Reading Acts and the New Testament epistles, we realize that apostles, missionaries, evangelists and Christians in general live very ordinary lives as they sought to fulfill the Great Commission. And this applies as well to evangelism, as they followed the great missionary mandate given by the Lord to the church (cf. Matthew 28:18-20). As Daniel and his friends, Christians in the first century were exiles of the dispersion within the idolatrous and hostile kingdom of Babylon (cf. I Peter 1:1; 5:13). Therefore, it should not be anachronistic to say that also at that time Christians were living in a culture that we can define as pluralistic and secularized (pagan!).
There are various similarities between ancient and contemporary Western cultures. After all, we are always speaking of human existence. This consideration helps us to ponder that we too, living within the cultural context of pluralistic and secularized (pagan) Europe, need to live and share the gospel with simplicity and spontaneity as the early Christians, trusting the instruments and the method that our Lord and his apostles passed on to us. In fact, following the paradigm of the church in Jerusalem, more churches were planted on the basis of apostolic teaching, brotherly love, sacraments, and prayers in the house of God (cf. Acts 2:42; Isaiah 56:7; Matthew 21:13). And this is the same manner in which the Reformers planted churches throughout Europe in the sixteenth century and the pattern that we need to follow in the twenty-first century.
In a letter written to the Polish missionary movement in 1556, Italian reformer Peter Martyr Vermigli insists on these very principles. As he thought to Poland as a mission field, Vermigli rejoiced for the “zeal for divine worship” of those few nascent churches and praised their efforts “devoted to cleansing the religion of Christ” (“Letter No. 126, “To the Polish Lords Professing the Gospel and to the Ministers of Their Churches”, The Peter Martyr Library, V, p. 142). The joy and encouragement felt by Vermigli came by the realization that that alone was the right beginning of all missionary endeavor: “The first step toward godliness is to know rightly the things that God wants to use in worshipping him” (Ibid., p. 143). And turning to the shepherds of the flock, he insisted on the same truth: “You reverend pastors who are already in charge of God’s churches, I ask and beseech you through Christ not to fashion any delays in restoring his temple” (Ibid., p. 145). But how to plant churches? What did Vermigli suggest for such superstitious and pagan land as Poland in the sixteenth century? What were missionaries supposed to do to confront idolatry in Polish cities and villages?
According to Vermigli, the first necessary ingredient is good teaching. “When I say faith,” wrote the Florentine reformer, “I do not understand by it faith which people have fabricated by their cleverness, by a figment of their imagination, or a judgment of human prudence. I mean a faith which, as Paul taught, comes from hearing, not just any hearing, but only that of God’s word, as we already have gathered by God’s grace in the divine letters” (Ibid., p. 143).
The second fundamental ingredient is to apply with carefulness the teaching of Scripture to the sacraments: “Let the evil seeds and rotten roots be cut of right down to their beginnings, for if they are neglected at the start […] they are much harder to pull out later. Care must be taken that this be done regarding the sacraments and especially the Eucharist as sincerely as possible. There, believe me, the lie the plague-bearing seeds of idolatry” (Ibid., p. 145).
Thirdly, there is the need for pastoral care and for the government of the flock. “The minds of Christians should not be greatly preoccupied in external rites and ceremonies but in feeding on God’s word, in being instructed by the sacraments, in being inflamed to prayer, and being confirmed in good work and fine examples of life. I advise you by all means to bring discipline into your church as quickly as possible, for […] we labor in vain without that discipline” (Ibid., p. 147).
May God help us so that even in twenty-first century Europe we may recover the venerable “three-signs” missiology!
~ Pastore Andrea Ferrari