Notes from a talk first given at the Greece is East event, June 2022.
Greek poet, George Seferis, famously wrote: Your nostalgia has created a non-existent country.
This is a danger for all cross-cultural church planters; the danger of seeking to contextualise the gospel into a romantic ideal that is a million miles from the day-to-day reality of life in a place. For Greece, this has been particularly true over the years.
Romantic philhellenes like Byron went to Greece to fight on behalf of an idea against the Ottomans in the war of liberation. Retired people choosing life on an island in the sun (the Durrell idyll) have been known to use this opportunity to become retirement church planters amongst olive trees and donkeys. There is even the widely-held view that Greece’s accession to the Eurozone was more from sympathy and romance (no-one could imagine a European Union without Greece) than from a robust economic foundation, a fact that helped to precipitate the crippling financial crisis of the last decade.
So if we wish to contextualise the gospel for modern Greeks, and plant new churches expressing life to the Greek soul, what are we aiming at? Greek Orthodoxy may have been an appropriate and fruitful contextualisation a thousand years ago, but in these days there is a need for new churches to emerge across the nation, new wineskins for a fresh wine.
English speakers invariably struggle to learn Greek. But the Greek worldview, Orthodox culture, the history and pain of the last 200 years are all so deeply entwined with language, that the nation cannot be truly impacted except for in its heart language. The gospel must be preached in contemporary Greek. Seferis used a phrase;
O kaimos tis Romiosynis, “the suffering, pain, nostalgia and longing of Greekness.”
The Greek soul needs people who will go, learn Greek, share a gospel that ministers to deeply-felt Greek truths, and plant churches which express the life of the Spirit to the Greek psyche.
Greek family networks sprawl through time and place like any eastern Mediterranean, Middle Eastern extended family. It is a communalistic, not an individualistic culture. Families preserve deeply conservative values through an emphasis on shame and honour. For example, only 3% of babies are born outside wedlock, yet Greece has one of the highest abortion rates in Europe.
The gospel needs to run through family networks in Greece as it does in nations further east – an individualistic approach to gospel preaching will not be sustainable. The place of family as the natural oikos within which the gospel can bear fruit is self-evident.
- Multi-sensory/ high context culture
Whilst western Europe puts more emphasis on one sense (hearing) over the others (e.g. church is about encountering God primarily through one’s ear – singing and preaching), Greece is multi-sensory. Greeks speak of the feel of the sunlight, the smell of the mountains, the tastes of home.
Consider Orthodox worship – all five senses engaged in the experience of Christ. Any Protestant worship of Christ that seeks to be entirely iconoclastic and works to deconstruct the multi-sensory experience will not minister to the Greek soul. Greeks need to encounter Christ through all their senses. How will you facilitate this?
- Superstition, folk religion, evil eye
Many of the folk religious beliefs common in Greece are ubiquitous through the region, regardless of creed, Muslim or Christian. The Evil Eye, for example, is deeply Greek – the Orthodox church even has prayers for evil eye-sufferers. Tourists are sold the blue beads (stamatopetra, “stopping stones”). And yet the same idea, and the same beads, are widespread throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, India…
What this means is that pastoral theology and practice in this area needs to be informed by those East of Greece. Western theology often has no skills in this arena, whilst the Turkish church, Egyptian church, etc, have much to teach from their lived experience.
- Postcolonial angst
Young Greeks seem to express similar angst to young people of many other nations in the postcolonial era. The Elgin marbles are as hot a topic as other state-sponsored thefts of national treasures. A West-influenced, white, non-power-sensitive Christianity is just as unlikely to take root here as anywhere in Asia. The decolonising of mission is as vital for Greece as for Africa.
- The place of state religion
To be Greek is to be Orthodox. The Orthodox church is the guardian of nationalism. Nationalistic movements have always been led by bishops. Simon Reeve for his BBC documentary met a priest in Crete with a gun in one hand and the flag in the other. If a Turk becomes a Christ-follower out of Islam his family says, “you’ve become a Greek and a national traitor!” but if a Greek encounters Christ and choses to leave Orthodoxy, his family complain “You’ve become a Turk and a national traitor!”
A new Greek Protestantism needs tools to wrestle with these issues; including national service, burial, discipleship of the xenophobic – again tools that it cannot learn from Western systematics but rather from the lived faith of churches East of Greece.
Greece anyway is East-facing on many fronts. The Greek Current, a popular current affairs podcast, regularly features Turkey, Syria, Israel, China as being of immediate concern.
Being consciously post-Ottoman, Turkey is a major player in the Greek worldview and in Greek identity. Listen to this paragraph from Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff:
One day, Effi came in for work a couple of hours late. It was a perfect, breezy, young summer morning, but she was in a bad mood. Her face had a greyish tinge and she complained of tiredness.
“It’s 29 May today,” she announced by way of explanation. “It’s the Cursed Day. You know why don’t you? Today’s the day the Turks took over Constantinople – a black day for Greeks. I just feel like going to sleep. I’m not up to working at all.”
The Greek Church will only find gospel healing to the extent to which she engages with, rather than otherising, the Turkish Church.
Greece’s relationship with China is another significant Eastward interface. Chinese company Cosco has become the majority stakeholder in Piraeus port; which under Chinese tutelage has become second biggest (after Valencia) commercial port in the Mediterranean. Do not underestimate how much Greece faces East.
- East influenced in move of God
Finally, much of the current energy in the gospel in Greece is embodied in refugees meeting Christ; refugees from Iran and Syria and Afghanistan. As the number of Muslim-background believers in Christ multiplies, this represents a challenge to the Greek view of themselves as Christians and traditional guardians against the Westward spread of the Muslim “infidel.” Now, Greece is part of the refugee highway to Europe, and the locus of one of the most observable gospel phenomena of our generation, as refugees from Muslim nations supernaturally encounter Christ. What will be the outcome this unexpected dynamic of the Spirit as it crashes against the craggy shores of Greek pride?
To hear more or connect with the work of the gospel in Greece, get in touch!