Is France still a Mission Field?

by Pierre Bariteau

 

Although France is still considered to be a mission field by some European mission agencies, it remains a fact that France no longer attracts a great number of mission workers from European countries. Why is this? European countries are culturally similar and the standard of living is more or less the same. The levels of education are identical, and transport is now easy and cheap. Language is a barrier, but that would be the case for most mission fields that a candidate is considering.

 

THE TREMENDOUS NEED FOR NEW CHURCHES

As we consider what has happened over the last 40 years, we are encouraged and have much to rejoice over. The number of Evangelical churches has increased from 769 to 2,068. These local churches, where a service is organised at least three times a month, gather about 460,000 people (only 50,000 in 1950). Today, a new church is planted every 10 days in France: 36 a year!

 

But these figures hide the reality of the need. The newly formed CNEF (Conseil National des Évangéliques de France), a national entity that, for the first time ever in France, gathers 70% of the French Evangelical Churches under one umbrella, has formulated the target ofOne church for every 10,000 people. To put it simply, with an overall population of 65 million, France needs to see 4,500 new churches established! At today's rate, it will take over 120 years!

 

As far as CAEF (Communautés et Assemblées Évangéliques de France - French Evangelical Churches and Assemblies) is concerned, the growth has been considerable. After the war, there were about 20 assemblies in France, increasing to 40 in 1970, 70 in 1980, reaching almost 100 today, plus 50 in French overseas territories. The churches vary in size from a few believers meeting on Sundays in rural areas or new church plants, to a few hundred in more established churches in large towns. Some churches are struggling to survive and a few have closed down in recent years, but others are growing and there have been very successful new churches established in Nantes, Rezé, Montpellier and Grenoble.

 

The rate of church growth varies, depending, among other things, on the size of the town in which they are situated. It is known that France has over 36,000 towns and villages, but we don't needthatmany churches to reach the country, as 50% of the population live in 900 towns of more than 20,000 inhabitants, and 25% in the 32,000 towns of less than 2,000 inhabitants. Strategically, we need to concentrate our work on the big and medium-sized towns, the neediest cities being Paris (population 2 million) and Marseille (population 850,000).

 

Clearly, it is in the west, centre and south-west of France that there are the least number of churches, as these are rural areas with small towns. Certainly, a specific kind of evangelism should be addressed to the ever-growing Muslim population which is not integrating into French society. However, perhaps the greatest sector of the population as yet unreached are the busy middle-class families, who work long hours, are often away during the three-day weekends and who have no time for 'religious duties' on Sundays. In the Lyon area (population 1.6 million) there are a mere 40 Evangelical churches and one branch of the Gideons with only 20 members!

 

THE TREMENDOUS NEED FOR NEW WORKERS

Many mission workers who came to France after World War II, and who played a key role in planting new churches in France, have retired or will soon do so. Of the 80 workers who are involved in some kind of ministry in the 100 Brethren churches of inland France, 55% are mission workers mostly supported from abroad. The churches which have benefited from the help of a mission worker are now looking for full-time workers, with a view to taking care of the existing church rather than planting a new one.

 

Yes, we have never had so many French students in our Bible Institutes, and the churches are putting a lot of energy and money into training, but even so, there is no way they will be able to replace the retiring church planters. There are a number of reasons for this, including:

 

•  There are more churches looking for a full-time leader than there are trained candidates

•  A qualified full-time worker is able to choose from up to five churches upon completing his studies

•  The task of church planting is hard and specific, and not many want to be involved

 

Church planting does require specific gifts and skills, but a heart on fire for the Lord and a great love for people are the most important requirements. Patience and perseverance are also needed, as normally it takes a long time for a French person to turn from darkness to light. These are some of the many reasons why we would like to create a vision for mixed residential teams, who would be ready to move to a different town to start a new work. These teams could comprise full-time workers, evangelists, mission workers, students, professionals or retired people - committed and able to make up the nucleus of the new church.

 

Obviously, the newly-formed nucleus needs to be supported spiritually and financially, but what is almost impossible for many local churches becomes possible if it is a national (or international) project. This kind of involvement in a church plant - either directly or indirectly - can be of great benefit to a small church that doesn't have the resources to start a new church on its own. In order to achieve the goal of increasing the number of churches in France threefold, these teams should also have the capacity and purpose to train workers who will be able to replicate the process.

 

Under the umbrella of CNEF, this kind of strategy is being tested, and hopefully will be successful and ongoing. It is a challenge that CAEF want to face with God's help and the support of local churches and believers.

 

THE TREMENDOUS NEED FOR EVANGELISM

With just over 1% of the population being Evangelical Christians, going to church on Sunday makes you feel like an alien in France. Postmodern relativism views Christianity as one possibility amongst many others, and to talk aboutthetruth makes Bible-believers sound intolerant. And yet, on the whole, the number of Christians is growing steadily. Why and how?

 

•  French believers have shaken off their minority complex of the 80s. Believers - and younger ones in particular - are ready to tell their friends and colleagues that Christ is relevant for the 21st Century. Within a highly secular society, the challenge of the modern Christian is to reconcile their life at work with their life at church, so that they become the salt and light they are supposed to beinthe world.

•  In recent years, new ways of presenting the gospel have been attempted: street art (painting, tags, graffiti, flashmob), music (spoken word, slam, rap),Alphacourses, debates about faith in cafés or on campuses, and so on. Christians are involved in social work, social centres, sports clubs and all kinds of activities where they make friends and share their faith by engaging with and living amongst non-believers.

•  During the summer holidays, young people organise evangelism camps(plage station), where they openly share the gospel on the streets through dance, singing, mime and open-air evangelism.

•  The student work is growing and many of the new leaders were converted during their university years. New residential teams of workers are created in order to reach and train students inFoyer Évangélique Universitaire(a meeting place for Christian students).

•  A lot of energy is invested in youth camps where a number of young people from non-Christian families hear the gospel for the first time and are challenged to follow Christ.

 

THE TREMENDOUS CHALLENGE FOR CHURCH MEMBERS

One great challenge faced by the French Evangelical Church is to value church planting as much as praying and working for the growth of existing churches. We need to realise that if we work together this is possible and we simply need to share resources and see beyond our local church. Certainly, being part of the work of church planting will benefit the sending local church in many ways as far as motivation for evangelism, prayer and support are concerned. It is a win-win project.

 

Another challenge, as mentioned earlier, is the need for a generation of trained workers willing to step out in faith into the risky world of church planting. We need to nurture these leaders, help them to develop their gifts, support them and help them multiply. The younger generation is up for this kind of challenge but wishes to be guided and trained. We need to invest in people, particularly inyoungpeople!

 

Finally, finance is another challenge, but if God's people have vision and they are raised up to do the work, God will provide, according to His promises.

 

As a European citizen, you can find out how to join in the adventure of church planting in France, working with the existing network that is now well organised and able to provide help and direction. In recent years, many British families have moved to France seeking an improved quality of life. What about moving to France for a church-planting experience?

 

But regardless of whether or not you can come to France, can you consider this country a mission field and pray for the following great needs?

- Pray that Christians will have a vision for church planting

- Pray to the Lord of the Harvest to send out workers



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