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what’s up with all the hugging?

20 May

If you’ve been reading along, you’ve seen me mention an odd little activity that has turned out to be one of our key activities down here this week. It’s the “Free Hugs” activity sponsored by Zoe Church,which appears to have become quite the staple for this young adult / collegiate church in São Paulo.

But you should know that even Michael Frost, international Missional guru, was converted this week from Free Hugs skeptic to believer (and participant!). More on that in a second.

But why and how we’re doing such much hugging turn out to be pretty interesting (and transferable) principles!

Free Hugs

If you’re aren’t absolutely clear on this extremely complex service endeavor, Free Hugs has involved

  • standing someplace there are people walking by
  • offering free hugs, usually with at least somebody holding a “Hugs” or “Free Hugs” sign
  • and sometimes wearing a T-shirt to the same effect, or our “Z ♥ SP” shirts.

Complex, eh?

And yet this method really does seem to pack a happy wallop, despite its meek appearance.

hugs here in Brazil

First, it’s always helpful to understand context when we’re talking about college ministry methods. (Oh, how I wish we’d apply that all the time, not just country-to-country!)

Ultimately, Brazilians hugs do seem to “mean” about the same thing as American hugs. However, the idea of “personal space” is quite a bit less prevalent here. Both personal touching (between friends) and impersonal touching (like on the bus) are common. So when it comes to hugging, there’s somewhat less awkwardness that needs to be bridged. That’s why Free Hugs even works on Paulista Ave., as businesspeople leave their offices to return home.

At the same time, people here do see greetings (which often include hugs) as quite important. So while they may not find a hug from a stranger as awkward as Americans might, that doesn’t mean it isn’t significant to those who receive it.

the value of a free hug

As I said, Michael Frost noted on Tuesday that he had previously doubted the usefulness of giving out hugs. Was this, he wondered, just a nice little thing that this local church was doing for people?

But then he began to notice – and was astounded by, he said – how many people followed the hug by asking why we were doing this. I’ve watched that, too; these hugs really do seem to bridge a gap – from strangers to huggers – that then allows for a conversation! So when it happens, the bridge provided by Free Hugs seems really beneficial.

In this way, then, these hugs are also the beginning piece of a larger conduit. Those conversations allow us to point people to enjoy “more of the same” – some community and spiritual dialogue at one of the Starbucks gatherings, the Zoe service on a Saturday, an appointment to meet up for coffee later. So Free Hugs are a starting point that quite often leads to more (as discussed in some of the testimonies).

But two more ingredients add value to this project, Frost noticed: regularity and recognition. By participating in Free Hugs so much, little Zoe Church has become known in a much wider circle. At least a couple of news outlets have picked up the story, and Chris J. said they almost got on MTV! (So you can pray for that!)

Just today, I was able to let a Mackenzie University girl know what Zoe Church is by telling her it’s the group that gives out the free hugs. It’s actually been surprising how many people this week brighten up with recognition when we note that!

Something is working, when in this gigantic city, people recognize a church of just a few dozen people – and they recognize them for loving on the citizens of São Paulo in a unique way.

So here’s the question: What could you do on your campus that

  • might bridge the stranger-gap?
  • could serve as a starting point for additional connection?
  • would have additional impact if done with regularity?
  • might bring recognition in a way that strengthens your opportunities and impact?

the occasionally forgotten value of service-connecting

19 May

This “Brazil Missional Trek” has reminded me how much service can play a role in connecting us with our campuses and the people in them. If a tiny little young adult church like Zoe can get one of the world’s largest cities interested in its community, then certainly our measly little campuses might be attracted to a little love!

Often, we call this method Servant Evangelism, but plenty of us may find that label a little tricky. Or sticky. But even very practically, we all recognize that “Servant Evangelism” doesn’t nearly always result in conversion or witnessing. So is “Servant Evangelism” a demotivating term? Maybe. (But I can understand how setting forward that explicit hope can be motivational, too.)

Whatever we call it, our service here in São Paulo has had, as far as I can tell, two obvious purposes:

  • Honestly “loving on” the residents of SP
  • and simply opening lines of communication with them.

And though the former is tough to measure, we have – without a doubt – seen the latter purpose fulfilled. (Honestly, there’s no reason we could have “expected” God to show us even that in 4 days! But He has!)

So we’ve seen people meet us through Free Hugs, for instance, and then wind up at a mid-week gathering designed for spiritual dialogue. We’ve given out sandwiches at midnight that led to a conversation at two-after-midnight. We’ve watched God open doors – the very thing we’re all hoping for in that “Servant Evangelism” thing! (You can see more specifics in the testimonies I wrote about.)

It’s helpful – at least I know it’s been helpful for me – to recall the value of Service Starting, or Service Door-Opening, or Service-Connecting. It’s been good for my soul to be vividly reminded of a College Ministry Classic that has

  • loved on students
  • and opened up connections

for the last many decades.

So as we’re rummaging through our brains to ponder what methods might be worth initiating in the coming school year, I hope we’ll be willing to head to the attic. Perhaps we’ll need to push aside the mothballs… and if this method has been hiding up there, we should probably spray some bring-it-up-to-2010 Febreze. But I’m simply not sure we’re supposed to be so innovative that we leave this Classic – connecting with people through basic, everyday service – behind.

“collegiate,” “young adult,” and missional ministry

16 May

How “collegiate” are the college students you and I serve?

In our intro session / orientation last night, we had the chance to learn a big difference between what it means to attend college in São Paulo and what it often means in the United States, Canada, and perhaps some other places.

Here in São Paulo, college students generally live fully as “Young Adults.” Their post-high school lives are immediately thrust into the working world, and they don’t look to the college campus for their primary community. While many of these people attend college classes (at the numerous schools in this city), those educational endeavors are placed on top of their lives, instead of providing the setting for their lives. Reflecting this fact, there are very few dorms at the colleges here. Students may work a job each day and attend classes on various weeknights. And students here don’t necessarily see the college campus as a place for building friendships – a drastic difference from North America, and a difficulty Christian students here must overcome in order to connect with their classmates.

All of this means, of course, that methods used in college ministry here will be different from places where there’s a clearer line between “collegians” and “young adults.”

But if you’re interested in learning along with us this week, don’t worry: We’ll still be learning lots of things applicable to our own college ministries back home. In fact, this is a good start for understanding what “missional” ministry truly means.

There’s a sociological spectrum:

  • from those who live out a distinct collegiate life-stage, including viewing the college campus as their primary “hub” for community and life…
  • to those high school graduates who function much less “collegiately” and instead participate widely in the “real world,” even if they happen to be enrolled in college classes.

And as with any spectrum, there are plenty of shades in-between.

So this leads to some great questions for us, no matter where we happen to be serving college students:

  • Are the people I’m serving more “collegiate” or more “young adult”?
  • Have I too quickly lumped together Collegians and Young Adults (or Collegians and Youth), despite their different needs and lifestyles?
  • If local students treat the campus as their “hub” during these years, am I orienting my college ministry to the campus enough?
  • On the other hand, if local students are less “collegiate” than they are at another school, am I trying to use the same methods as college ministers there? Should I?

Our desire to be missional, if anything, demands that we determine who we’re reaching. And this principle is a start – one we notice even by comparing São Paulo students with North American ones. If we purposely examine how “collegiate” our own audiences actually are, we’ll understand better how to serve them and how to reach them.