at a critical stage. Young people need to hear the positive message of hope and seek a truly better life in the Lord Jesus Christ. We need much prayer that this generation will receive a movement of God’s Spirit so that, in His mercy, we may see young Albanians choosing to stay and serve in their own country to change it for the better through the gospel of our Lord.

The Apostle Paul urged Timothy ‘to remain at Ephesus’ (1 Tim. 1:3) as Timothy had an important ministry to fulfil. Albania needs men and women like Timothy. Pray that many of the youth will be reached with the good news and that they will remain in Albania, and use their spiritual gifts for the furtherance of God’s Kingdom in the land, culture and language they know so well.

1 www.worldometers.info/world-population/albania-population
2 www.visualcapitalist.com/fastest-growing-cities-in-europe

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