by Paulo Benini

In a prosperous, profoundly secular Italian city, a shrinking Seventh-day Adventist church refused to bow to a future of slow decline. Instead of simply trying to survive, it stepped out in faith with an ambitious prayer-based plan for growth. The result? A revived mother church in one of the richest urban areas in the country has given birth to three groups of new believers through focus on prayer, mission, and discipleship.

Bergamo, Italy

The ratio of Seventh-day Adventists to the general population is lower in Italy than in many 10/40 Window[1] countries. It’s lower than secular Scandinavian countries. It’s even lower than what some consider the most secular country in Europe—the Czech Republic. After more than 150 years of work in Italy, the number of members is fewer than ten thousand.

And yet in one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, a place of prosperity and economic growth, the Adventist Church has been multiplying in size in recent years. Tourists flock to the culturally rich, ancient city of Bergamo, an hour’s drive from the city of Milan in northern Italy’s Lombardy region. And in this urban area, an Adventist church grew in just seven years from 73 to 211 members. From an attendance of fewer than 60, it multiplied to three hundred. From a church struggling to survive, it transformed into a mission-focused church-planting community.

These numbers may not seem significant by, say, African or South and Central American standards. But in the context of secular western Europe, they stand out as a tribute to God’s power in the lives of a community of believers that earnestly prayed for His leading.

Prayer plus action

In 2006 a church member named Giuseppe moved from Sicily in the south of Italy to Bergamo. What he found in the spiritual and mission condition of the church concerned him. So he started to pray that God would help him find fellow church members who would join him in a process of spiritual revival and rededication to God. After some six months of intercessory prayer, Giuseppe started visiting some of the people on his prayer list. By the end of 2006, a small group of five people were holding regular prayer meetings as they sought God’s guidance for what they should do for His kingdom.

At the same time, the Bergamo church began developing a leadership process with a new team of elders. They organized the church into small groups, and these Sabbath School “action units” became the supporting framework for church, pastoral, spiritual, and missionary activities. Soon, each Sabbath School action unit had appointed a leader and was engaging in weekly family small groups. Seventy percent of the members participated in these groups during the week and then met in Sabbath School to share experiences of the past week and for intercessory prayer.

The following year, the church set a specific goal: each family group, supported by the Sabbath School units, would become a church plant—a new community of believers. Three elders with their spouses became the first to put this vision into action.

The results were startling for a community of believers that had long experienced church decline rather than church growth. In 2009, a group began in Boario, a city in the Camonica Valley with more than 30,000 people, and by 2015 it had grown to 33 members, with more than 50 attending. A second group started the same year in Olgiate-Merate, a region of more than 50,000 people, and has since grown to 25 members with 55 attending. In 2011, a third group started in Treviglio-Caravaggio and has grown to 34 church members, with some 70 people attending.

Each one of these numbers represents men and women who have found new life in Christ and a place within His body of believers. Their stories give a glimpse into the different ways the Holy Spirit is using the praying members of Bergamo church to witness in this most difficult urban mission territory.

Sonya’s story: Prayed into church

On a Sabbath morning in the autumn of 2007, after the worship service in Bergamo church, a young woman from Bolivia asked to meet with the pastor. Sonya introduced herself and told him the reason why she was attending church for the first time. The previous Wednesday she was traveling on a bus, praying to God and asking what church He would like her to attend. During her prayer, a tall man approached and gently touched her on her shoulder.

“You are praying!” he said.

“Yes,” she replied.

“If you want to go to a church,” he said, “look for the Seventh-day Adventist church.”

Sonya continued to pray but soon realized her prayer had been answered. “Today I’m here because of that,” Sonya told the pastor. After Bible studies, Sonya was baptized. However, a few months later she stood at the front of the church and said good-bye to the church. “I’m going back to my home village,” she announced, “because there is no Adventist church there.”

Some time later the church heard from Sonya that her mother, her brother who had been in prison, and other relatives and neighbors had accepted Jesus Christ and now belonged to the Adventist family.

A Sabbath School action unit of the Bergamo church had placed Sonya on a prayer list long before she attended for the first time that autumn Sabbath morning. In fact, she lived in the same building as one of the Bergamo’s church elders who was engaged in prayer ministry, and he had been specifically praying for her as his neighbor.

Primo’s story: From prayer list to baptism

Primo was 71 years old, and for 29 years he had been the general leader of the sales office of the Vatican printing house in northern Italy. His son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, who were members of the Bergamo church, were praying for him. When the church organized the Sabbath School action units, his name was on the prayer list of one of them. Every Sabbath, people prayed for Primo. One Sabbath the children ran a special program during the worship service, and Primo’s grandchildren invited him to attend.

Just before the sermon began, the personal ministries leader shared the list of names for whom the church was praying. Primo, visiting an Adventist church for the first time, looked at the screen and saw his name on the prayer list. Rather than being upset, he was touched to know that a community was praying for him. He decided to study the Bible, and on the last Sabbath of the year his son Roberto, one of the church elders, baptized his father. The day of his baptism, Primo testified that for 29 years he had sold Bibles and religious books. “Even so, I never read the Word of God,” he said. “Now I’m studying, reading, and meditating from the Bible. And today I’m here to become part of the family of God through baptism.”

Judith’s story: From broken life to building lives

One Sabbath evening, Judith, a young woman from Ecuador, entered the almost empty Bergamo church. Judith had been raised an Adventist but for 10 years had jumped from one broken relationship to another, fought loneliness, and attempted suicide more than once. She had reached rock bottom again, and that Sabbath morning, fighting against herself, she decided to look for an Adventist church. An Internet search showed the Bergamo church as the closest to where she lived.

Entering the church, she was warmly welcomed by some members, and they offered to visit her at home the following week. Paolo, a church elder and leader of a Sabbath School action unit, asked his group to pray for Judith. That week, he and his wife, Franca, visited Judith in Merate, a town 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Bergamo. It is a very developed, rich area with a high-density population and many factories and businesses. Judith asked to re-study the Bible, and they made an appointment to meet every Wednesday night. On the first Wednesday, to Paolo and Franca’s surprise, some 15 people—some immigrants from South America and some Italians—were waiting for them. Soon a family group was begun.

When home becomes church

The number of people attending Bible studies in Judith’s house increased week after week. Soon a second family group was planted in the nearby town of Olgiate. At the beginning of 2012, the first baptisms took place, and soon they began Sabbath worship services. The following year, the group was officially organized with 14 members and 10 more attending. It became an official Global Mission project with the clear goal to plant a new church. Today there are 25 church members, 15 people studying the Bible and ready for baptism, plus friends and children. More than 50 people now attend each Sabbath.

This new group of believers continues as an extremely community-focused group, with a wholistic approach to mission. Every Wednesday morning they arrange a booth in the local marketplace, where they distribute Bibles and Bible correspondence cards. Every week, three family groups meet to study the Bible, and they invite friends and neighbors to join them. In each home they create a sense of fellowship in a loving, spiritual environment. On Friday evenings the children organize a special meeting for children and adults, followed by a meal together. The group is also training people to run health expo programs. Every Sabbath afternoon they hold two baptismal classes—one for beginners and another for advanced students—plus a special class on the books of Daniel and Revelation. They also hold public programs on building healthy families, educating children, healthy living, and how to know Jesus.

Sabbath morning before the program begins at 9:00, church members and their guests have breakfast together. The worship service is followed by potluck and fellowship, to which friends from the community are also invited. Sundays they often go hiking and have a picnic together in the countryside. At such times, the group often grows to 80 people. It’s a terrific opportunity to make new friends.

Building disciples

One principle drives all the programs and activities of Bergamo church. The growing community exists to train new believers to become disciple-makers. Eleven church members who are still young in the faith are helping give Bible studies to 15 new people. They are receiving practical training on how to give Bible studies, following Paul’s advice to Timothy: "You therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus. And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (2 Timothy 2:1,2, HCSB)

A person receiving Bible studies from a pastor or official Bible worker will understand the beauty of the biblical message but may get the idea that you have to be a pastor or Bible specialist to give Bible studies. This is why it is so important to train new believers, right from the start, to become disciple-makers.

This can be seen in the experience of Savino, who worked in the same factory with Bergamo church elder Paolo. They became friends and started studying the Bible together after work. Savino decided to become an Adventist, and two months before his baptism he began studying the Bible with a friend he met at the gym. He also leads a midweek family group, but because his wife is not yet ready for them to meet in their home, he meets his friends in his car parked outside. Savino has a list of people for whom he is praying, including his wife and their elder son.


A Church That Refused to Stagnate

Lessons from the front lines of urban mission

  • Focus on discipleship. Baptism is only the beginning of the Christian experience. New believers should be trained immediately in how to become disciple-makers, not just members of a church.
  • The experience of the Bergamo church raises the question, “Why can’t every house of a believer become a church?” For the countries of secular Europe, this may be a model suited to outreach in urban environments.
  • Bathe everything in prayer. Prayer started the Bergamo experience and continues to sustain its growth.

[1] The 10/40 Window is an area of the world encompassed by the 10th and 40th parallels north of the equator. It is an area of significance to Christians because most of the countries within that area have few Christian adherents and have governments opposed to the presence of Christianity.