By Laura McKillip Wood
“When I was 14 years old, I traveled with my father to a little town in the middle of nowhere to teach one man. This man was planting a church in his house. My dad went there every month to teach him, and when I saw this, it really touched my heart. He left the city where we lived, a classroom full of students, and a big church where he ministered to go to just one person in a small town.”
Jeff Fife watched his father on that trip. He saw his father’s care for that pastor, the sacrifices he made to mentor him, and he decided he would follow in his father’s footsteps and become a church planter.
Jeff and his five siblings lived as third-culture kids while growing up in Brazil. His parents were from the United States, but they moved to Brazil to serve as missionaries the year Jeff was born. He made one short trip to the U.S. when he was 4, but his first real experience in his parents’ home culture occurred at age 15. Because of this, Jeff says he feels more Brazilian than anything. He speaks Portuguese fluently and has a slight Portuguese accent when he speaks English.
After deciding as a teenager to work with churches and church leaders, Jeff began taking Bible classes. However, when deciding on a career, he chose not to become a traditional missionary like his parents, because, as he put it, “I didn’t want to raise funds.” Instead, he started his own business renting out sound equipment for events. When he and his business partner started their venture, they did not know Jeff would eventually marry this man’s daughter, Monica. The couple now have two children together.
Growth and Change
In 1991, Jeff and Monica planted a church in Brazil, and later they decided to move to Massachusetts to plant another church to reach out to Portuguese people living there. To support his family, he began his own house-painting and cleaning business and hired Portuguese-speaking Brazilians to work in it. Through contacts with the Brazilian community, Jeff developed a network, and the church grew.
About this time, Jeff’s father invited him on a trip to Tennessee. His father had secretly planned a tour of Johnson University’s campus to convince his son to move his family there and finish his bachelor’s degree. The dad’s plan worked perfectly, and Jeff eventually graduated from Johnson. At this point, Jeff’s ministry kicked into high gear. He went back to Brazil, and through his organization, Brazil River of Life Ministries, started 17 churches in 17 years in San Paolo and the surrounding areas.
When he began planting these churches, Jeff wanted to follow a model that people in the community could sustain without complete dependence on American funds. This involved several important elements. First, all the churches’ pastors have other jobs. The churches do not pay them, so these pastors all have full-time outside work. Second, the churches begin as house groups. As they grow, they may move to larger buildings or build facilities for themselves.
The churches follow what Jeff calls the “50/50 rule.” Supporters of Brazil River of Life Ministries contribute some funds for the new church buildings and programs, but the churches themselves must contribute at least 50 percent toward that monetary goal. This might mean a church in the U.S. provides 50 percent of the funding for a project, such as a church building, and the local church contributes the other 50 percent. It might also mean the local church contributes manpower to build the structure themselves, thereby saving a considerable amount of money.
As Jeff puts it, “People may not have money, but they have labor. They can do the work and use the money raised more efficiently. They then feel ownership of it.” Not only that, but each church gives 10 percent of its offerings to missions. Jeff realized contributing to the work of God in other cultures empowers the Brazilian people to reach out and minister themselves.
The ministry Jeff started has influenced Brazil and also branched out to other parts of the Portuguese-speaking world. About 30 years ago, a popular Brazilian soccer player named Kleber came to a service at the church where Jeff’s parents served. When he heard the message, Kleber came forward crying. He accepted Christ that day, during a time he was about to join a bigger and better-paying soccer team. Instead, Kleber decided to go to Bible college. After that, he planted several churches. He and his wife eventually moved to Mozambique to become missionaries.
Brazilian churches support Kleber and his wife and their work among Portuguese-speaking people in that African nation. They work among the Makua, the largest people group and the poorest ethnic group in Mozambique. The Makua have no running water in their villages, no electricity, and no sewers. Despite that, the Makua believers reached out with the gospel to neighboring people groups. They have now trained people from those groups to start churches among their own people, working as missionaries to their own. Now the Makua people support those missionaries in their work.
Jeff’s early years as a missionary kid reluctant to raise funds has led him to teach generations of church leaders to reach out and form financially and spiritually stable churches all over the Portuguese-speaking world.
In 2019, Jeff Fife served as president of the International Conference On Missions, further promoting intercultural ministry around the world. As he says, “Help us plant churches in Brazil, and we’ll plant churches all over the world. The Brazilians are willing to go!”
Laura McKillip Wood, former missionary to Ukraine, now serves as the registrar at Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Nebraska, and works as an on-call chaplain at a nearby hospital. She and her husband, Andrew, have three teenagers.