GUARAPARI, Brazil — On occasion, the manager of a pizzeria in this seaside Brazilian community finds her head waiter sitting at a table with a customer, preaching about Christ instead of taking his drink order.
She doesn’t mind.
The manager, Alexandra Neto, and her “waiter” husband, Ricardo, opened the restaurant in a humble storefront near Guarapari’s dark-sand beaches.
Across the street and down a few doors is the real reason they’re here — a bright yellow building with a sign reading “Igreja de Cristo em Guarapari” (“Church of Christ in Guarapari”).
Speaking in Portuguese, Ricardo Neto said he and his wife moved here to plant a church and start a business — in that order.
“I think that’s what God wants us to do,” said Neto’s translator, Jailson Germano, a fellow Christian who partners in the church-planting work, along with his wife and two daughters.
In another storefront, about 280 miles southwest of Guarapari, a mission team nurtures a young Church of Christ in Niteroi, an urban metropolis near Rio de Janeiro. The four-family team was recruited in the U.S. and came to Brazil with financial support and detailed plans.
“We’re here to start and grow a church in Niteroi, then develop leaders and share our vision,” team member Jill Nichols said. “Ultimately, our goal is to work ourselves out of a job.”
Both sets of Christians carry on a legacy that began 50 years ago, when a team of 13 families moved from Texas to Sao Paulo, Brazil, with the goal of planting self-replicating churches. At the time, the United States was the epicenter of Churches of Christ, home to the greatest number of congregations, congregants and financial resources.
Half a century later, the majority of the fellowship’s material wealth remains concentrated in the U.S.
But the makeup of the church has changed.
Fertile soil for the Gospel in the Global South — Africa, Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Latin America — has resulted in a southward shift in Christianity. By 2050, only about one-fifth of the 3 billion people who claim Christianity as their faith will be non-Hispanic whites, writes Philip Jenkins, researcher and author of “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.”
According to research by The Christian Chronicle, at least two-thirds of the global membership of Churches of Christ now resides outside the U.S.
In Brazil, churches planted by U.S. missionaries now send out a new generation of native church planters.
Meanwhile, ministry leaders in South and North America ponder the most effective ways to use the church’s combined resources — human and financial — to reach lost souls.
Despite the rapid growth of the faith in the past 50 years, “we need to be taking advantage of every opportunity to share the Gospel, not knowing the future,” Nichols said.
BIG-CITY EVANGELISM IN NITEROI
Guarapari’s laid-back beaches strike a stark contrast to Niteroi, where buses lurch and swerve through crowded streets at breakneck speed. From Niteroi’s beaches on Guanabara Bay, a half-million people look across the water to Rio’s iconic landmarks — Sugarloaf Mountain and the open-armed Christ the Redeemer statue.
Continent of Great Cities, a church-planting ministry that evolved from the work of missionaries in Brazil in the late 1960s, recruited five families to serve on the team. One team member, Juliana Roberts, is a native Brazilian. Her husband, Ben, and teammate Nathan Zinck are the sons of missionaries to South America.
The team moved to Niteroi in 2008. In January 2010, they rented a meeting place for the church.
For nearly 15 years before the team arrived, a handful of Christians met in a tiny apartment room in Niteroi, said Jose Costa, who now attends the Niteroi congregation, named “The Way: A Church of Christ.”
In addition to conducting church services, the Niteroi team teaches theology courses at the building.
“I have the courage, but I don’t know if I have the skills to evangelize,” Costa said, so the team’s arrival “has been wonderful. I’ve learned so much.”
Missionary Brent Nichols said he and his teammates who didn’t know Portuguese have worked hard to master it — and to adapt to Brazilian culture. Finances also have been a challenge, added his wife, Jill Nichols. A faltering U.S. economy and burgeoning Brazilian oil business have hurt the dollar’s exchange rate against Brazil’s currency, the Real.
One of the couples, Wes and Carrie Gotcher, moved to Texas after their twin boys were born prematurely. Providing for the boys’ medical care would be easier in their home country.
“The Gotchers were a huge asset,” said team member Zane McGee, and the team spent much time in prayer and planning to adjust its workload.
Despite the challenges, the remaining four families see the young congregation growing. Up to 80 people have crowded into the small storefront for Sunday worship, McGee said. The team also is building relationships in the community, donating toys and supplies and playing with children at a nearby orphanage.
The orphanage is surrounded by churches, its director said, but the Church of Christ is the only group that actively cares for its children.
HUMAN PLANS AND ‘GOD’S WISDOM’
Since Continent of Great Cities launched in the late 1970s, the Texas-based ministry has sent 37 teams to Latin America. Increasingly, the ministry recruits teams from Latin American ministry training programs, including the Honduras-based Baxter Institute.
Now, teams of predominantly U.S. citizens account for only one-fourth of the groups sent out by the ministry, said executive director Kelley Grant.
But Christians from the North still may play an important role in Global South church plants, said Grant, a former missionary to Santiago, Chile.
Latin American nations have rigid social structures, and Christians from one economic class often are reluctant to reach out to another.
Church planters from the U.S. can bridge those social divides and encourage their congregations to get involved in benevolence work, including orphanages, Grant said.
U.S. Christians also have access to the financial resources that allow them to rent or buy church facilities in high-traffic areas, attracting more attention, Brent Nichols said.
However, foreign missionaries don’t stay in the field forever, and Latin American Christians “are more likely to work their entire careers as evangelists in their home country,” said Bryan Gibbs, who trains and advises church-planting teams of Brazilians for Continent of Great Cities. He recently traveled to Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, to work with the ministry’s first all-Brazilian church-planting team.
A future church-planting project will involve Brazilian Christians, overseen by a Brazilian congregation, with support from Christians in the U.S. Team members will raise at least 25 percent of their support from Brazilian sources, Gibbs said.
In Brazil, there are dozens of large cities unreached by Churches of Christ, Grant said. He prays that the church planters of the future, regardless of their nationality, will find “people who would hear the Gospel.”
Jill Nichols agreed. “I believe that God will use whoever is sent,” she said. “We can try to reason what is the best plan using our human wisdom. God’s wisdom is always better.”
In the next half-century, Churches of Christ in the U.S. must “leave behind the mentality that we are the primary source for the spread of the Gospel,” Gibbs said.
“When we can truly see our brothers and sisters from other parts of the world as partners, then we will be ready for our future role in world evangelism,” he said.
A SMALL-TOWN FAMILY IN GUARAPARI
Ricardo Neto doesn’t think of himself as a missionary. He describes himself as a “country preacher” — perfect for the pace of life in Guarapari.
Baptized in Justinopolis, a small town in Brazil’s interior, he trained for ministry in nearby Belo Horizonte. He has participated in church plants in other parts of the country and says he loves the close-knit family he’s found in this town of about 100,000 souls, 30 miles south of Vitoria.
Four families comprise the core of the Guarapari church. Attendance on Sunday mornings can reach 30 adults and children, said Jailson Germano, an English teacher who assists in the church plant. Previously, he and his family attended the Vitoria Church of Christ, a congregation planted by a U.S. mission team in the 1990s.
The younger of his two daughters, Fabiola, says she misses her friends at the Vitoria church, but she understands the need to reach out to a new community. Many of her peers claim to be Catholic but rarely attend church or get support from fellow believers.
“We’re just trying to help,” she said. “We’re family.”
Her mother, Simone, brushed back tears when she talked about the Vitoria church — a congregation that has struggled to grow since the missionaries returned home. She sometimes feels that she has abandoned the Vitoria church, but “we want to be able to spread the Gospel in a part of the city that never had it,” she said.
Jailson Germano says the infant Guarapari church reminds him of the early days of the Vitoria congregation.
“People call you when you don’t come on Sunday morning,” he said. “I can see that first love here.”