Proclamation, Persuasion, Provocation
Updated: Jan 7, 2022
When I first arrived in Italy many years ago as a young zealous novice "missionary" in my twenties, I had been informed of many statistics regarding its spiritual vacuity. Although it served as the center of Roman Catholic Christianity and had the rich history of developing the institutional church throughout Europe and the world, it had fallen into centuries of spiritual decline to the extent that the common person no longer understood the gospel. What they needed was proclamation... and I was excited to be the bearer of this good news. By handing out evangelistic tracts, speaking boldly to neighbors and new friends and even preaching from the street corners, I would inform these ignorant people about Jesus' death and resurrection for their sins. The message would be irresistible and people would turn to Christ.
Only a few weeks into my missionary endeavor, I was confronted with a harsh reality--modern Italians were not that ignorant of many parts of the gospel. Certainly churches are everywhere in Italy and although the nicer and older ones seem filled more with foreign tourists than Italians, a core of church goers--at least on Christmas and Easter--are Italians, crucifixes are everywhere, and my conversations with Italians as I learned their language revealed that most had at least a base understanding of a monotheistic God, Jesus as his human representative who died for the world, and the purported presence of God in his church. They knew a lot, but were deceived, distracted, and deluded from recognizing the core and power of the precious gospel--access to a personal relationship with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Some of my colleagues talked about Italians as inoculated from fully grasping all that was available to them. What they needed was a deeper explanation of salvation with a focus on the resurrection and persuasion... they needed me to argue and prove the truth and relevance of the gospel message. If I could just show them the complete gospel and argue for its legitimacy, certainly many would come into relationship with God through Christ.
For months, even years, I seemed to bang my head against the wall. I proclaimed, I persuaded, but no one responded in faith and surrender to Christ. Many seemed to understand the gospel after I spent time clearly explaining and defending it. They got it and they got me... a few even wept with me and told me how beautiful my faith was and how they too wished they could have such faith. Still they would not cross over and trust Christ and I felt stymied. What was my purpose in being in Italy? How could I bring people to saving faith in Christ who both died for their sins to guarantee a future with him, but also rose from the dead to offer them God's power within them and a radical new life in the present? A veil seemed to cover their eyes and a dullness blanketed their hearts. They failed to see the beauty and relevance of my good news. They were jaded and cynical.
Someone once said that for the Europeans, the good news is neither good nor news. It is not news as it found its roots and growth in Europe and especially Italy. It is not good because look at all the harm it has caused in world history with the inquisitions and the crusades and continues to cause with its divisive dogma and partisanship. I had to realize that, to be effective as God's messenger in Italy, while I certainly need to continue to proclaim and persuade, what I must first do is provoke. Italians have turned not just from the truth, but from a hope in truth. The visible institutional church has done things to make people wary of trusting Jesus. The only way that some of them might come to a place of believing is for me to live a provocative life. I need to love so distinctly that even the most cynical might find a spark and challenge to revisit their faulty assumptions. My life must reflect the power of the risen Christ, a life of love in a harsh world, a courageous and consistent course toward Christ that demonstrates its truth, power, and daily relevance.