The dull whine of the motorbike’s engine was the only sound that marred an otherwise pristine setting. Though off-season for the Greek island of Aegina, this October day offered everything the throngs of tourists sought on their holiday only a few months earlier. The sun sparkled off the clear water of the Aegean, the Mediterranean breeze was light and wispy, and the temperature was such that you never noticed it. My friend Jim and I had rented motorbikes from an Albanian man who offered the best price on the island, even if they did sputter a bit. We jumped on the island’s main road that runs along the coast and took in the views. Eventually we began winding up one of the many mountains toward what is said to be the jewel in the crown of Aegina—-the Temple of Aphaea. We rounded the final bend, parked the bikes, and climbed up the hill towards the temple.
The temple sits at the peak of a mountain on the northeast point of the island. The panoramic views of the landscape and sea are breathtaking. Most surprising, though, the temple has been remarkably well-preserved. It dates to around 500 B.C. (around the time of the Greco-Persians Wars). While the Parthenon, its much more well-known and heavily-visited cousin, has a tumultuous history of distress and renovation, the Temple of Aphaea has remained virtually untouched for 2,500 years. The result is impressive—-stunning even. But standing there at the top of the island with the breeze whipping a bit more strongly now, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the grandeur, the temple felt isolated. Lifeless. Cold.
A massive, rumbling old ferryboat churned in the distance heading northeast. An hour trip on one of these lethargic Behemoths lets you off at the port of Piraeus, the largest Greek seaport and the gateway to the city of Athens. When you arrive, one of the first sites that greets you is an old Greek Orthodox church. The brown facade and red shingles are faded and muted, marking the passing of centuries. This church is only one of countless Orthodox churches throughout the country. Some estimate that 97 percent of Greeks identify with the Orthodox church. For the vast majority, it’s more of a cultural identification than a religious one. Linked closely with the state, most Greeks ignore the church at best, or (in a difficult economic time) resent it at worst. The Orthodox church, like the Temple of Aphaea, is a fading monument. Its grand buildings only mask the lifelessness inside.
Slow, Steady, Powerful
And yet look beyond the “Christian” facade and the statistics that tell you Greece is already “reached,” and you will see a slow, steady, powerful work of the Spirit. The gospel is being proclaimed, people are coming to Christ, and churches are growing. These followers of Jesus are more likely to be found meeting in a dingy, rented corner store in Athens than in a grandiose old building by the sea. They are more likely to be the marginalized than the well-to-do. But they love Christ and the gospel, and you can see it in their faces, hear it in their voices, and see it in their lives.
Many of them are immigrants or refugees. Many of them are former Muslims. Many of them still live under the daily reality of persecution. As a result, this work of God is not flashy, but quiet. Not front and center, but behind the scenes. A brother from Eritrea works long hours at a parking garage and serves as the teaching elder of a thriving Eritrean church. A Sudanese refugee, separated from his wife and children for three years, spends his days doing urban ministry on a staggering scale. A man from Afghanistan meets daily with three other Afghan men to open the Scripture and share Christ with them. Five Iranian men trust Christ one morning, and when they come to a class on Bible interpretation that night are greeted with cheers, singing, and weeping. A Greek evangelical church catches a vision for planting other evangelical churches in Greece. An American pastor leaves a comfortable position in a large church back home to run a refugee center in Athens, and the Spirit uses his ministry in powerful and unique ways. The night before I left the city, the sheer number of testimonies of the Spirit’s work in bringing people to Christ brought me to tears. God is at work in Athens.
Spirit Is Moving
After leaving the Temple of Aphaea, Jim and I drove down the mountain back to the road along the sea. We stopped at a little store to pick up some pistachios grown on the island and struck up a conversation with the college-age girl behind the counter. When we asked her about her faith, she unsurprisingly responded that she was Orthodox. She asked if we were as well. We told her we were evangelical Christians. She had never the term. Protestants? Never heard of that either. It took a bit of labored conversation just to explain that it is possible for “Christian” to mean something other than Orthodox or Catholic before we were able to share gospel with her (which she knew pieces of, but clearly had never put together).
In many ways, this girl behind the counter is a microcosm of her country. She is a Christian, but she doesn’t know the gospel. She identifies with the church, but she has missed the substance of Christ. She belongs to a fading, lifeless facade. And yet the power of the gospel—-that good news connected across the storyline of the Bible for her for the first time—-that gospel is on the move in Greece. The Spirit is moving wherever he wills, most often in unlikely places and among the most unlikely people. Yet the spark of the Word is being fanned into a flame spreading across Athens. Almost 2,000 years ago some in this city sat in the shadow of the Acropolis and heard the gospel for the first time and believed (Acts 17:34). You may not hear much about it, but the same is happening today.
God is working behind the scenes.
Note: You can read more about Training Leaders International’s ministry in Athens here.