Protestantism has an 800-year history in Italy. The world’s oldest Protestant denomination, the Waldensian Church, developed in northwest Italy, but for centuries was subjected to terrible persecution. Italian Catholic bishops officially apologized for this in 1997. The Waldensian Church – now part of a federation with, among others, Methodists and the mainline Baptist Union – is openly dominated by liberal theology. The broader Protestant witness is weak and divided, polarized and fragmented. Traditional Pentecostalism is strong, particularly in the south. The fast-growing and diverse charismatic churches are increasingly numerous, dynamic and holistic in their outreach. The relationship between Pentecostals/charismatics and conservatives, deeply opposed in the past, shows small and encouraging signs of progress. Strategic church planting is rare; bitter splits are still more common. Many congregations are small, insular and resistant to change and to mission. Larger congregations at times battle with superficiality, the need for discipleship and the challenge of nominalism among second- and third-generation believers. Pray for revival that breaks down barriers of individualism, mistrust and doctrinal extremes, and leads to fellowship and cooperative outreach.
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:
a) 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.
b) 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.
c) Missions vision is still in its infancy. The churches in Italy are supporting holistic projects (Compassion, AMEN, Missione Evangelica contro la Lebbra, Missione Possibile, to name a few) and developing short-term sending (OM, NTM, WEC, YWAM, GLO). Few Italians, however, are involved in long-term career missions whether in Italy or beyond. Italian Ministries is committed to facilitate a vision for mission and has also developed a mission agency option for interested Italians. Denominational initiatives continue. International mission groups (among these: OM, YWAM, NTM) operate in Italy and seek to facilitate Italians’ involvement in mission. Encouraging developments among youth bring hope for the future; “9.37” is one such group.
d) 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.