Allan Vance had barely touched a surfboard during the first half of his 30-year ministry in Portugal. He was too focused on planting churches and learning Portuguese to revisit the pastime that had occupied his youth in southern California. However, when his daughter’s boyfriend handed him a wetsuit saying, “Once a surfer, always a surfer,” Allan surfed the waves along the Portuguese coast for the first time. He was hooked after that.
Some facts about Portugal’s youth: high schools have a significantly high dropout rate. Approximately half of those between the ages of 18 and 30 are unemployed, and many still live with their parents. In 2014, 134,000 people left the country, many of whom were from the younger generation.
“With surfing, you’re in the elements and you’re in nature. It appeals to those people who are nature lovers: they want to worship creation and not the Creator, so you have different types of conversations with these people.”
Allan, along with his wife Baska, began their ministry at New Life Baptist Church in the suburbs of Lisbon in 1984. There, the couple encountered the private nature of the Portuguese. Around the same time, they saw the political revolution and the return of many Portuguese from African colonies, and the Vances capitalized on the opportunity to start a church with these returnees. But since the economic crisis in 2008, retaining Portuguese congregants at their church plants has proven difficult.
“I wrote a prayer letter saying ‘We’re evangelizing the world’ because we get them saved and baptized, and then six months later, they’re leaving,” said Allan. “That’s the way it’s always been, and with the crisis in 2008, a lot of key people in our churches have left, and it’s usually young people.”
But if one thing could revive the youth of Portugal, it would be surfing. Ever since Garrett McNamara surfed a 95-foot wave in Nazare, Portugal, the sport has exploded in popularity, second behind soccer. Surfing schools began popping up along the coast, and now Portugal boasts 200,000 surfers. That’s why Allan thought it would be a good opportunity for additional outreach—beyond his main ministry— among Portugal’s youth.
“The hardest thing is to get somebody to cross the threshold into the church, because you’re considered a cult. You’re considered so different from everyone else.”
Allan started hosting Saturday morning surf sessions for the fathers and sons in his church. He partnered with Christian Surfers International to put on retreats and Bible studies with believers and nonbelievers in the area. They began leading surfing clinics at a nearby orphanage, passing out surfer Bibles at every opportunity.
Although surfing was never Allan’s ministry focus, it proved to be a great connecting point for sharing Jesus with young people.
“With surfing, you’re in the elements and you’re in nature,” said Allan. “It appeals to those people who are nature lovers: they want to worship creation and not the Creator, so you have different types of conversations with these people.”
Allan recalls how one 18-year-old surfer connected with him after she participated in the surfing clinic at the local orphanage when she was just 14. Allan and his group surfed with her for two years, and she started coming to Bible studies, and eventually she was baptized and still attends Allan’s church.
The church the Vances helped plant has expanded to be a vibrant part of the community, reaching out to vulnerable refugee families and other people in the margins of society. Baska started a tutoring program for the refugee, Gypsy, and other vulnerable families in a nearby government housing area. For seven years, they tutored 16 to 20 children, and later they even started an adult Portuguese language class.
“The hardest thing is to get somebody to cross the threshold into the church, because you’re considered a cult,” said Baska. “You’re considered so different from everyone else.”
Looking back on their ministry, the Vances are thankful for the ways God has used them, whether through surfing, counseling, tutoring, or being hospitable to the Portuguese. After 26 years of ministry, the Vances are ready to move on from Portugal. “The Lord gave us a good ride,” said Allan.
(photo credit: Tiago J. G. Fernandes)