Hanging Out with People Like Jesus Did

by Bettina Krause

Metro Manila is a behemoth of a city; actually, it’s a cluster of 16 cities that’s home to some 12 million people from every imaginable walk of life. But in this mass of humanity, a young Seventh-day Adventist pastor set his sights on making meaningful connections with one very specific group. In the process, he’s finding new and creative ways of being an urban missionary.

Makati, Manila, Philippines

To the casual observer, it’s just a regular evening scene at one of the many chic cafés in the upscale district of Makati, the financial heart of Metro Manila. The avenues outside are lined with high-end stores and towering office buildings. Inside the café there are the sounds of chairs scraping on the floor, the chatter of many different conversations blending with bursts of laughter from groups of young people seated around tables or lounging on comfortable sofas.[1]

These are some of Manila’s growing ranks of young, educated, upwardly mobile professionals. In a country where the average income is modest at best, this group of relatively high-income earners accounts for just 7 percent of the workforce yet is responsible for some 20 percent of the nation’s spending on luxury items such as recreation and vacations.

If you look closer around the café you’ll notice one group, seated at a long table near the rear of the café, that is particularly absorbed in conversation. The young people are talking and laughing, yet their conversation seems more focused, more intent than that of other groups in the room. Along with half-empty mugs and plates of food are small booklets—discussion guides called CAFÉ Life group module. Depending on the evening, the topic could be family, work life, finding love, emotional health, or building a healthy lifestyle.

This is a CAFÉ Life meet-up, one of many facilitated by Seventh-day Adventist young people each week around Metro Manila. These small-group meetings happen in public places— cafés or restaurants—and they have just one purpose: to connect secular young professionals with their Creator.

Not a program—an idea

CAFÉ Life belongs to an umbrella ministry called Simply Missions—an urban ministry that’s almost impossible to describe in just a few words. Its niche focus is young, secular, urban professionals in Manila, but the approach it takes doesn’t fall neatly into any one urban ministry box.

Is it about evangelism training? Not specifically, but one of its outcomes is Adventist young people who are empowered to share their faith. Is it a small-group ministry? In one sense it is, but its scope is much broader. Is it a discipleship program? Yes, but that’s not all. Is it a healthy-living ministry? Yes, in part, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.

The co-founder of Simply Missions, Pastor Reylourd Reyes, describes this urban ministry not as a project or program but as “an idea,” which is the tagline that appears on the Simply Missions Web site and Facebook page.

“The idea of Simply Missions is not about classes, workshops, or training modules,” says Reylourd. “It’s not about becoming a missionary or an evangelist. It is about projecting the context of Jesus’ mission, attitude, agenda, and mindset into our lifestyles.”

Describing Simply Missions as an “idea” may sound somewhat vague, but it’s an idea that has yielded some undeniably concrete results in the past four years. From just one group of friends meeting regularly in a café, Simply Missions has grown into what could be described as a “mission conglomerate”: a whole range of interrelated ministries that aim to reach young professionals in Metro Manila. There are the CAFÉ Life evenings, which in many ways continue to be the backbone of Simply Missions. In recent times, this has branched out to include Internet meet-ups known as CAFÉ Life Online, and larger events called CAFÉ Life Next Level.

Then there’s the higher level of connection called Project Grow, where regulars at the CAFÉ Life meetings are invited to more in-depth discussions, which introduce biblical principles. For many, this marks the beginning of a journey of spiritual growth and discipleship as part of a loving, supportive community. They attend Sabbath morning “Grow Gatherings,” which Reylourd describes as seeker-sensitive worship services for yuppies (young urban professionals). They also become members of so-called Grow Groups, small groups that provide a strong, safe spiritual support group in which secular people can learn more about their Savior and His Word.

Another somewhat surprising aspect of Simply Mission is its travel arm, which organizes regular weekend road trips and getaways known as EPIC Weekends. These are fun-filled trips that any group of secular young professionals could take, but for the young Adventists who run Simply Missions, these weekends provide an invaluable opportunity for bonding with their non-believing peers and for sharing on a deeper level.

After two years of ministry, Reylourd and his group of leaders found that one of the key areas that engages young professionals is diet and health. Simply Missions explored the idea of adding a “better lifestyle movement” to its line-up of ministries. The plan it developed included opening a healthy food kiosk—a place where Adventist young people could show people healthy diet principles in practice, rather than just talking about them. With the support of the Pasay Adventist church and the Central Luzon Conference, Simply Foods, a vegan and vegetarian restaurant in a high-traffic, exclusive harbor-front shopping complex, does a brisk trade offering convenient, affordable fresh food.

It’s easy to get lost in the flow chart of the Simply Missions ministries (which is found at www.simplymissionsph.org), but there has been a clear logic to its growth. Every aspect of Simply Missions circles around the central goal of connecting with a very specific demographic slice of Metro Manila. Manila’s young professionals care about their work-life balance, health, diet and fitness, and their social life. So these are the areas in which Simply Missions has naturally developed. Aesthetics are also important in reaching out to this group. In everything it does, Simply Missions is conscious of image and design—from its printed material to the stylish façade of the Simply Foods kiosk, to the cafes where the CAFÉ Life groups meet, to the venues of the EPIC weekends.

The “front end” of Simply Missions—the part first seen by the young people it’s trying to reach—has a distinctively casual feel. Those invited to attend a Simply Missions event or meet-up won’t suddenly find themselves in uncomfortable territory, such as a traditional church setting. The CAFÉ Life gatherings operate in a way that feels organic and natural—almost like a spontaneous get-together of good friends. It’s a vibe reinforced by Simply Missions’ heavy reliance on social media for organizing and building a sense of community.

Yet when talking with Reylourd, it quickly becomes clear that the “back end” of Simply Missions is highly conceptualized in terms of its structure, mission, and theological rationale. Even names have significance: the word café in CAFÉ Life stands for “community, authenticity, friendship, experience,” all essential planks in the Simply Missions approach to sharing Jesus in the city.

Living the gospel

Reylourd didn’t set out to create a new ministry; it was born out of his personal spiritual journey and his growing conviction that God could use the youth of the Adventist Church in a unique way to engage with their postmodern and secular peers.

Before the birth of Simply Missions, Reylourd considered himself a typical pastor. He regularly conducted evangelistic series, and he reached his yearly baptismal goal. He was a firm believer in small groups and had implemented a strong small-group ministry in his churches.

Yet, Reylourd had a niggling awareness that in one essential aspect he was lacking. As a pastor whose job it is to share the gospel, Reylourd knew he wasn’t very good at talking and mixing with non-believers. In fact, he readily admits that he was downright bad at it.

Reylourd had attended Adventist schools all his life. He was comfortable within the Adventist culture. He knew the “language,” he understood the mindset, he resonated with other Adventists’ experiences, he shared their goals. But in groups of secular young people, he was frequently at a loss for words.

In 2010, while serving as the district pastor in Pampanga, his now-fiancée Carmi asked him a question. On its face, it was a simple question—one that should have been well within the ability of a young pastor to answer. Yet, it initially stumped Reylourd and ultimately prompted a turning point in his ministry.

Carmi was studying to become a doctor, and she asked Reylourd, “How can I tell my fellow medical students about Jesus?”

She’d already tried to share her faith with one of her classmates but had wound up only annoying her. “It won’t work this way,” said Carmi, “just sharing our Adventist beliefs and proving we’re right from the Bible. We can’t win them that way.”

Carmi’s words stuck with Reylourd. He started to wonder if Carmi was right. What if there was an entire segment of society—young, smart, educated Filipinos—who would never be attracted to Adventism via traditional outreach methods. And if this group really was slipping through the cracks of Adventist witness, then what could be done about it? Were these young people simply lost to God and His truth?

The following year, 2011, Reylourd left his more rural district to take up a new position as associate pastor at Pasay Adventist church, located inside Manila’s endless urban sprawl. He was glad the move brought him closer to where Carmi was studying at the University of the East medical school. Often he’d find himself meeting up with Carmi and her medical-student friends at a café or restaurant and spending the evening just talking, getting to know these young men and women—not as secular, “un-churched people” or “non-Adventists,” but simply as individuals.

One night, one of the regulars at their get-togethers asked Reylourd, “What do I do now? My parents just got separated.” Reylourd suddenly realized that these medical students sitting around the table with him were simply people who had needs—needs that could be met by the Master Healer. “I realized that I needed to just hang out with them, like Jesus did, and meet their needs,” says Reylourd.

And so in a sense, “hanging out with people” became the founding principle of the idea that became Simply Missions.

Belong, then believe

When asked to describe the main difference between Simply Missions and some other forms of evangelism, Reylourd doesn’t hesitate. “The difference is, this is not just a program,” he says. “Being involved in mission isn’t just a one-time event; mission is an approach to life that’s shaped by our relationship with Jesus. It’s about building relationships with others.”

At Simply Missions, says Reylourd, “we invite people to belong first, even before they believe.” Nurturing a sense of belonging and building community taps into a need that’s deeply felt by many young urban professionals in Manila, he says.

Interestingly, the pull of community is probably just as important for the Adventist young people who are involved in various aspects of Simply Missions. They’re experiencing—many for the first time—the joy of being involved in outreach to their peers. Perhaps they’ve felt underutilized in the past, or too inexperienced to take part in their church’s evangelistic programs. Perhaps they’ve thought they didn’t have the right skill set for witnessing. As part of the Simply Missions team, these Adventist young people are finding out that God can and will use whatever they offer Him. And in the process, their sense of connection to their faith and their church is growing stronger.

Some 90 Adventist young people are regularly engaged with Simply Missions, helping facilitate more than a dozen CAFÉ Life groups, running the ever-popular EPIC Weekends, and opening up God’s Word to people in Grow Groups and Growth Groups.

“Why I keep coming back”

Perhaps the greatest reward for Reylourd and his Simply Missions team is the knowledge they’re building a genuine, Christ-infused community among a group of people who otherwise would have no interest in hearing about Jesus, let alone the Adventist Church.

Donj, 24, Raphael, 26, and Daven, 25, are three urbanites who could never have imagined themselves forming such a close bond with a group of Christians. These three young professionals are part of a group that meets every Wednesday evening in Makati just to chat and check in on each other. “It’s casual, light!” says Donj. “For me, it’s a clean way to spend my Wednesdays.”

Before encountering Simply Missions, Donj says he was “trapped in the common majority” of working professionals his age. “On payday you go out to drink—that’s a typical hangout. But when I started attending Project Grow, [I learned] particularly from the people I’m with, that it’s possible to have clean fun, and to get closer to God and the people around you.”

“They make us feel that we belong,” says Daven, “that what we do matters.” Daven commutes two hours each Wednesday to the Project Grow meeting. He says that when other friends hear about the level of his commitment to the weekly meeting, they wonder why he does it. “I always tell them, ‘It’s because I see the people here. They really are sincere in what they do. They really care for you.’ ”

Daven, who now regularly prays and reads the Bible, says, “I can see that it benefits me.”What stands out for Raphael is the attitude of the people he meets. “The community is refreshing,” he says. “They are very genuine in what they do. They’re just who they are. They've never pushed me to change anything about my lifestyle.”

“There’s a saying, ‘Put charcoal with charcoal and you’ll also be on fire,’ ” adds Raphael. “That’s kind of like why I keep coming back.”

Donj sums it up: “The people of this community are inspiring because they inspire by example. I see their lifestyle, I see how they work, and how they treat other people. They never said, ‘You should be exactly like this.’ They never did that. I just saw their example and I was inspired. I wanted to be like them.”


Social Networking for God’s Kingdom

Lessons from the front lines of urban mission

  • Offer acceptance. Before offering people anything, offer them your acceptance. Provide them a social and emotional home base—a community. And then introduce them to Jesus and His plans for them.
  • Activate and engage Adventist young people—not just for the sake of the mission work but also their own spiritual development.
  • Accept the responsibility of witnessing. The responsibility of being a witness for Jesus belongs to everyone, not just to pastors. Consider Ellen White’s words, “The greatest help that can be given our people is to teach them to work for God, and to depend on Him, not on the ministers.”[2]
  • Show people the gospel. Then they’ll be more open to you telling them the gospel. Your life is your first witness.
  • Be prepared to adapt. Traditional evangelism still reaches many people, but look for those it bypasses, and be prepared to adapt your approach—significantly, if necessary. Reworking outreach methods isn’t compromising truth, just repackaging the way it’s communicated.
  • Get to know them. People aren’t statistics or targets, they’re people. Get to know them well. Friendship makes many things possible.

[1] Thanks to E. Douglas Venn, Adventist Mission director for the Southern Asia-Pacific Division of Seventh-day Adventists, who gave invaluable assistance with this chapter.

[2] Testimonies for the Church, 7:19.