Life at the University of Minho in Braga is much like any other big school. Students comes from all over Portugal to study subjects such as science, math, engineering, nursing and the arts. They fill their days with classes and textbooks, letting off steam at their favorite bars and cafés. There’s just one difference between this and other large Portuguese universities — most students go home for the weekends, leaving behind a ghost town.
“The weekend ministry orientation of traditional churches misses these students completely,” said Steve Mosely, a TEAM missionary serving with his wife, Pat. “It was hard for the usual campus ministries to take hold, so it was important that a new ministry be started during the week.”
But what the Moselys began in their home as a modest collection of weekday small groups and individual outreaches has evolved into a permanent witness at the university’s doorstep, a storefront ministry center that also happens to be in the heart of the student night-life strip.
The Moselys, who have served in Portugal since the 1980s, came to the northwestern town of Braga three years ago after senior leadership at both GBU (InterVaristy) and Cru (Campus Crusade) asked them to consider leaving the Baptist church in Guimarães where Steve was serving as senior pastor. Both organizations had tried to make in-roads at the University of Minho with little success, but they felt Steve had the right stuff to get something going.
Steve and Pat have a strong natural gifting for personal evangelism and have been part of evangelistic events and campaigns throughout their ministry. Steve, who himself became a Christian as a college student, especially has a heart for university students. Just four days after Steve came to Christ, he and a friend attended an evangelism seminar together.
“It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me,” Steve said. “I’m a Christian now, and so I need to learn how to talk about Christ and share my faith.”
Steve took his new faith seriously, attending a missions-minded evangelical church and switching his major from math and engineering to Latin American studies. He enjoyed studying languages and learning about Latin countries, and he knew the Lord was directing him to take the gospel to the places he was studying.
“I really think that God has called me here to Portugal to make a difference, and I think this particular ministry can make a difference,” Steve said. “A new community of believers here [at the University of Minho] has the potential to reach and be a part of God’s kingdom growing in a whole region, with the students of faith living it out in their daily lives on campus and when they go back home.”
Steve and Pat started their ministry by working with Cru, GBU and local churches to identify Christians on campus, who they estimated to be fewer than 50 out of a student population of around 19,000. They invited students into their home for English classes and Bible studies on Wednesday nights. They followed-up with individual students in coffee shops or restaurants. They planned outreach activities such as dinners or hiking excursions with the students’ weekly schedules in mind. Several women were regularly attending a small group, where they would talk about spiritual issues while making handicrafts together. Leandro and Priscila Guarnieri from MAEB (Missao Alianca Evangelica do Brasil, or The Evangelical Alliance Mission of Brazil) joined the ministry, as did the family of a local business owner. And while these programs were successful, the Moselys knew from the beginning that they would need to take a bigger step to reach more people.
In September 2013, they opened a public space called Espaço NorteVerdadeiro (True North Space), located just 250 feet from the main entrance of the university. NorteVerdadeiro is on the “café street,” the coffee-and-alcohol-lined center of campus life where students gather on weeknights. The modern and attractive second-floor storefront has a warm atmosphere with tall windows, wood floors, a coffee bar, and comfy sofas and chairs. NorteVerdadeiro is a disarming place to invite students to a convivio+deus, which translates as “hangout plus God.” Students who were reluctant to visit a stranger’s home are more comfortable attending events and inviting others to join them at the NorteVerdadeiro public space.
“By meeting at home, you’re not going to get the kids who are seekers, who maybe have a question about God, but they don’t know any Christians. So now they can visit this space,” Pat said.
Among the many events, informal English nights have proven popular, as students are eager to practice conversational English and are curious about American culture. English is also an important skill for the students, who face a tough job market after graduation and search for work in countries where English is the common language.
“We try to have some sort of spiritual moment at every English class,” Pat said. “We pray for them. Here in Portugal, no one has ever been prayed for personally. It’s the first time anyone has interceded for them with God, and they are really touched by it.”
English classes also provide the opportunity to invite people to more convivios, including game nights, meals, holiday parties, and spiritual discussions about books such as Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life.” The response has been slow but positive. During a Thanksgiving outreach meal held last year, the Moselys shared their faith and reasons to give thanks to the Lord. When they opened the time of sharing to the 17 students in attendance, one young Chinese woman said, “As you know, we do not have religion in my country, but I am thankful that I have heard about God here in Portugal. I think God wanted me to come here so that I could learn about him.”
NorteVerdadeiro also provides a space to host special events such as seminars, hosted four times a year in conjunction with GBU. More than 30 people — a good number by anyone’s estimation — attended a recent seminar about the medical evidence for the existence of God. Even more exciting was the response an Easter event titled “Where’s the Body?” got on Facebook. More than 600 people clicked on the ad to get more information, and the NorteVerdadeiro Facebook timeline has racked up almost 300 likes. This is encouraging in a place like Portugal, where most people consider themselves to be non-religious and show little interest in searching for God. There is great reverence for the Catholic Church, but most people either no longer believe in God or see him as the distant and uncaring God of their parents or grandparents. Postmodernism can co-exist in their minds with superstition and mysticism.
“Most people here are not religious at all. They’ve counted religion out,” Steve said. “God is irrelevant to their lives. So we provide a place where people can talk about spiritual things in a safe environment. We encourage and challenge them to consider their spiritual life.”
The lively NorteVerdadeiro space appeals to more than just students. Young professionals, who are taking advantage of the economic growth in the region spurred on by the thriving university, have started attending events there. NorteVerdadeiro hosts a Sunday meeting directed at a general audience, including children’s worship and a church-like mix of prayer, music, and a sermon. Sunday attendance is generally 12 adults and five children, who especially enjoy when lunch is served twice a month. One regular attender held his birthday party at NorteVerdadeiro and invited many of his non-believing co-workers. He gave his testimony and hosted a lunch for about 15 people, some of whom took home Bibles and later attended a Christmas event.
“NorteVerdadeiro is an instrument to accomplish the larger vision of starting a church that is a community of believers, students and non-students, around the university,” Steve said. “We want to have a Christian community where a person feels they belong. The essence is a group of people living out their Christian faith in terms of their daily lives, who see it as a way of living.”
Steve and Pat weave discipleship into all of their work. Steve and ministry partner Leandro Guarnieri have developed a discipleship plan that addresses issues specific to Portuguese students and young professionals, including their postmodern views of religion and differences with older generations.
“Our vision for students is to evangelize and disciple them during their time here in Braga. We’ve got to prepare these students to go back to their homes, to be a disciple and know how to disciple other people,” Steve said. “When they return to live in their communities, they may very well be the only evangelicals. Our hope is that they will be able to share their faith throughout north Portugal.”
-Written by Lisa H. Renninger
-Photographs by Robert Johnson