Last week, the girls and I started our campus ministry at the University of Bologna. Getting there is taking a lot of faith.
Campus Crusade for Christ in the United States basically goes to students at a university's campus and initiates conversations with students about spirituality. Most hope that these initial conversations will lead a non-believer of Christ in a relationship with a staff member in which questions can be answered in a non threatening environment that will prayerfully lead the non believer to the person of Christ. That person can then be discipled and ultimately lead to a point where they too will want to share the gospel of Christ with others. Now as a disclaimer, I was not involved with Campus Crusade during college and I am relying on others descriptions of what they experienced during college. Also, this is a brief description is not an all encompassing view of the many varied ministries Campus Crusade has both stateside and abroad.
That being said, that method has not worked here in Italy. The Italians' have a different culture and different worldview than Americans. Our time on campus last week was spent doing surveys with some of the students here in Bologna. Surveys like the one we did have been done by staff members at other campus ministries throughout Italy, and Agape Italia has seen some common threads amoung the different locations but also some differences. We will also be doing some throughout the year just to make sure that as we try and reach Italian students with the gospel, that we don't let culture hinder the message.
In Acts 17: 16-34 Paul has taken the time to observe the people living in Athens and what their culture was like. When he took the gospel to the people of Athens he did so in a way that connected to their culture. Instead of going to the synagogue as was more the cultural norm, he started in the market place where the Athenians shared the daily news. He went to the Areopagus and proclaimed it there. The same place that Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated the latest ideas. He said he had observed the way they had built alters and worshipped many Gods. He also noted that they had an alter for an "unknown god." He used their way of life to communicate a message that needed to be heard there. He did not let what was familiar to him; stop him from finding a way to reach the Athenians where they were.
Paul talks about this more in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
"Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings."
That being said we are on campus at this point trying to find out what the culture of the students at the University of Bologna looks like.
Some things currently being processed.
1) Most students have said they would not talk about spiritual things with people they do not know. One girl said, “I would talk about spiritual things with my friends, my family, no, my friends, maybe..." So, we will need to get to know the Italians. Sounds easy right, it is not, keep reading. They also did not say the church.
2) When asked where there friends are from, the university or their cities, many of the students replied both, but the ones they were close to were from home. When asked how long it took for them to become close enough to share personal things with them, one replied, "years and years."
So, we need to be close friends with the Italians and that can take many years, are you starting to see that this may be different than the U.S. A fact I learned this weekend is that the average rate of turnover for a missionary serving in Italy is 2 years. My friends, the missionaries here aren't staying long enough to get to a place where the Italians want to talk about spiritual things.
3) National leadership has observed the fact that Italians are a little suspicious of free things. Last year a team was giving out free bottles of water, and the Italians were very suspicious. Free language classes, same thing, there must be something wrong with it. Now think about this, the Gospel is free to hear. (1 Corinthians 9:18) God's grace costs us nothing, but cost God his only son. We could never earn our salvation. It is free. Our good works can't get us a spot in heaven with God. It is free. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Being religious is not enough. It is free. Jesus paid the debt of our sins by dying on the cross, a debt we simply cannot pay. It is free. (John 14:6) Jesus died in our place. It is free. (1 Peter 3:18) All we have to do is accept an invitation. It is free. (John 1:12)
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23
Now my wheels turn thinking about a suspicion of free things, my friends, the gospel is free. Are they suspicious of it too?
4) The Italians don't understand missionaries. Many non practicing Italians think the church is here, why are you? What is the difference between Catholic and protestant? Are you going to tell me that the catholic culture and my by default "Italian" culture are wrong? There has been a lot of protestant churches doing just that and a lot of catholic retaliation. That all being with our bringing in the "Church" and its history here.
There is a lot more being processed and we are working to try and brainstorm ideas that might reach into the hearts and minds of Italian culture so that we can share the gospel with the many lost people here. As a team we are prepared to try many things this year and to fail. Just pray for us, for wisdom, as we brainstorm. Pray for God to go out ahead of us and prepare a place. Pray that God not let His Words return empty even though we are not sufficient to adequately share the "Good News." (Isaiah 55: 10-11)