Culture in Greece
“Greece is both religious and secular” explained Leonidas, as I asked him about the culture in Greece. More than 90% of Greeks would consider themselves to be part of the Orthodox Church (and 8-9% who declare themselves communist or atheists), but for many people the association doesn’t go much beyond attending the main Easter and Christmas festivals and making the sign of the cross. “The Orthodox Church is thought of as ‘the Ark of Salvation’”, Leonidas continued, “the place of safety.”
What continues to sadden and move Leonidas and Irene is that so few Greek people understand the gospel of salvation through Jesus by grace alone. Salvation, most Greeks would believe, is through a combination of grace and works, and in this combination there is no place for assurance of salvation.
But how do you share the gospel in a place where the evangelical church is regarded widely with great suspicion, as a heretical cult, and even ‘anti-Greek’? ‘To be Greek is to be Orthodox’ is a saying which several of our missionaries in Greece have used. For someone to go to a service in an evangelical church would be noticed by their family. For a young person, concern would grow probably leading to warnings; for others, Irene points out how gossip would spread quickly within the family.
Gossiping the gospel
Greek people are friendly, outgoing people and the beautiful lakeside city of Ioannina, the capital of the region of Epirus in north-western Greece, is the idyllic setting for the café culture. There are two types of café, Irene explains: the café’s where the men sit, drink coffee and play backgammon, and the cafeteria’s where friends and families might meet and spend time together. And many people are happy to get into conversations, even with a stranger.
This is Leonidas and Irene's experience. Often it is just the conversations which Leonidas strikes up as he spends time in the city square, in the parks or walking around the city, which lead to opportunities to share the gospel. For Irene, it is more the conversations with neighbours and other women in the shops which enable her to build relationships and the possibility of sharing the love of Christ in the gospel. A couple of months ago, Leonidas decided to print some cards with his telephone number and an invitation: "Come and have a free coffee and talk about God". So far, no-one has taken him up on his offer, but he is prayerfully optimistic that this will lead to opportunities, especially as he, with Irene's help, are beginning to share simple gospel video messages with his many local friends on Facebook.
Leonidas is the minister of the Greek Evangelical Church in the city, where he has been since 2000 with his wife Irene. She is originally from Cumbria, but has lived in Greece for 38 years; everyone pronounces her name in the Greek way, and only her fair complexion gives away her Englishness.
I ask him whether he finds common ground with his conversation partners. The miracles of Jesus in the Gospels are a good starting point, he explains. Many Greek people have a strong interest in the miracles reportedly performed by Saints and by Mary, and the booklets about these are very popular. But they are apocryphal, so why wouldn’t you read about the Lord himself and from a reliable source? So Leonidas seeks to encourage them to read the Bible for themselves.
Apostolis and Iannis
Apostolis is a young man in his late teens who lives in a village outside Ioannina. He goes to the Orthodox church most Sundays, and understands the doctrines of the church, and has even read the Bible. Surprisingly, he came with two other young men to Leonidas and Irene’s church one Sunday, and since then Leonidas has struck up a good relationship with him. Apostolis rang Leonidas a few months ago asking if there were any good books explaining what he believed, and Leonidas pointed him to a Greek translation of Louis Berkhof’s Summary of Christian Doctrine. He read it avidly, and then started ringing to ask for clarification on various points of the evangelical faith. No sooner had he finished the book, than he started asking for other similar books! Recently, Leonidas asked him, “Do you have assurance of salvation”. His negative answer led to the harder question “Why not?”. But Leonidas knew the answer; where justification and sanctification become intertwined, and grace and works form the basis of salvation, assurance is excluded.
Alexandros was a young man whom Leonidas passed by on an evening walk in the park. He looked shabbily dressed and miserable. Being moved with compassion, Leonidas decided to alter his route in the hope of finding him again, and came across him, standing and thinking. Leonidas struck up a conversation with him which turned into a long discussion on spiritual matters, during which Leonidas could share the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Alexandros had had contact with other evangelical Christians in Thessaloniki years before which had made an impression on him, and how they also talked about Jesus Christ as the only mediator between God and man. They agreed to meet again in the park, but Alexandros didn’t come. Leonidas found him again and I tried to arrange a meeting, but again he was a no-show. Alexandros, like most Greeks very attached to the Orthodox Church, is looking for peace and assurance, but he hasn’t found peace with God.
Younger people and students
These are just two examples of the conversations Leonidas and Irene seek to strike up with people in their beautiful city of Ioannina, but where the tranquillity and peacefulness of the surroundings contrast with the scepticism and hostility towards the gospel. They often find that the younger generation are more willing to engage in discussions about the gospel, and they find great encouragement when they are joined in the church by students at the University of Ioannina with courage to share the gospel to their fellow students.
Please pray for Leonidas and Irene, and the fellowship in Ioannina, for more opportunities to share the gospel, and for a work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of those who hear. Pray also for our other missionaries in Greece, sharing the gospel in a hard country.