Meet my friends Lee & Jeannette Walti. Missionaries to….Italy! The below is written by Lee. Enjoy!
Okay, so what do you think of when you think of Italy? Rolling hills and beautiful vistas? Historic and ancient buildings and ruins? Or maybe you think of lasagna, delicious pizza, good bread, cheeses and wine? Many Americans would love to visit Italy, many regularly dreaming of going to Rome, Venice, Verona or Sicily if even only once in their lifetime for a vacation.
What most Americans usually do not think of is that Italy is a mission’s destination. They don’t think of reaching Italians for Christ as urgent in any way. In fact, the vast majority of Americans believe that Italy is well reached in terms of gospel penetration. Most assume that since the Roman Catholic Church has been well entrenched for thousands of years, most Catholics are Christians. However, there is nothing more distant from the truth.
It is Common Knowledge that:
- Of the 60 million people living in Italy, 98% or 58 million claim to be Roman Catholic
- Of these – 3% or 1.74 million actually frequent their church on a monthly basis
According to recent polls and by the RCC and Pope John Paul the 2nd
- Less than 1% of those claiming to be Catholics read their bible
- Most importantly, it is very rare to find even one Roman Catholic that understands the gospel of grace, that is, that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. So, all is not well in the Roman Church.
As far as Evangelicals, those who do believe in the gospel of grace, that salvation is a gift from God through Jesus Christ’s death for our sins and not something that can be merited or earned,
- less than 1.1% of Italians consider themselves Evangelical Christians.
- Interestingly, the average size Evangelical or Protestant Church in Italy is about 35-40 people
- a large church is considered to be about 100 participants.
As far as the number of churches in Italy:
- there is about one church for every 50,000 people.
- To give you a comparison, in America, there is on average, one church for every 5,000 people.
- And as far as geographical penetration of churches, of 33,500 cities, towns, villages and communities, 32,000 of these have no evangelical church, no evangelical bible study, no evangelical bookstore, no evangelical witness whatsoever.
On top of all this, the number one fastest growing religion in Italy is Islam with various cults such as astrology, witchcraft, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons all more numerous than Evangelicals in Italy.
As you can see, Italy is in great need of being reached with the true gospel of grace. Most missionary sending organizations now list Italy as one of the top 10 most unreached countries in the world. Yes, Italy!
Clearly the advertisements for travel, food and fun in Italy does not help the cause of missionaries in Italy. Most of our friends think, “Wow, I’d sure like to be a missionary in Italy.” But little do they know how difficult life is when you live here.
For example, the government takes now 57% of income right off the top of Italian’s income (the largest tax burden in all of Europe). That means that if you make an average of 1,500 Euro per month ($2,043 in American Dollars), you will only receive $878.49 to live on for the month, including rent, utilities, food, clothes, transportation, etc. Then add in the bolo tax on your car, your T.V., nearly any business activity (including advertising), the cost of gas (about $11 a gallon right now) and fees for the autostrada and most Italians have as much reason to be depressed as any of us!
This is not even mentioning the terrible problem of bureaucracy in Italy and everything takes 3-4 times as long. The boys and I were once in a car crash when a man on his phone crashed into the back of us. The car was pretty much totaled. My kind neighbor informed me it would be at least one month before I saw any money from the insurance agency. He was wrong… it was two. So we took the bus, the bikes and walked everywhere (most Italians don’t have a car and those who do, have only one).
So when we start to talk of being able to effectively communicate the gospel of grace to Italians, you quickly see there are many hurdles to overcome, the biggest of which is the Roman Catholic Church and it’s influence in every day life, politics, government, etc., as well as the daily challenges of a country which at times can remind you of a third world country rather than the first world country it is.
However, all of us who truly know the Lord and have experienced the goodness of His grace and mercy by way of the cross know that there is nothing our Savior and God cannot do! Even when our imperfections and sin and doubt and fears seem to cloud our perspective.
Second Timothy 2:13 clarifies for us that, “If we are unfaithful, God remains faithful for He cannot deny Himself.”
God loves Italians as much as He loves Americans. And yet, they are not as blessed as most Americans.
One huge hurdle and a big reason it is so challenging to communicate the gospel to Italians is because Italy is the only country that was all but bypassed by the Protestant Reformation. Most don’t realize this but as the reformation began to seep into what we call the small Alps or Dolomites from Calvin’s influence in Switzerland and France. These small groups of Protestants, many of which were called Waldensians found water, food, and safety in these mountains and valleys. But by 1215, the Waldensians were declared heretical and subject to persecution. Thousands were killed. The remnant of true believers (those who would not deny the gospel of grace) were completely eliminated.
Later, when the bible was translated into Italian for the first time in 1471, the Roman Catholic church did all it could to keep the bible out of the hands of the peasants (common folk), believing that the common peasants could not be trusted to interpret the bible rightly. So powerful and ruthless was the RCC that literally any and all enemies were quickly put to death or stashed away in some God-awful prison never to be heard of again.
When Luther came on the scene in 1517 and his 95 theses arrived in places like Milan and Venice, the Church moved quickly to burn any and every copy they could find in large book burning ceremonies where often, adherents or followers of Luther were thrown in to the fire to burn as well. Persecution and murder were the primary tools of the RCC and it has been effective for hundreds, in fact, nearly two thousand years. But now, God is opening the doors to the gospel.
Yet as a result, when we attempt to introduce the concept of the gospel of grace to an Italian, the first response we often receive is, “If this is true, this beautiful thing you have shared with me, why in all my life have I never ever heard about it?”
For Italians, just like most Roman Catholics, the critical issue hinges on the Doctrine of Justification… that by Christ’s substitutionary atonement and sacrifice for our sins in our place on the cross, there is a federal declaration of righteousness by God upon those who repent and believe the gospel, justifying us before the Father and removing our sins as a barrier to salvation.
Romans 3:24-25 tells us, we “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”
Unfortunately, Italians simply do not believe this.
The vast majority of Italians, nearly most of which are Catholics, believe they must merit salvation. Even then, salvation is nothing more than the hope of going to Purgatory, a middle earth reality between hell and heaven invented apart from the Scriptures.
For years having learned that they must personally pay for their sins (called Penance), the priest is their mediator who doles out their punishment, assigning them the penitential works or exactly what they must do to again be in good standing with God again until of course they sin again, including a number of Hail Mary’s (a repetitious prayer to the mother of Jesus), attending mass regularly, lighting candles to saints, and even self-inflicting punishment.
It is only with this background that we can begin to talk about how we, here in Italy, with a little ministry called Verità Di Grazia Ministries are doing to reach Italians for Christ, seeing many moved closer to an understanding of the true gospel of grace as well as seeing some even be saved and baptized!