A month before the COVID-19 outbreak, UST graduate Marco Martella became the pastor of Nuova Vita Church in Bologna, northern Italy. He shares his experience of starting ministry on the brink of the outbreak and the lessons God has taught him so far.

"If someone had asked me a few months ago how I might be starting ministry as a pastor, I definitely wouldn’t have said “in the middle of a pandemic”. I officially began my term as a pastor at Nuova Vita Church, Bologna, in January 2020. Towards the end of February, the virus began spreading in northern Italy and on 8th March, Giuseppe Conte the Italian Prime Minister, announced a lockdown. This was a historical event for our nation. Everything happened much too quickly to stop and think about how to respond to such an emergency, which, on top of everything hit our particular region hard and fast, bringing the whole system and population to its knees.

What are we doing?

The first thing God led us to do, through Scripture, was to encourage our congregation to submit to the decisions taken by the governing authorities. As the Apostles Paul and Peter teach us, this is God’s will and it’s for our good and also for the good of our witness - it honours God! (Romans 13:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13-17). Then we began actively encouraging our church through all the media platforms that God has provided us, showing how the Gospel is the answer in any circumstance and that God truly is in control!

Comfort in God’s word

'Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah.' - 2 Chronicles 20:3

And God’s response is always the same, because He is the same yesterday, today and forever...!

'Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.'- 2 Chronicles 20:15

In these days, the story of Jehoshaphat has been a model for us as pastors in responding to such a frightening situation. While every day we see war bulletins with hundreds of deaths and thousands infected, while friends and family are starting to contract the virus and die without us even being able to give them a last hug or say good-bye, we have gotten on our knees and began praying and fasting and saying with Jehoshaphat: ‘For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.’ (2 Chronicles 20:12)

Therefore, our hope is not based on what we can do, or how strong we are, but on the loving, faithful and merciful character of God. This makes the Gospel good news and gives us strength to persevere through suffering in joy.

Take up your cross and follow Jesus

One of our greatest challenges in these days of lockdown has been understanding how to be salt and light in the city of Bologna. We asked ourselves: “How can we follow the way of the cross by serving the people around us with love and self-sacrifice? How can we offer hospitality and weep with those who mourn if we can’t even meet our own family members?” The answer has been the following: phone calls and video-calls to reach out to others. Mourning with those who are mourning and encouraging all those who are discouraged. As pastors we started calling every member of our church to encourage them, but also to respond to their material needs. Indeed, many have lost their jobs and are experiencing financial trouble.

In the last few days, I have been very encouraged to hear that several members of our church have been serving their elderly neighbours by cooking them lunch and dinner every day. Others have prepared boxes and placed them in the lobby of their buildings to collect food for those in need. In the meantime, as leaders, we have contacted the authorities of our church’s neighbourhood and made ourselves available for any need that would arise in the community. Another group in our church is in daily prayer for the nurses and doctors on the front line, for the sick and for those mourning the loss of their loved ones.

What has God been teaching me?

One of the things God has been teaching me personally in this time is that the kind of glory which he calls us to in these last days is contrary to human understanding: strength in weakness; wealth in poverty; glory in suffering. This has been the path Jesus walked and we know that God the Father lifted Him up sovereignly and gave Him the name above every name (Phil. 2:9). That is why I have been challenged not to waste my quarantine by feeling down or trying to increase my own comfort, but to serve the Lord with joy and self-sacrifice. Taking up my cross and following Jesus. What will you do in this pandemic?

Please pray with us in Bologna and our whole region. Remember the gospel is not on lockdown. With affection, Marco Martella, a servant of the Lord Jesus."

Despite the extreme challenges across Italy, churches and ministries are carrying on proclaiming the gospel and equipping one another to serve. Our own Learning Community in Rome is continuing to raise up pastors to lead the church through these challenging times.

You can find out more about the Rome community here.