You could say the country with the nickname “Bel Paese (Beautiful Country)” was destined for greatness. Greatness happens when light shines on inherent characteristics effortlessly put forth. This is true of Italy. Wherever the sun glistens, the natural beauty and uniqueness of this region dazzles with life and color. In a sense, Italy did not need to try to be noticed. But then, as someone who knows they are beautiful takes pleasure in charming others, Italy and the Italians have always enjoyed turning heads.
Italy was blessed with a noticeable figure. While most other countries look like something on Rorschach’s “ink blot” test, it has a shape easy to recognize on any world map, as the country is shaped like a high-heeled boot. In fact, as you include the island of Sicily to the south, it appears that some lovely dressed Italian la donna (woman) is drawing back into the Adriatic Sea to kick a ball into the Mediterranean and Tyrrhenian. Perhaps this is why like blood, Soccer runs through the veins and has become a religion for its modern citizens, with the green field being their temple.
Surrounded in all but one direction by oceans, Italy is situated as the southern entry point of the continent of Europe. Its place on the water facilitates the industry, the trade, and the tourism that serve as driving forces in the Italian economy. Mountains run through the hairline of Italy (the Alps) and stretch from head to toe, separating East and West (the Apennines). These ranges can be breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. But, as we have seen televised in recent months, areas of Italy are highly susceptible to seismic activity and it can be devastating.
In Southern Italy, there are three active volcanoes: Vesuvius, Stromboli, and Etna. Mount Etna is the one most recently erupted in 2015. Tourists can visit all three of these destinations and watch them steam and pour streams of molten lava. There are other, dormant volcanoes which haven’t erupted for centuries or even millenia. By all estimates, the Cimini Hills northwest of Rome have been silent for 800,000 years (much longer than the Earth itself has existed according to some Christian Dispensationalists!).
Italy is subdivided in 20 regions and each provides its own distinct economies, dialects, and delights. Milan, our future field of mission, is located in the Lombardy region, by far the richest economically. About one sixth of the population of Italy can be found there and one fifth of the country’s GDP is produced there. Milan is the capital of this region and the largest metropolitan area of Italy. Three of the country’s most spectacular lakes are clustered together in the Lombardy area: Maggiore, Como, and Garda.
Forests cover almost 35% of Italy and the number is growing steadily although there are concerns that many of the forests are not managed and might deteriorate with time. This invasion is taking place due to the widespread abandonment of farmland, particularly in mountainous areas in the south of the country.
Geographically, Italy is diverse. It is a beautiful land, full of treasures at every turn. Beyond the cobble-stoned streets of villages and cities that may captivate you is so much more to feast your eyes and heart upon. Depending upon what you crave – leisure, adventure, contemplation, solitude, inspiration – the natural wonders of Italy rise to the occasion.
How Geography Could Impact Us Missionally.
1. Knowing the geography of Italy helps us develop a mental picture for those who are investing in the mission in America.
As we work through this season of mission preparation, through communicating our story, casting a vision for disciple-making in Italy, and developing a partner base, we are telling people that this isn’t just our work. We want our family and friends, potential partners and existing partners, and even future team members to “stake a claim” in this calling. That will be virtually impossible if we cannot provide for these people a “lay of the land” and just how strategically important it is to the work God is doing and will continue to do through the community we are developing here.
Some people we have talked to have traveled to Italy on vacation. They fell in love with the land and can tell their own stories about it. They may have a couple of paintings of Italian scenery in their homes. They could show us photos of where they have been. And, because they have been there some have even decided to partner with us. But the majority of people we talk to about Italy have never been there. They wouldn’t know where Milan is on a topographical map and why its location is important.
Unless we develop at least a basic geographic concept of Italy as a country and Milan as our strategic center, most people will not be able to adopt this work as their own. By putting them on the street map with us, however, the stories we tell will come alive for them. Knowing the geography of areas mentioned in the Bible transforms one’s experience of Scripture and draws them more deeply into the text. In the same way, teaching the people we know the geography of Italy will transform their experience and draw them into the story as co-characters.
2. Knowing the geography of Italy will help us navigate more strategically as missional workers.
We are rarely less oriented and strategic than when we are directionally-challenged. When we lose a sense of true north and feel lost, we become the ones asking for help and guidance. While this in itself can become a way of ingratiating oneself with those who are more than willing to help (just as Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for water in John 4:1-42), knowing where you are and where to go can be a powerful missional tool.
When we someday host individuals and teams from the United States who are excited to join us for a week or two of mission work, we want to confidently direct them around the city of Milan and the countryside of Italy. We will want to strategically make the most of the small window of time they are given to share in our work. And, we will want them to feel confident in this work as they are thousands of miles beyond their normal context.
So, geography is important for us as we think through and prepare for moving to Italy to carry the Gospel. But, it is also for vision-casting as we help those we talk to adopt the work as their own.