I spent nearly two weeks working in El Cristo ('The Christ'). This is a large district in Alessandria, one of the major cities in Northern Italy, about half way between Milan and Genoa. Europe Now had been invited to help run a Tent Crusade there when we visited Stan Cochrane - one of the key church leaders in that region - in June this year. There are currently no evangelical churches in El Cristo.
The original plan was for us to supply a team of half a dozen leaders plus some students, but for a number of reasons this did not work out, and in the end I was the only Open Air Campaigners worker present.
Stan is an amazing Irishman who went out to Italy with OM in the early 1960s. He now lives in and ministers to a church in Spinetta ('Spinetta Marengo' on some maps), a large village on the outskirts of Alessandria.
The main focus of the first week was literature distribution, working with a GLO team. They arrived on Friday 1 September, and I joined them on Monday 4, staying until Friday 15.
To get a cheap ticket, I flew from Stansted to Linate. The journey was not easy, with problems on the tube and the flight being delayed by 90 minutes, but I was picked up at the airport without difficulty, driven to Spinetta and introduced to the GLO team: four boys, four girls and two adult men.
Apart from the Wednesday, we worked hard, and by the end of Thursday we had distributed in El Cristo around 8,000 invitations to the tent, with a tract in each invitation. This was great work, but I have serious questions about the value of doing this in Italy. Many of the letter boxes we found were already stuffed full of junk mail. This seems to be a major problem, and I don't think that making it worse is really the best strategy. Still, our God is a God of miracles, and in the absence of any other way of telling people about the tent mission, that is what we did, and prayed that it would be effective.
Apart from the literature distribution, I did three training sessions for the GLO team. We combined a basic introduction to personal evangelism with question-and-answer sessions, covering the questions and issues which were most important to them. At least some of the team really appreciated these sessions, and it was good for me to try out some of the ideas for the evangelism training programme we in Europe Now plan to put together over the next year.
Most of the GLO team left early on the Sunday, with just one of the girls from Northern Ireland staying for the second week. On Sunday night, the team consisted of Nicola, Stan, Roberto (our non-English-speaking Italian) and myself.
Permission to use the tent only came through at the last minute, after a great deal of prayer. The main focus of the second week were the events each evening in the tent, but quite a lot of our time and energy was spent just making sure there was someone in the tent through the nights and for as much of the days as possible. Transport between Spinetta and Alessandria was also a problem at times, especially when one of Stan's cars was stolen.
Stan had advertised an evangelism training programme to thousands of people across Italy, but by the Monday morning we only had Roberto, and another Italian 'on his way'. Mark decided that I could cope with the vast numbers, and stayed in Lauris. This left me with both the training - such as it was - and the Wednesday evening tent meeting.
On the Tuesday morning, we had two Italians (but not the one we were expecting!), so I did some training in the tent. By the Wednesday morning, the final Italian had arrived, and I re-inforced some of the points made earlier by demonstrating them in a run-through for the evening meeting.
A well-known and very professional singing group were performing on the Saturday and Thursday evenings. They sounded excellent, and did a few speaking bits in between a few of the songs - I believe some personal testimony, and "why this song means so much to me". The tent was full, with about 50 people standing outside. After the singing on the Saturday, a man came onto the platform and spoke for half an hour - with all the singers standing on the platform behind him, trying to look interested.
For the next three nights, the only entertainment in the tent was to watch the main speaker talk into the microphone. The content may have been good, but visually it was a disaster. From talking with people after the meetings, the content was excellent if you were a Christian with a good grasp of Old Testament history. The insights into Midianite culture and history were, reportedly, 'brilliant'. Nobody mentioned the gospel in any of these messages.
So I really had to do something a bit different. It needed to be translated, which halved the time available and introduced some interaction with the translator (Stan). I used one of the standard evangelistic sketchboard messages, which introduced some visual interest, movement and colour. I backed up one of the points with a short drama ('the parable of the candle'), which gained a round of applause. And, more importantly, they heard the gospel message expressed simply and clearly.
Never before have I been able to give an explicitly evangelistic message to so many people, and it was a tremendous experience. Okay, almost all of them were Christians already, but many of them were encouraged and challenged by what they heard, and sometimes people who have been going to church for years still need to respond to God's offer. And, when we did the run-through earlier in the day, one lady came in from the street, sat through most of the message, and responded to the invitation at the end.
Stan is very keen for Europe Now to bring a team back to Alessandria next year. My perspective is that there is not much point in us coming and performing, seeing a few people converted, and going away again. The real question is what the local church want to do, and whether it is something we can help them achieve.
Before I left, Stan generously gave me a gift to cover the cost of my travel. As the remaining expenses came to under £100, it was a very cost-effective mission for Europe Now. On a personal level, it was a wonderful time, but often very frustrating: I don't speak Italian, and could only talk individually with a few non-Christians.
When we do further ministry in Italy, one of the key areas to address is the question of follow-up: we can make contact with people, and a fair number of them show interest, but we need to have a much clearer understanding of how to help them take the next step, and how to help them move from profession of faith to commitment and full discipleship.