Many are tempted to ask, when we tell them we are going to Italy on a mission trip, why we want to go to a well-known tourist destination for a “mission” (wink wink). Specifically, we are going to Naples, Italy, or Napoli as the Italians call it. While it is true that there are many Christian groups working in Northern Italy, there are few in Southern Italy, and very few in Napoli. Napoli has a population of 4.5 million in the metropolitan area. Less than half a percent, yes, that’s less than .5%, would confess that they have an active relationship with Jesus Christ. A recent statistic that has been given about Italy is that a child born in China today has five times more chance to become a believing Christian than one born in Italy.

Well, they are Catholics, so doesn’t that count for something, you say. The fact is, I am told by Charlie Worthy, the SBC missionary I am working with here, most Neapolitan people have an antagonistic relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. They go to catechism sometime during their early teens, but for 90% of them, it is the last time they darken the door of a church facility. That includes Christmas and Easter. Italians are Catholic by family, but most are not by practice. They are highly humanistic in philosophy, only reverting to Roman Catholic roots when a tragedy occurs or there is a needful family related occasion, like a wedding or a baptism. So in that respect, they are not so different from Americans.

However, the family ties to the official state church keep them locked into a spiritual vacuum where they can’t move forward and they can’t move backward – they don’t trust the established religious order, but their family ties prevent them from going another direction. If they go to the priests with a question here, I am told that the priests tell them not to read the Bible, but just to listen to the Church. The vast majority of Italians become humanistic materialists who practice a mix of old and new, astrology and new age, atheism, agnosticism and numerology, etc. From the highest point in the city, the castle of St. Elmo, you can see hundreds of church domes spread throughout the city. Most of them are museums now; the rest serve a tiny percentage of the population and are rarely more than 10% full on any given Sunday. Coupled with a broken economy and a 30%+ unemployment rate where the largest employer and the only one with any advancement opportunities is a certain famous old Italian family, Napoli is spiritually crippled.

The society itself presents another barrier to change. Many of the citizens of Napoli, like in most Italian cities, will never even leave their neighborhoods, let alone their cities, to travel the world and see what else is out there. Culturally, they continue old traditions of city-statehood where their loyalties lie with the specific culture into which they were born. They might become “Italians” for the international soccer competitions or maybe for the national elections, but otherwise they are Neapolitans, or Florentines, or Romans, or Venetians.  “Italy” as a political entity came into being officially in 1870 with the last city-state joining the union after WWI – so Italy is a very young country as a country, but an ancient one in terms of Italian people grouped geographically on the Italian peninsula. Most of the cities even still speak their own dialects as well as Italian.

Charlie is tasked here with evaluating the condition of evangelical Christianity in all of Italy. So far he has isolated 30+ cities of 50-70,000 population that have no evangelical presence of any kind. He tells me he has just begun this survey, and so this is very low figure.

The primary emotional atmosphere here is “hopelessness.” There are so few opportunities that typically the sons don’t leave the home until they are past age 35 because they can’t get a job that pays enough to support a family (this statistic was from an Italian teacher I spoke with in her home). Most won’t leave to find work elsewhere because they are Neapolitans.  I was amused by a story told by a small group of people I was interacting with last night after the first round of the Life Purpose Seminar. They were talking about a relative who had emigrated to the U.S. (which is very unusual). He has apparently found work, and so they were sharing the news. He is working in an Italian restaurant, and yes, all the other employees are also Neapolitans.

Why Italy? It was the 3rd missionary work planted by SBC missionaries, after China and Africa. However, it is one of the most difficult fields to work because of the reasons outlined above. Italy is known by missionaries as a missionary “graveyard,” meaning that it is so hard to reach the people with the Gospel that most missionaries resign and go to another field after 3-4 years. Charlie and Shannon are in their eighth year, which is significant. Today Italy remains the least evangelized country in Western Europe. And Gail and I get to be here by the grace of God. So, wow!