Such is the state of play here in the church into which I've been adopted for the next five weeks as a part of my church planting practicum for my degree in cross-cultural ministry. Even in the six days that I've been here thus far, I've learnt a couple of valuable church planting lessons from my own observations and from discussions with the pastor of my foster church.
First, it's no secret that the hardest roadblock to planting a church in a previously 'Christian' nation (as in 2000 years old here in Thessaloniki), is Christianity itself. In a country where one's religion and one's heritage are tied so closely together, finding and discipling believers whose beliefs and lifestyle move beyond the Orthodox church is a challenge.
"To be Greek is to be Orthodox", therefore any Christian movement not given the official stamp of approval of the governing Orthodox authorities is irrevocably labelled as a heretic movement, thus not to be trusted. Of course, being branded in this way certainly doesn't
"To be Greek is to be have the repercussions that it had in centuries gone by (nobody is burned at the stake anymore…), but it does construct some rather difficult barriers to manoeuvre if a church wants to fully embrace and embody the Great Commission in their local context.
As an example, a pastor and his church, in co-operation with nearby churches, had a vision to hold an outdoor evangelistic event in the city park with a strong anti-drug message for the young people of the city. The event would consist of a Christian music group from a large youth church, food provided by a locally owned business, New Testaments from the church, and a local government speaker to deliver the message.
All of these facets of the event were going to be financed by the churches in the area, allowing anybody to come and enjoy the event for free. A local priest of the Orthodox church was invited to sanction the distribution of New Testaments at the event, so as to approve the event as an effort of mainstream Greek Christianity.
The day of the event drew closer, and no response was heard from the priest until the day before the event was scheduled. Due to 'scheduling conflicts' the priest declined the opportunity, thus the event went on without an Orthodox presence overseeing the free distribution of God's Word.
Of course, no immediate effects were felt due to his absence, but soon after the event was completed, this priest began denouncing the churches responsible for the event as a sect of Christianity and not to be trusted.
In an effort to alleviate the suspicion caused by holding a Christian event without Orthodox approval – a step almost vital to Greek cultural acceptance, the churches had now been awarded with a branding from a priest of the Orthodox church stating exactly what they didn't want to hear.
People need Jesus not a change of church
This disparity among churches and streams of churches has been felt by the local people for some time. And it seems that they are aware of it, and are seeking God for unity amongst the churches, realizing that people "need Jesus – not a change of church – denominational religion".
Such was the theme in two European Evangelical Alliance meetings that I attended in this last week. Their prayer was that God would remove all obstacles preventing the church from being a single body of Christ – a sentiment shared by young and old alike.
They realize the opportunity for God's people in the face of the great crisis that has overcome Greece in recent years, and they seek to expand his Kingdom through the power of His spirit moving through individuals and His church.
Overlooking the market place where Paul preached to the Thessalonians, you realise just how timeless, powerful, and globally resilient God's Kingdom really is. It's this heritage that builds apparent barriers for the church to navigate while at the same time foreshadows the possibilities and opportunities of a united church yet to come.
Blaine Packer is studying a Bachelor of Cross-cultural Ministry at Worldview Centre for Intercultural Studies in Launceston, Tasmania.
Blaine Packer's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/blaine-packer.html