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April 10, 2014

Portugal: A Call for Courage

Evangelical leaders in Portugal say it's time for Christians to reclaim the nation's adventurous spirit.

  • Age of Discovery

    A monument honoring Portugal's explorers dominates the sky above the Belem marina outside Lisbon. The country is a land of opportunities for Christians and missionaries willing to try new things.

  • Pastor Antonio Rodolpho stands in the doorway of his church in Cascais, a suburb of Lisbon. He is one of many pastors working in a new church-planting movement.

  • The Portuguese live each day in the shadow of Catholicism. Under the reflection of the Basilica Tower in Fatima, pilgrims light candles and say prayers to the Virgin Mary.

In the western tip of Europe, facing the blue expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, sits a small country that was once a gateway to the world. 

Portugal ushered in the Age of Discovery when it began exploring the eastern Atlantic during the 15th century under the patronage of Prince Henry the Navigator. The Age of Discovery was a time of European exploration and expansion that eventually led to the establishment of European colonies throughout the world. Portugal was an early leader in these voyages, and notable Portuguese explorers include Bartolomeu Dias, the first European to sail around the southern tip of Africa; Vasco de Gama, the first to reach India; and Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition was the first to circumnavigate the globe.

At a time when many sailors feared falling off the edge of the world or encountering vicious sea monsters, Portuguese explorers showed tremendous courage in their willingness to launch into the unknown, take risks, seek new connections and expand their world.

There are some in Portugal today who would like to see a resurgence of this type of courage within the country’s small evangelical population.

“We need people with courage like the discoverers ... they took risks. The church must risk itself to reach the nation — not only the nation, but also other countries,” Pastor Antonio Rodolpho says. “We need this spirit again. We Portuguese, we lost this courage. We lost it. We need to recover it in terms of disciple making, planting churches, and missions.”

Rodolpho is pastor of Igreja Baptista Vida Nova — New Life Baptist Church, in English — in Cascais, a suburb of Lisbon. He is also an advisor with the Portuguese Evangelical Alliance (PEA).

The PEA is promoting a project called Global Mission 2015, intended to spread the gospel throughout Portugal and from Portugal to the world. The first part of the project is a national church-planting movement. Its target is to reach every county in Portugal and to establish one evangelical church for every 3,500 people. It is an ambitious project: currently, only about one percent of Portugal’s 10 million people are Christians, and 42 out of 308 counties have no evangelical church. Portugal also has just one evangelical church for every 7,500 people, so the number of churches in the country would have to double to reach the target.

Most evangelical churches in Portugal today were planted during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1975, Portugal granted independence to its colonies in Africa, and nearly one million Portuguese people returned to the country as refugees. Having lived in a foreign culture, these people were relatively open to the gospel and some had converted in Africa. When they came home, they evangelized their families and friends and grew the church. Today, however, many of these churches are dying, often with aging congregations and without a pastor. Much of the growth in the evangelical church today is due to immigration, but immigrants have a harder time crossing socio-economic boundaries to reach Portuguese people effectively. Evangelism has come to a standstill.

“The Portuguese Christians say that they have a huge difficulty to evangelize. Many of them — not all of them, but many of them — don’t believe in any evangelism anymore. They gave up,” Rodolpho explains.  “It’s very hard, too hard. It’s easier to give up and to concentrate inside the church.”

The difficulty lies in the nature of Portuguese culture. It is nostalgic and resistant to change, according to TEAM workers there. The Protestant Reformation never made it to Portugal, where the Roman Catholic Church has a long-standing and widespread influence on Portuguese society and traditions. While there is a legal separation of church and state in Portugal, there is little separation between the two in practice. Local priests are invited to bless new public buildings, for example. Most Portuguese are at least nominally Catholic, and it is not uncommon for the elderly to extract “deathbed promises” from their children to never leave the Catholic Church. In the more traditional parts of Portugal, a person who becomes an evangelical may be ostracized.

This is slowly changing, especially in places like Lisbon, where young people have become indifferent to religion. 

Samuel “Paulo” Santos is pastor of O Caminho  — The Way Evangelical Center, in English — in the northern town of Ermesinde. He believes there is less fear of evangelicals in Portugal today than there was ten years ago. “In small cities, you will find a lot of fear, a lot of pressure of the family, a lot of pressure of friends, a lot of pressure of community. And so the people are really afraid,” Santos says. “But if you look to a place the size of Ermesinde — a big area of large cities — the people are not necessarily with fear of a new church. The first time can be hard to come to church, but now I think that somehow we are more willing to [say], ‘Okay, anyone can believe what they want to believe, so I can go and see.’”

But even if more people are willing to accept a new church, another cultural challenge facing the church-planting movement is Portugal’s deep sense of pessimism. According to Santos, it’s considered one of the most pessimistic countries in the world.

“Portuguese are very pessimistic. The problem is evangelicals are still pessimists and still don’t have hope about the future. And if we don’t have hope about the future, we as a church don’t face the challenges with hope and with courage. How can we change anything?” Santos says. 

TEAM missionary Yvonne Malone works with O Caminho church. She calls this type of thinking a “closed gate” mentality. She describes a Portuguese church she attended that met in an apartment: during the service, church members kept the curtains drawn and the front gate locked. It was anything but inviting to outsiders. However, this is how many evangelical churches in Portugal exist today: isolated and insular.

This mentality will have to change if Portugal’s evangelical churches are going to reach their church-planting goals. For their part, the PEA is holding conferences and showing models of successful church planting in other parts of Europe to demonstrate that it can indeed be accomplished. They also have a small network of church planters in Lisbon, and a group that is moving north to the city of Porto this year to start a similar network. Some Portuguese churches, too, are sailing into unchartered waters and trying new tactics in an attempt to reach out to their communities.

When Santos first began working with O Caminho church, he encountered the “closed gate” and reluctance among Portuguese people to open their doors and let people into their homes.

“One of the main problems was — because my hope was going to be in the homes — how can we encourage and really open the doors of our homes, if the believers from our homes don’t naturally open the doors?” Santos says. “Many of them just say, ‘Oh, it’s impossible to do that in Portugal.’  Well, we have opened 25 homes in our church.”

Today, O Caminho runs 16 small groups that meet in members’ homes. Rodolpho and the Vida Nova church are also creating and promoting small groups. They are finding that Portuguese people tend to be more attracted to and involved in gatherings that are less formal, more intimate, and less structured than a traditional church service. Both churches also are trying to reach their neighbors with a variety of other creative ministries. Vida Nova runs a literacy course for adults, along with an English class and a course on personal finance. O Caminho works with local social services groups to help the community, for instance, handing out food baskets. They have transformed their basement into a coffeehouse, where they regularly hold “coffee concerts.” Nearly 90 people attended their last event, 30 of whom were non-believers. 

“That’s the thing we want to develop more, you know, more creative ways of reaching the community,” Santos says. “We’ve seen many, many impacts in people’s lives. And sometimes it’s not just the result itself of new believers, but is the change in the believers, to open the houses.”

Santos believes that Portugal today is a land of opportunity for Christians and missionaries willing to try new things and for those who have the courage to explore and experiment.

“The Portuguese are very open to new things, if you create a church like we are creating. We have established since the beginning that there’s nothing sacred, just the Bible and the souls,” he says. “Everything [else] you can change: the schedule, the times, the programs. You need to see what God is really calling you to do and try new things and to move.”

-Written by Megan Darreth
-Photographs by Robert Johnson


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