Winning Spanish Hearts and Minds: Bringing the Gospel Where the Church is Despised

By Andrew Shaughnessy, Apr 18, 2019

Madrid, the third largest city in Europe, is a vibrant hub of Spanish politics, finance, and culture. Here the days are sunny and warm, and time is measured in fiestas from the old Catholic calendars. Yet despite the cultural influence of Catholicism, Spain is the least evangelized Spanish-speaking country in the world, notorious as a graveyard for church plants. And despite the sunny weather and laid-back atmosphere, this is a land of spiritual darkness, frustration, and bitterness.

“People here loathe the Church,” said MTW missionary Robert Tanzie. “I mean, there’s a real emotional reaction.”

It’s understandable. Throughout Spanish history, the Roman Catholic Church functioned in tandem with the state as a vehicle of oppression. And for much of the 20th century the Church had close ties with the country’s brutal fascist dictatorship, marring its reputation and, by extension, that of all Christians in Spain.

“Pretty much everyone has a memory of the civil war,” Robert said. “Either their dad was in prison being tortured by the police, or their dad was the police captain who was torturing people. That was happening until the death of Franco, the dictator, in 1975, so the memories are pretty recent. And the Church was 100% behind that. So naturally people say: ‘What good is the Church?’ Most people see it as an institution of control and power, and we must be in it for the money. … It makes our work difficult.”

Here in this deeply secular, post-Christian environment, MTW’s Madrid team works to bring the hope of the true gospel of grace to the city. Robert, who has decades of cross-cultural ministry experience under his belt, spent six and a half years helping a group of Reformed Anglican pastors plant and grow four churches. Each time, he would help get the church started and, once it was established, move on to help plant another. Three years ago, Robert was just finishing his time with the Anglicans when Fabio Diniz, a Presbyterian pastor and missionary from Brazil, approached him with a proposition.

“What are you going to do now?” Fabio asked him.

“Basically, I’m waiting for a message from God,” Robert answered.

“How’s this for a message: Why don’t you come plant a church with me?” Fabio said.

A Neighborhood Church Plant
By this point, Fabio had been serving as a missionary in Madrid for five years. He had focused his ministry on university students, but saw little fruit borne from his labors.

“Students have no money and they move all the time,” he explained.

Students were constantly coming and going. They came to university in Madrid, got their degrees, and then left, making it difficult for Fabio to disciple them over time and build a Christian community that lasted. He figured that church planting was more strategic over the long haul, so he decided to plant a new church—Libreaccesso. Robert agreed to work with him, as did Fernando, another Brazilian Presbyterian pastor. They decided to start the church in a hip, artsy, young, and famously gay neighborhood in downtown Madrid. They had their work cut out for them.

“It’s more difficult to do church planting here than in Russia,” Fabio said.

He would know. After seminary, a master’s degree in urban missions, and pastoring two churches in Brazil, Fabio cut his teeth in international missions serving as a church planter in Siberia. According to Fabio, though many of the young people in both Russia and Spain are atheists, they respond to the gospel and the Church completely differently. When Fabio shared the gospel in Siberia, the young people loved it. Under Soviet rule, Christianity had been suppressed and atheism encouraged for years. This message of grace and hope that Fabio preached was something new and exciting, and his church plant there flourished and grew.

Then Fabio’s mission sent him to Spain, and the two countries could not have been more different. In Siberia, Fabio says, Jesus was like a rock star. In Spain, the young just roll their eyes.

“We’ve heard this all before,” they think, “and the Church only ever brings trouble.”

Libreaccesso has to work hard to fight these negative preconceptions. They have a worship service and Bible studies, but penetrating the wall around Spanish hearts takes more than simply putting up a sign and opening your doors. The little church plant is also the hub for gospel-driven works of justice across the globe. Using funding from a European NGO, Libreaccesso runs an orphanage in Uganda, right in the midst of a camp of 73,000 refugees. They have similar ministries in Brazil, where they minister to sex workers and the children of drug traffickers; in India, where they run another orphanage; and in Jordan, where they help Syrian refugees. Maria, a Spanish atheist from the neighborhood, was so impressed by the work and captivated by the community that she volunteers to travel with the pastors to work with orphans in Africa. Robert and Fabio hope that one day soon she too will be moved by the Spirit to accept Christ.

Closer to home, Libreaccesso reaches out to its immediate neighborhood with an alphabet soup of ministries: English and Spanish language classes, a soccer team (they hand Bibles out at games and pray for anyone in need), movie nights followed by long, passionate discussions, baking, cooking, and handicraft groups, and work with orphans. And it’s all free.

“Why is it free?” the neighbors ask.

“We’re a Christian community and we want to bless the neighborhood,” Fabio and Robert answer.

The people just shrug in disbelief but, slowly, hearts, minds, and souls are being won by this holistic witness. Through the English class alone, six people have come to faith. People who once opposed the Church are accepting Christ and being baptized.

“The first step is friendship,” Fabio said. “They realize: OK, you’re not just a weird sect. You’re authentic followers of Christ.”

After so much damage, building the Church in Spain is an uphill battle, but Fabio and Robert long to see the Church grow and the true gospel of hope and redemption take hold of Spanish hearts, and so they continue to climb. They continue to minister, to disciple, and to evangelize their neighborhood. Piece by piece, soccer game by soccer game, and relationship by relationship, the Spirit is at work in Madrid, stirring hearts awake and drawing His angry, broken children to Himself.

Andrew Shaughnessy

Andrew Shaughnessy is a long-time word slinger who spent nearly six years as MTW’s staff writer, gathering and telling impact stories from missionaries across the globe. These days, he’s off working as an analyst and editor in the publishing industry, writing fiction, and mountaineering. He holds a B.A. in history and English literature from Covenant College, and an M.S. in political science from Portland State University.

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Pray for the people of Mati, Greece, who are responding with spiritual openness following disaster response efforts of the Greek Evangelical Church and MTW. 

Pray for Spaniards in Madrid, a deeply secular, post-Christian environment where the Church is despised due to past atrocities. 

Give thanks to God for a movement of the Spirit spreading across Europe opening doors that have been long-shut.

Pray for Europeans who have heard the gospel but are hesitant to fully commit to Christ. Pray that God would draw them to Himself.

Pray for the MTW Spain teams as they face cultural challenges of ministering to the older generation with a faith built on fear, and a younger generation disinterested in God.

Pray for Bogomil, who came to faith in Christ out of antagonistic atheism, and for others like him who have yet to embrace Jesus.

Give thanks for the work God is doing in South Asia in the wake of COVID lockdown relief. Ask God to grow the new believers who came to faith in Christ as a result.

Pray for an Italian couple returning to their home country to church plant. 

Pray for the national pastors serving in Mexico and Cuba, many of whom are bi-vocational, and the work God is doing among them.

SPAIN: Pray that the Holy Spirit would bring spiritual depth and numerical growth to the Principe Pio and Sanchinarro church plants in Madrid.


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