SÃO PAULO, Brazil (BP) -- Chris Julian could not do his job without food.
"I think it's vital," Julian, an IMB missionary in Brazil, said. "We have found that food is such a connection. Food is such an icebreaker. It's just a natural thing."
Julian and his wife Melody started "Igrega Zoe Marajoara" (Zoe Marajoara Church) -- or simply "Zoe" to its members -- to reach students from various universities in São Paulo. And food has factored heavily into their ministry model.
On many Saturday evenings, Zoe students have gathered for theme nights to share a potluck-style meal. One week it was Italian food. On a different week it was Mexican food or a Hawaiian luau. One night the theme was chocolate dessert.
"We call it 'the table,' and everyone brings something to share," said Letícia Barbosa Soares, a Zoe member who completed her psychology studies last year. "I love how Zoe uses food in everything we do. Food brings people together."
Filling the air with music, voices and the smell of Brazilian-made dishes, these theme nights have drawn 30-35 Brazilian college students -- both Christians and non-believers -- to talk and eat.
During one of the gatherings, a Zoe student led the group in prayer and shared a brief message. Then Julian asked the group a question: "Where did you see God this week?" And with that, a conversation began.
"It was very non-offensive to a non-believer," Julian said. "We knew that the conversations came afterward."
Rather than trying to reach many people through a single Gospel presentation, Zoe students have shared the Gospel with their non-Christian friends through one-on-one conversations -- conversations that have often resulted from an event like theme night.
"Through theme nights, people would get intrigued ," Soares, a university student, said. "This made them curious to know what Zoe is all about and that is when the Gospel is shared. Zoe is about
Meeting a need
The Julians began their ministry in São Paulo with a much more conventional approach. At first, he and a group of students held formal meetings, did topical book studies and even used PowerPoint. But the few people who attended these meetings were already Christians. The couple wanted to find a better way to connect with other students.
Soares said, "The church in Acts isn't boring. It's exciting, with parties, dinners, prayers, miracles and so much more. People would be going out to share, not just inviting people to come to church."
Following the example of the early church in Acts, the Julians changed their approach and challenged Zoe students to go out and make friends with lost people. Then the students invited their new friends to informal theme night meetings and other events. The new approach worked.
Zoe students have given food, water and blankets to homeless people on Avenida Paulista (São Paulo's Wall Street). Students have visited slums -- called favellas -- to share snacks of fruits, crackers and juice with children. They have conducted discipleship meetings in coffee shops. And the students have often stood in public spaces with signs that said, "Free hugs."
"Sometimes you want to invite a friend to church and they might think 'Oh, church is boring,'" Soares said. "Now, if church is a place where you can hang out, talk, eat, play, laugh, cry, share, encourage, learn and teach, it is much more interesting and 'not boring.'"
Julian's favorite aspect of this type of approach is that it is non-confrontational. His students have earned the right to be heard by serving and sharing with those who don't know Christ. And then those people have approached Zoe students to learn more.
"They'd say, 'Why are you doing this? Why are you here?'" Julian said. "That's always the question. And we'd say, 'We just want to have the opportunity to share Christ with you."
Zoe has hosted an annual on-campus festival, called ZoeFest, with free food, games and giveaways, a DJ and a climbing wall. In past years, the event has drawn about 400 students.
Thiago Cavalcante was one of those students who attended ZoeFest in 2009. He studied at Universidade Paulista. Like many in Brazil, Cavalcante had been raised Catholic but wasn't a believer. He didn't know anyone from Zoe, but what he saw at ZoeFest sparked his interest.
Soares began meeting with Cavalcante between work and classes to answer his questions about the Bible. And Cavalcante had a lot of questions.
"Finally one Saturday night, he walked in the front door of our house and you could just tell something had happened," Julian said. "He was beaming."
"I get this," Cavalcante said. "I want to follow. I'm a believer now."
Not long afterward, Cavalcante was baptized. And later, Cavalcante and the Julians' daughter Rachel were married.
"You read over and over in the New Testament, food is always used. It's always there," Julian said. "It works."
Last year, the Julians moved about 700 miles south from São Paulo to Porto Alegre to work with the European Diaspora. Zoe has continued to connect with lost college students since the Julians moved.
Meanwhile, the couple plan to reach out to German and Italian immigrants in the same way they reached out to college students in São Paulo -- by serving and feeding them.
"It's a very effective tool," Julian said. "We will continue to use it."
Tristan Taylor served as an IMB writer in the Americas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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