For another perspective on the Italian church, read “The Biggest Problem Facing Italian Churches” by Michael Carlson.
Italy has a tiny Protestant population (perhaps 2 percent of more than 60 million) of which most conservatives are Pentecostals. With limited resources, the Italian church continues to welcome missionaries from foreign nations. The progress of the gospel is very slow. This is one of the reasons Italy tends to be either a revolving door or, worse still, a graveyard for many missionaries. Yet the contribution of those who stay has been significant. The Italian church has many things today that it would not except for the help of non-Italian brothers and sisters in Christ. God bless missionaries to Italy!
Yet sometimes foreign Christian workers take for granted issues that are necessary for developing a sustainable, three-self’s indigenous church (self-supporting, self-governing and self-propagating). Or perhaps they are just so involved in other aspects of the daunting challenge of spreading the gospel in non-fertile soils that they don’t have the energy to include in their work components needed for a healthy evangelical movement. Missionaries cannot always receive high marks in two crucial areas: the training of theologically competent Italian pastors and the formation of technically trained Italian exegetes who can interpret and teach Scripture.
Pause for a moment and think of your pastor in New York, London, or Sydney. What if he wasn’t trained, didn’t have a salary, and was only able to dedicate his free time to the ministry of your church? How would that affect the quality of his ministry and his effectiveness in teaching you and your family the whole counsel of God? Welcome to most conservative, evangelical local churches in Italy. Italy has many godly nationals standing in pulpits proclaiming the riches of Christ. Yet very few of them are either trained or remunerated and, more often than not, they are bi-vocational. Don’t get me wrong. These men deserve our highest esteem. Nonetheless, the Italian church has a dire need to bring things to the next level, not least to honor the efforts of its godly (almost always) bi-vocational, self-taught current church leaders.
Many things are needed in Italy to encourage competent handling of the Word of God and authoritative and systematic exposition of God’s counsel. The most crucial, in my judgment, is the raising up of Italian exegetes. Florence is the cradle of the Renaissance, where teachers urged a return to the original sources (ad fontes). Italy is the land of Lorenzo Valla (c. 1407-57), considered by some the father of text criticism. Yet very few Italian evangelical leaders know either the biblical languages or the rudiments of biblical studies. And this affects both what is served up in the pulpit on any given Sunday as well as a myriad of other situations where a timely word from a theologically competent pastor could turn someone in the right direction at a crucial fork in the road.
In a country such as the United States there are as many careful exegetes as there are bars in Italy (in Italy a bar is where you buy a cappuccino, not where you go to get drunk). Local pastors don’t necessarily have the burden of producing exegetes. Often that will be done by a Bible college or seminary. As a young convert, sitting under a good pulpit ministry in Chicago, what happened when my pastor found out that I was interested in becoming a pastor? He took me an hour’s drive north to Deerfield and introduced me to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Then, in due course, they took things from there. Very rarely does this happen or, at present, can this happen in Italy. Often the technical training available in Italy has a strong sectarian component. Those trained in such contexts often come out (in my judgment) more competent at defending the party line than capable of doing the arduous spadework necessary to test for themselves a given line of interpretation.
About 25 years ago I was opposed to encouraging Italians to study in countries such as the United States. We needed to train pastors here, onsite. But after years of reflection I am now convinced that the Italian church needs help offsite in order to develop a critical mass of national pastors and exegetes who, in turn, will be able to produce, onsite, more pastors and exegetes. We need a bridge generation. Theological institutions in countries with strong evangelical infrastructures (the United States, Britain, and Australia to name three) could help by sponsoring Italians in both Bible colleges and seminaries. Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge’s excellent book, A God Sized-Vision, was recently translated into Italian (Il Risveglio: Una visione degna di Dio, BE Edizioni, Firenze 2011). In their conclusion the authors talk about the need for both evangelists and pastors. I concur fully. In the context in which they write, they didn’t of course need also to specify the need for exegetes. In the United States there are as many exegetes as there are Starbucks. In my context (and perhaps in other contexts as well), we need to specify what other countries understand—we need evangelists, pastors, and exegetes in order to seek refreshment from God in revival and, whether or not that comes, to faithfully feed the flock Christ purchased with his own precious blood. For evangelists and pastors are at their best when they’ve been influenced by careful exegetes.