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Kingdom Expansion from Sicily

I have thought for a little while that it is important to write in greater detail the reasons for expanding the work of Agape Bici, a project that we have undertaken over the last several months. I’ve thought that I might try to write several posts, but the more that I have started to write, the more that I think it would be best if I simply create one longer post here to lay out my entire thinking on one page. In that way, my hope is to create a cohesive set of thoughts amongst all of the various parts in my mind instead of attempting to cobble together several different parts into a cohesive whole. Let’s see how it will go… ๐Ÿ˜‰

If you’re reading through what I’ve written and want to jump down to a certain part, here are a series of links to allow you to go to the section that you want to read:

I think the best place to start would be to take a step back and talk about the overall mission of Search Party and what we are trying to do here in Sicily and beyond. Let’s start with why we came here in the first place.

The Situation

Back in 2015, a friend of mine introduced me to the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis, where people from across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia were coming to Europe through various routes and ports. Many of them came through Libya using old fishing boats that smugglers and human traffickers would take to bring the people into Europe. They would take the individual’s money, promising them a much better life in Europe, and would set them out onto the water with little more than a hope and a prayer.

To give you a sense of what I am talking about, you might find these articles and videos interesting:

What’s Behind the Surge in Refugees Crossing the Mediterranean Sea? (New York Times, May 2015)

60 Minutes – April 2015

Even though both of those media items are from 2015, the situation continues on even today. Here is the latest situation in Italy according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. You’ll see that even last year, 2023, was the highest over the last several years after the government had taken significant steps, including those referred to as “dancing with the devil” in an attempt to stop or significantly slow the flow of migrants coming into Europe.

Our Arrival and Work

Arriving in Europe, we understood that there were few workers addressing the situation in Sicily and southern Italy, and fewer yet considering the spiritual issues that this situation would present. So, coming to Sicily, we have attempted to look at this refugee situation with the eyes of Apostle Paul when he said the following to the Athenians:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Acts 17:26-28

In the case of the Mediterranean Refugee Crsis, like many other movements of people around the world today, we see that there are people that the boundary lines that Paul spoke of are moving, and thinking about these situations, we asked ourselves why that would be. There are several reasons, of course, including war, poverty, hunger, and just a simple desire for a better life, but we realized that if we didn’t consider what Paul said here in Acts 17, we would be missing something important, something, in fact, fundamental.

Paul says that God marked out the appointed times in history for all peoples so that they will know Him, that they would seek Him, that they would find Him. God is not far, but He places the people around us to help us to find Him.

And so, what is happening in the case of the refugee crisis? The boundary lines are moving. And why? We believe that it is because God Himself is making Himself known. He wants those who have not known Him to know Him, and so God intends to use His people to make Himself known.

This is the reason that we moved our family to Sicily in 2016. We came to Catania so that we could be part of what we believe God is doing in the world today, making Himself known to people who have not known Him. Most of the people arriving in Europe are coming from places that have been resistent to the Gospel. Most are coming from Muslim nations. Most are coming from what is referred to as the 10/40 window, and in fact Sicily itself sits just inside of that window, making it a strategic location both from the perspective of the migration of people entering into Europe, but also from the perspective of reaching into the rest of that window.

A Political Note

I hate to interrupt the flow of what I am trying to communicate here, but immigration is a signficant political issue right now, so I think it is important for me to take a moment to address the political “elephant in the room”, as they say. I actually follow politics quite closely. It interests me and I watch the political movements both in the U.S. as well as where we live in Italy and elsewhere.

On the other hand, I also know that politics never brings true and lasting change. Working within politics, or yearning for political change doesn’t change anyone’s heart. Politics are primarily about power here on the earth, but this earth is passing away. It is temporary.

As I’ve thought about the immigration situation that we have stepped into here in Sicily, I couldn’t help but think back to a similar type of situation that is occurring on the southern border of my home country back in the U.S. There are people streaming across the border by the thousands, and even hundreds of thousands in those areas. I don’t see this as a good thing. I think it is wrong to allow people to break the laws of a country, to simply not enforce the laws that are already written. My sense has always been that, with regard to immigration, we should either have the laws that we have and enforce them, or specifically change the law. Let’s not say one thing and do another.

So we haven’t come to work in the midst of the flow of immigration because we agree, necessarily, with what the refugees and immigrants are doing. We don’t agree that they should just show up on the shores of Italy and say, “we’re here” expecting that the government will take care of them.

But, on the other hand, that is what has happened, and that is what is continuing to happen, and the people are here. That is just the reality. And so, looking at that reality, and seeing where these people have come from, we have needed to look at the situation with much different eyes, the eyes of the Kingdom of God. Looking at the situation with that perspective, we consider where these people have come from and we recognize that they haven’t understood the truth about Christ. They haven’t understood God’s plan for them. They haven’t known that Christ has already given himself for them, to purchase them out of the kingdom of darkness and make them part of the Kingdom of God.

And so, for this reason, we have come to Sicily and have inserted ourselves into the flow of immigration in Europe. Not because we like what has happened and what is continuing to happen, but because we want to be part of the opportunity to see the Kingdom of God expand among the unreached, those who have never heard the Gospel before, in a strategic part of the world that has relatively close, and relatively inexpensive geographical access to much of the rest of the unreached world.

A History of Our Work

Since moving to Catania, we have primarily worked to reach out to the immigrants and refugees. In addition, though, we have also worked to train and look for Sicilian Italians who would work along with us, both to reach out to the refugees and immigrants as well as to other Sicilians that they know.

We have sought to both evangelize and disciple new believers as well as train existing workers. We’ve translated the Zume Training materials into Italian as well as written our own training materials, translating those as well into Italian to more closely reflect the discipleship process that we use here in Catania, based on the Four Fields discipleship and church planting process.

We have heavily recruited missional workers to move to Sicily to work along with us, having as many as eight different families working together at one point, then through a process and series of years reducing down to three families over the last 2-3 years. And to do this, we have, and continue to run short-term team programs and summer internships in an attempt to continue to recruit workers.

Most of the work has been focused on prayer walking, sharing the Gospel, baptizing new believers, and then teaching those that we have reached to reach back into their own communities with the Gospel.

Our team now has a center in the downtown area of Catania where we run a bicycle shop, lead a small church of people from several different nations, and offer regular Bible studies and discipleship training. In addition, our teammates also have a community garden ministry both in the city of Catania as well as at land owned by one of our partnering churches.

Using our center in Catania, we have also developed a missionary field-based training program to help both incoming missionaries to Italy learn to live and work cross-culturally using the Four Fields process. Thankfully, God has also given us the opportunity to use the program with others coming from unreached nations, to send them back into the field after having been trained in doing the disciple-making and church planting process that we use here in Catania.

Finally, we have extensions of our work also in other parts of Italy and we are working to continue to train and send workers, whether they be incoming missional workers from the US or other English-speaking nations, or from Italy, or any number of other locations.

We have truly been blessed by what we have seen God do, both in us and through us up to this point!

The Great Commission Pipeline

A few years ago, I saw a video created by Troy Cooper for the NoPlaceLeft network and it made me think that this is the vision that I would like to promote for our work as well, including the primary vision for Search Party, the organization that we started in 2019. Here is the video that he made:

The video talks about developing a movement of disciples and churches in our home area and then sending them to the next field where more unreached people groups can be reached with the Gospel, making more disciples and planting more churches.

This is what we believe God wants to do through us. We want to bring people from our home country to work with us here. In that sense, we are creating a pipeline from our home churches to the unreached where we are.

But it doesn’t end there. In fact, the work is only beginning. Instead, from here, we want to send the disciples that we have made out to other fields. We see this happening as we launch workers from Catania into other parts of Italy and other parts of Europe, but even more importantly, launching workers back into the rest of the 10/40 window where more of the unreached people groups can be reached. We are connecting with the unreached here in Catania, but we can reach even more people by sending workers back into the home countries of the people that have arrived here in Europe.

So our desire is to create a Great Commission Pipeline in to Catania, and develop as well a Great Commission Pipeline out of Catania. To do this, we believe that we will need to connect a few different pieces of a strategic puzzle together, and that leads me to the first puzzle piece: Mobilizing and preparing workers.

The Ten:Two Team

In Luke, chapter 10, Jesus sends out seventy-two of his disciples to proclaim and demonstrate the Kingdom of God. This story has always captivated me in the way that Jesus sends his disciples, but I want to focus on a certain part of the story for my purposes in this article.

As Jesus was sending the disciples, he said:

โ€œThe harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.

Luke 10:2

Jesus was sending his disciples out, but the first thing that he tells them to do is to pray for more workers because the harvest is plentiful.

Question to consider: Where are these workers that the disciples are supposed to pray for going to come from?

The disciples are the only workers at this point. There are no pastors. There are no missionaries. There is no one else. They are it.

Obviously, the only place that the workers could come from would be the harvest field itself. So, the harvest field that Jesus is sending the disciples into is also the source of the workers.

Now, in our day, we have pastors and missionaries and many other types of workers, but yet the harvest is still plentiful, and the workers are still few. So, from our perspective, we are praying for more workers, and we are working to prepare them and send them out as well. That is what the Ten:Two Team is all about. Pray for workers, mobilize them, and send them out. Whether they come from the U.S., from Europe, or from other unreached areas… Whether they come from believing or unbelieving backgrounds… Our desire is that the Gospel is preached and disciples of Jesus are made amongst people from all of the nations that we are touching here in Catania.

As mentioned above, we have had short-term team programs, internship programs, and missionary training programs that we have used in multiple contexts. We are moving ahead to aggregate and coalesce these programs together underneath a team that we will call the Ten:Two Team, working to pray for and mobilize workers, training them and sending them to do the work. This will be a significant part of the development of the Great Commission Pipeline here, continuing the formalized programs to receive and send workers into the harvest field, and in the meantime continue to develop disciples locally to do the same, sending them into the harvest field of Catania, or sending them out of Catania to do the work elsewhere also.

Agape Bici

In the midst of releasing from the pandemic lockdowns in 2020, we opened a new community center in the downtown area of Catania. Initially, it was the home of several different activities, including a bike shop, but in the beginning of last year, we decided to focus our efforts to simply – and only – be a bike shop. From that bike shop, we can, of course, do other activities, but instead of being known as a place where a lot of activities happen, we decided to make it into one activity from the perspective of what other people see.

For that reason, we removed the walls that separated the bike shop from the rest of the center and instead created one large shop. In this location, we have fixed bikes, received bikes in donation to fix them and give them away for free, and done outreaches from the shop, taking the creations of out teammate into the piazza to connect with people through fun on “crazy bikes”, bikes that probably shouldn’t be on the street but are fun to take in the piazza to try out riding. You can see more about what we have been doing with Agape Bici up to now on our Facebook page or by launching into the picture gallery from the website.

In the midst of working with the bike shop, and even more generally with mission work that we have done, there has always been one particular challenge, to have the funds that are needed to be able to do what the work is calling us to do.

From one perspective, this has been a challenge just to keep the center, the physical location, open. We have had several generous donors, and we certainly intend to continue to receive donations to keep expanding the work that we are doing, but we also have a sense of responsibility to try to figure out how to make the bike shop work self-sustaining. Instead of continuing to require donations to have the location and continue to do the work, we feel that it is time for us to find a way to help support and sustain at least a portion of the work here in Sicily.

In addition, we have also consistently faced the challenge of calling people into ministry work but forcing them to find their own support so that they can live. In some ways, I see this as a good thing as it can be part of confirming a calling to work for Christ, but on the whole it is a real challenge. It is difficult to have someone unable to eat and yet still call them to lead the work into their own communities. This is compounded in the fact that we work with immigrants and refugees who have little to no relational network where we live and don’t have an obvious path for creating or casting a wide net for relationships given many of the cultural, language, and relational barriers that exist between locals and immigrants in any location, and this is certainly true also here in Sicily where there exists a relatively closed-loop familial culture that is often quick to embrace the stranger on the surface but closed to the foreigner at a deeper level.

So, given the above, we began to investigate the possibilities that Agape Bici could be a way to help sustain the work in Catania, at least in part, and at least in connection with the two points above. If you would like to learn more about the overall plan that we put together, you can do that from this page, but I will note that as we prayed, thought about, and continued to investigate, we realized that there were three main things that we wanted to accomplish as we developed Agape Bici for the future:

Establishing a known and trusted location in Catania

In Sicily, there is frequent discussion about a “punto di riferimento”, a point of reference. A place that is known from which you can continue to navigate to other places as well. That which is established and known is considered to be trusted.

In our initial work, the only thing that was known, and possibly trusted, was us ourselves, but it was difficult to build a community, and especially a community of practice from us individually.

What was worse is that we are working with people who have very little that is established in terms of relationships with the local culture, and for that matter, relationships with other immigrants and refugees. As an outsider looking in, we frequently think that the immigrants would have community with one another because of their common background in coming from other countries, but we have actually found that there can be, within some groups, an even greater distance between them as a result of a competitive spirit or a lack of knowing who to trust within the context of this new and foreign culture. Everything is new and nothing is easy, so everyone is on edge.

When we opened the center in the downtown area of Catania, we noticed that some of our relationships began to change. We were able to develop a deeper sense of connection and trust because it was a known quantity, a known place. It was a place that people could come and connect with a community of people that they knew. They knew what they could expect when they came so they came to continue to have their bicycles fixed and to grow deeper in their relationship with Christ.

So we have an initial start in establishing and developing a location that is a known quantity in the area and we want to continue to develop this even further. We want Agape Bici to be a location that offers a service to the community but is also self-sustaining. We want it to be a place where bicycles are fixed but also cross-cultural relationships are made. We want it to be a place where we meet and are equipped in the Word of God but also a place from which we send out workers into the harvest field.

Furthermore, we see the fact that Agape Bici being a point of reference in that it can also allow us to connect with more people. As a known and trusted entity in the community, we will have the opportunity to reach into other institutions in the community using bicycles as a platform.

The example that I routinely provide on this point is that we will be able to connect with a refugee camp for the purpose of offering bicycles to the people that are living there. Or, we can offer bicycle repair courses in either English or Italian to provide new marketable skills to the refugees. Or we could offer to take the refugees on a bike ride up onto Mt. Etna, to experience a part of Sicily that they rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to experience.

And beyond this, we can look at other opportunities as well. Why not teach bicycle courses to children? Why not offer after-school programs that focus on bicycles, whether in physical fitness or in scholastics? With the right staffing and resources, we can do this, giving us the opportunity to not only be a positive force in the community but a positive force for the Gospel as we speak about our faith in the midst of the activities that we are doing.

But this reach into the community can only happen when you are a trusted entity, a known quantity.

Our desire is that Agape Bici is a point of reference for bicycles in Catania, but it is also a spiritual point of reference, where someone can come to know God and be equipped to tell others. And to do this, we need Agape Bici to become a point of reference in the community so that it will not only be here today but also tomorrow and into the future until it will be God’s will to close this work because it is no longer necessary.

Having sustainable funds for ongoing financial investment in the expansion of the Kingdom

Our desire is that we will be able to pay for the ongoing operations of Agape Bici as well as provide work that will help to support the workers, the workers of Agape Bici and the workers in the Kingdom.

We want the work to be self-sustainable. Each of the ex-pat missional workers will continue to receive support for their work, but from the perspective of the operational costs of the work on the ground, unrelated to personal support, our desire is that we will be able to cover those costs and support those costs through funds that we make from within the context of the work itself.

Even further, our desire is that we have the ability to support workers in the Kingdom of God by providing physical work for these workers. We can fix bicycles. We can rent bicycles. We can teach courses. And much more… There are many things that we can do by teaching people a physical work and skills that they can use to make money that will allow them to go on to use those funds to support themselves while they are making disciples of Christ amongst those that are the least-reached in the world.

Overall, our desire is that funds that we may be able to raise through the bike shop activities can be reinvested back into the work of the ministry here in Catania as well as be used to send people out from this place into other locations. We see the funds as playing a tanglible part in helping to expand the Kingdom of God here in Sicily and beyond.

Creating a reproducible model that we could use in other locations

Our desire is that this model could be built here in Catania, but eventually reproduced in other locations as well. There are a few ways in which we could see this happening:

First, we could imagine the possibility that Agape Bici opens locations in other cities. In this case, should this be the direction that we choose to go, we could open a branch of Agape Bici in a new location, allowing someone who is vetted and trusted and that knows both how we work together from the perspective of the bike shop as well as the mission of what we are attempting to do, to reach the unreached with the Gospel. In this case, Agape Bici could be a way for someone to take what they have learned while working in Catania and reproduce it in other places, making an income while also working to plant churches in the new city where they will live.

A second possibility, though, is that we could train someone to work within the bicycle industry, thus gaining skills for bicycle repair and how to run a business, using that to help support themselves as they move into other locations to be an ambassador for Christ in that new place and with those people. We have, in fact, already created and taken some initial stabs at an apprenticeship program. The program needs additional development and tweaking, but it is something that we can use in connection with the training programs from the Ten:Two team to prepare workers to go out into the field, thus giving them a practical way to support themselves while they are making disciples and planting churches in other locations.

Our desire is to give away the model, that it would be used for the Kingdom work to move forward in Catania and beyond. Bicycles are used everywhere, and their use is only growing. We can imagine that working within the bicycle world could be a useful skill that could be used in a signficant way in the Kingdom and so we are looking forward to seeing how God will use it in the future.

Church

In early 2022, we began to think and dream about the possibility that God would start a new church that would meet there in the bike shop. We had been part of our sponsoring Italian church, but we felt that it was important for us to have a church community that both represented the values that we were teaching and promoting to the people that we were working with as well as provide an example of what we are trying to see planted in other locations as well.

We had actually seen four separate churches started before that time. These churches were led by the people that we had been teaching and coaching, but as those people left the area to move on into other locations, which frequently happens with refugees and immigrants, the groups fell apart because the leader was no longer there.

Moving to Sicily, we never had the intention of starting or leading a church ourselves, but given the situation, and given the fact that we were needing to find a way to demonstrate what “church” meant in the sense that we were trying to communicate, we decided to go ahead and start a new community that would meet at the bike shop on Sunday evenings.

We have taught a very simple idea of what church means with the idea that each person should be able to reproduce church in their own context as well. We don’t want to overcomplicate the idea of creating a church. Instead, we want to help those that we are teaching have a simple and clear way to lead their own groups that will become churches. For reference, here is a tool that we frequently use as a vision for our own healthy church, providing a vision for other healthy churches in the future:

The church that we’ve started has grown slowly, but from the perspective of bringing people in to Christian community and experiencing that community, beyond simply describing it with words, we now have an example through which we are able to show a community in action. We have a lot of work to do, but we are moving forward with the people that God has given us up to now.

Our goal is to develop a network of churches throughout Catania, bringing in and developing workers within the context of that network, and then sending them to start new churches either in Catania or in other locations. We believe that by leading a church, and eventually developing a network of churches, will allow us to prepare leaders to enter the life and work of God here in Catania, learn and be equipped to do the same elsewhere, and then send them out into other locations. These people may be Americans who are passing through as missionaries as part of the field training, they may be Italians who are coming to learn and participate in what we are doing, or they may be immigrants and refugees who are in Italy, having arrived from across the 10/40 window into Italy.

Putting it all together

Hopefully you can already see the direction of where we have come from and where we are hoping to go. Our goal is to see a movment, if not movements, of disciples among the refugees and immigrants here in Sicily, but I would certainly be happy if we saw that same thing happen from amongst the Sicilians and the rest of Italy as well as we would then have the people who could teach others to reach out to the refugees and immigrants. We’re praying that God will work amongst all of them.

To help accomplish these goals, we are putting in place a few different components:

First, church. Establishing a church that will reproduce leaders and reproduce churches is critical to seeing the expansion that we are hoping to see. We need to know and experience how we can be the workers within the Kingdom of God and send people out.

Second, mobilization and training. The Ten:Two Team is designed to mobilize workers to enter into the harvest field and teach them what they should do when they get there.

And third, practical outreach, financing, and support. There may be several responses to this need, but we believe that Agape Bici can be a significant answer to this question.

First, I believe that Agape Bici gives us a platform from which we can reach out to others in our area, and in any area that we might ultimately take the organization. We can share the Gospel, we can make disciples, and we can plant new churches from this starting place.

But we also want to use the gift that God has given us to develop the funding for the Kingdom work to go forward, whether that is related to the expenses for the work directly in Catania, in other locations, or in helping to support the people that we want to send to do the work of making disciples and planting churches.

As we do all of this, we see the opportunity for more workers to come and work with us to help further establish what we are doing and then receive and send workers from here in Catania into other harvest fields, whether they would be here in Italy, in the rest of Europe, or beyond into the rest of the countries in the 10/40 window, representing the least-reached of the world.

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