When talking about the challenge of churches being relevant to new generations, it is easier to think about activities that happen within the church. But, the reality is that motivational actions for a greater experience with God go beyond the boundaries of congregations - they go where the people are. This is the basic premise of a project called Community of University Students (CEU) , which takes place in Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul, within the federal university.
The initiative takes place in the reality of young university students who face the typical challenges of those who experience the difficulty of reconciling religion with the suggestions of an environment that is often heavily influenced by a secular vision. The South American Adventist News Agency (ASN) wanted to better understand how the project works and so they talked with 28-year-old Adventist Physician, Isabelle Carolina Basualdo Pedreira, who is one of the founders of the CEU project. She is currently a cross-cultural missionary in training for Adventist Frontier Missions. Isabelle has acted as the coordinator of Youth Ministry activities in Mato Grosso do Sul for several years and has also taken part in missionary activities in Guinea Bissau.
What exactly is the project developed, in part by you, in Campo Grande, more specifically at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul?
The University Student Community (CEU) is a group of Adventist young people who seek, through friendship and discipleship, to strengthen their faith and invite others to know our beloved Jesus. The priority of this ministry is to keep the focus on Christ's method. As Ellen White says in her book, Ministry of Healing : “Christ's method alone will bring true success in reaching the people. The Savior mingled with men as a person wishing them well. He showed sympathy for them, ministered to their needs, and won their confidence. He then commanded: 'Follow Me.'”
We purpose to involve every Adventist young person in mission within a university environment that is naturally hostile to the gospel. Our goal is to present God's love, not just our doctrines. The activities we engage in serve our purpose to be inclusive and to live discipleship. Every Adventist works to disciple a non-Adventist, and that relationship comes about spontaneously based on the affinity between Youth Ministries and the non-Adventists.
Interesting. And how does this work practically?
First, we get involved in the life of a non-Adventist friend. For our purpose, we offer friendship and our time, and invite them to the weekly meetings that take place outdoors on campus. There, the non-Adventist youth are welcomed and accepted. After the first meeting, we began to pray and fast once a month for each of our friends. We also then invite them to a small group meeting at one of our members' homes. At these small group meetings, we have deeper discussions and studies of the Word of God. Then that friend will become interested in our way of life, and will naturally begin to frequent the places we go – including the Seventh-day Adventist Church. This process has already taken days or years, and it also depends on the individual. What connects one activity to another is the relationship we have with non-Adventists.
The process is simple, but it requires dedication, as our differential is not the attractiveness of the programs themselves, nor the activities we carry out, but, yes, the willingness to meet a basic need of every human being, regardless of their cosmovision: that of being loved unconditionally.
In our group, we have many non-Adventists being discipled, cared for, and loved. Everyone feels they can express their opinions at every campus meeting without being confronted. But they know that the Word of God, and the Bible alone, is our rule of faith and practice. Thus, they continue walking with us, through the friendship that we develop, in an individual and intentional discipleship. The goal is to be a friend of Jesus, and a friend of one's neighbor.
How long has the project been running and how receptive have the participants been?
The university campus makes everything more challenging. There is a lot of pressure for good grades, there is competitiveness among students, differences in beliefs, opinions and types of education. In this diverse environment, Adventist young people are required to be as resilient as they are, and it is a test of their faith.
We began to pray and fast for a project that would involve us and help us serve the academic community in which we were inserted. We researched our target audience, and discovered their interests and demands. But first it was necessary to reaffirm our own identity and faith as Adventists, because in an environment hostile to the gospel, the first tendency is to make faith private rather than sharing. We've realized from practical experience that involving an Adventist young person in a mission to save someone is the only way to strengthen their faith.
In August 2016, we started with 3 leaders: Jean Silva do Vale, a Pharmacy student, me, a Medical Student, and Luís Felipe Abdo, an Electrical Engineering student. Our meetings have been held at the Concha Acústica of the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, at 11:30 am every week since 2016. With the restrictions of the pandemic, we started to meet virtually, with fewer face-to-face meetings. From three leaders, we have grown to 20 Adventist disciples each.
Do you have any examples?
Yes. It's interesting to hear the testimonies from the young Adventists. I will share a few here.
“CEU is God's answer to my prayers. I always thought that serving God was just going to worship services, reading the Sabbath school lesson every morning, and praying sometimes with your heart and sometimes automatically. The feeling that something was missing bothered me for a while. But God, in His infinite mercy, showed me that there is something more He wanted me to do. In these last two years that I have been part of this community, day after day, Jesus saves me from myself. With this precious family, I learned more about God's love and how to experience it.” Caroline da Costa Barbosa Andrade, 22, Medical Student.
“Jesus gave me a gift in CEU, a community that shows love among brothers and brings relief for the busy week, a relational group that cares and loves people. I started to share my life with people in this community and they brought me closer to Christ every day, they listened to my difficulties and brought me joy. Today, being part of the CEU coordination team, I feel privileged and very happy. Jesus sent me a person to lead me to biblical truths. He helped me in my loneliness and even gave me the CEU with new friends, and today, gives me the ease and privilege to witness of His beautiful love to others.” Hellen Carvalho, 23, Nursing Student.
There are also very interesting testimonies from non-Adventists:
“CEU for me is a moment of refuge from the world and a balm in the midst of the rush of everyday life” Leonardo Paes, 21, Civil Engineering Academic.
“Participating in the CEU was a chance to stop a little from the rush and worry of the day-to-day studies and realize that there are other things to give importance to on a daily basis, in addition to grades. It was having the opportunity to listen and speak in a planned and respectful way.” Jucylaine Costa, 27, Physiotherapy Student.
What kind of connection do you make from this work to Bible study and religious practice?
We try to meet the emotional and spiritual demands of our target audience, bringing subjects from the Word of God that are relevant to the university student. After a space for dialogue where they can talk about their individual beliefs, we use the Bible as the final word for any topic we bring up in our meetings. We talk about faith, archaeology and science, teachings of Jesus, belief in God, amongst other topics.
What are the current challenges and what are the perspectives for the coming years? How does the project intend to remain relevant?
The big challenge of any community project is to maintain discipleship. It is to make every Adventist understand that the mission Jesus left is not to make programs, or simply to keep a small group active. The mission is to take care of the other, to bring him to Jesus through a sincere and intentional friendship. The weekly meeting of the CEU exists for the celebration of discipleship that already takes place during the week. We intend to stay relevant with individual effort. Salvation does not happen in a group, so we need to work individually with each non-Adventist youth by serving and meeting their individual needs and allowing God to work on their heart.