Christianity once thrived in Italy, but it soon became a formalized state religion. Today the majority of Italians are Roman Catholic by culture, but many distrust the Church. Some studies suggest as few as 3% faithfully practise Catholicism. The north is mostly secular, and the south has a mix of Catholic faith with folk superstitions. Those who do pray will more often pray to a saint than to Jesus. Satanism grows in some areas, and Turin acts as a global centre for its followers. Italians will more likely explore a New Age or pagan practice than explore the Bible. However, the Catholic Church does take action in society. It offers compassion ministries, and takes a stand against secular philosophies. Ask God to remove the many barriers that keep people from understanding the gospel.
Signs of hope for the Church. Many challenges and difficulties remain, and progress is invariably painfully slow. Some encouraging glimmers of hope, however, need to be earnestly prayed for:
- Cooperation among churches. Division and polarization have been the legacies of Protestantism, but things are beginning to change. Several different church networks are beginning to foster trust, respect and even collaboration across the denominational divide. The Evangelical Alliance works to this end, as do various network initiatives.
- Evangelism and outreach. Relational evangelism is an effective approach, as are the cell groups and house churches that often result. These and other new expressions of fellowship are increasingly popular. Also, groups such as Christ Is the Answer, Italy for Christ, the Brethren and some Pentecostals continue with larger-scale, event-based evangelism. Christian TV has an impact, but largely by promoting prosperity teachings.
- Immigration of believers into Italy - particularly from Eastern Europe and Africa but also from Latin America and Philippines - infuses new vitality and openness into the churches, and it opens Italians' eyes to the needs on their doorstep and abroad. It is now conceivable that the majority of evangelicals in Italy are no longer ethnic Italians. Pray that this new reality might spur indigenous churches to greater faith, cooperation and good works.
The least reached sectors of the population:
- Many areas of Italy lack a strong indigenous evangelical presence (specifically: Abruzzo, Friuli, Liguria, Marche, Molise, Trentino, Umbria, Valle d'Aosta and Veneto). Immigration and some very modest church growth are slowly improving the situation.
- Sardinia, a Mediterranean island with limited autonomy, has 1.67 million people and its own language and culture. Sardinia has only about 30 evangelical churches and a few Christian workers. There has been radio outreach for some years. Suspicion of outsiders, fear, vendettas, the occult and the activities of JWs all make any evangelistic outreach difficult.
- The 1,850,000 students in 94 universities remain a needy and crucial mission field. GBU(IFES) has nearly 30 groups with around 300 students and aims to eventually have 50. Agape(Cru), Great Commission in northern Italy and a growing number of local congregations focus on students as well. In Milan alone, there are more than 175,000 students with little outreach being done - CW is one of a handful working in this context. Also, there are increasing opportunities to reach international students in Italy.
- The estimated 500,000 drug addicts have high rates of HIV infection and crime. Cocaine and sniffing solvents are the fastest-growing problems, affecting young people in particular. Evangelicals are only beginning to meet the challenge (Betel in 5 centres; Teen Challenge 2; AoG 2).
The need for expatriate workers has not diminished, but it has changed. Helping the existing Italian Church mature, expand and reach out, as partners and with a servant attitude, is now needed. Attrition is traditionally high here, often due to inadequate preparation, entrenched opposition and relatively low fruitfulness. Some significant groups (and a number of expatriates) in the country are CB/CMML/EoS, TEAM, Avant, Missions-gesellschaft, Campus Missions International. Italian Ministries is a field-based mission, started in 1998, that has a positive impact in further enabling foreign workers.
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Content taken or adapted from Operation World, 7th Edition (2010) and Pray for the World (2015). Both books are published by InterVarsity Press. All rights reserved.