Albania: Extended interview with Rev. Jimmy Svenfelt 

Categories: Albania, Albanian, Catechism, Europe

Rev. Jimmy Svenfelt, a young Lutheran pastor from Finland, has been called to share the Gospel in Albania, a tiny European country just north of Greece. To assist the growth of a new Lutheran church in Albania, LHF recently published Luther’s Small Catechism in the Albanian language.

What is your personal background? What brought you to Albania?

Rev. Jimmy Svenfelt
Rev. Jimmy Svenfelt

I have lived most of my life in Finland. There I got married to my wife Malena and we had our first daughter there. In Gothenburg, Sweden, I studied theology at the Lutheran School of Theology (Församlingsfakulteten).

When I was still studying theology, I didn´t really know what it would lead to. I wanted to be a pastor, but where? In Sweden or Finland? Then a pastor from Finland (Vesa Pöyhtäri) visited our school in Gothenburg. He is the managing director of foreign mission called LFF in Finland. They have done most of their mission work in Russia but had a new project going on in Albania. He asked us if we wanted to move to Albania as the first missionaries in this project.

We thought about the question for about a year and I also visited Albania before we could answer “yes.” We didn´t really have a reason not to follow this calling, so we did! We have never planned for it, nor have we ever wanted to be foreign missionaries. But here we are.

I was ordained as a pastor to the St. Paul congregation here in Albania in January 2016, and we moved here in January 2017.

Most Americans know nothing about Albania. What can you tell us about this country?

The country is fascinating in many ways. In Romans 15:19 Paul says, “From Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ.” Illyricum – that is today’s Albania! So Paul was in these areas and preached the Gospel. But Albania isn’t known for that; they are better known for what happened during the 20th century. The communist regime from the end of World War II to 1991 was really harsh and damaged the country in many ways. In 1967, the dictator Enver Hoxha declared the country to be atheistic. All religions where forbidden. Even though much has happened since the fall of the communist state, the country is still very undeveloped, especially in the countryside. Albania is still a very impoverished country and full of corruption.

What is the religious background of the Albanian people?

As I mentioned earlier, Christianity has been in Albania since the time of the Apostles. I have been told that bishops from this area attended the Church Council in Nicaea in AD 325. So, Christianity was the main religion until the Ottoman Empire conquered Albania.

Albanians’ national hero is Skanderbeg, a military officer who led a great rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century. But in the end he failed. After more than 450 years under the Ottoman Empire, most Albanians were Muslims.

Still today about 60 percent of the Albanian people say they are Muslim, but not many of them know what the Muslim faith is. Around 30 percent of the people are Christian (mostly Orthodox, but in the north many are Catholic).

Lutherans are few. Two congregations are a part of the Wisconsin Synod. Our St. Paul Lutheran Church is about 10 people (half of whom call themselves Muslim) who gather every Sunday.

Rev. Jimmy Svenfelt, left, shares the Albanian Small Catechism with new and searching Christians in his neighborhood.
Rev. Jimmy Svenfelt, left, shares the Albanian Small Catechism with new and searching Christians in his neighborhood.

As a pastor and missionary, what are your challenges in sharing the Gospel in Albania?

For me, the biggest challenge is to learn their language. Some of the people who attend our services are still unbaptized. They don’t speak English so we have to speak Albanian to them or talk through a translator. We also have a lot of neighbors that I would gladly talk to and explain who we are and what we believe, if I just could explain that in Albanian. Another big challenge is the hymns. We have just a few hymns translated into Albanian.

What does the Lutheran faith have to offer the Albanian people?

I think the Lutheran faith has a lot to offer! First, we confess the true Biblical faith, and that faith is a very historical faith. I haven´t done the study yet, but I hope [to find that] we confess the same faith as the Christians confessed here in the first centuries. As I like to see it, we are just bringing back to them what they once have had.With all our good, solid and Biblical distinctions between Law and Gospel, justification and sanctification, the doctrine of the two kingdoms, etc., I think Lutheranism has much to give to Albanian Christians and non-Christians. These distinctions help a lot in understanding the true faith in Jesus Christ, and we want to confess and present the faith to those who we come in contact with. Here, Luther´s Small Catechism provides good help.
How can Luther’s Small Catechism help you in your ministry?

The catechism has already helped me! I have used some small parts of it in my sermons. hope that in the future, when the language is not such a problem, our congregation could go through the catechism and study each part more carefully. That’s a plan that we have had for a long time.Our Albanian friends have some contact with other evangelical groups in Albania. We have contacted some of them and the plan is to visit them, deliver the catechisms and give a lesson about the book. We hope that such a work will be fruitful. I have also given the catechism to some people who have asked to know more about what we believe.Personally, I love the Small Catechism. Unfortunately it wasn’t until a couple of years ago I discovered the goodness of it. I have still a lot to learn about how to live with the catechism.

Do you have any prayer requests?

I think materialism is the biggest god in Albania nowadays. He is worshipped by many, so a prayer that God´s kingdom would come again to these places on the earth is a good prayer. There are a lot of people who needs to hear about the love of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Only with your help can this important work continue. Prayerfully consider how you can help support LHF projects.