PERSONAL EVANGELISM IN FRANCE

by Janice Duffin

 

Janice has served the Lord in the south of France for over 25 years.

 

French culture and mentality in the 21st century have been shaped by several revolutions, dating back to the Enlightenment in the 18th century. This philosophical movement promoted science, knowledge and intellectual exchange as a means to overcome superstition and intolerance, particularly relating to church and state. A fiercely critical spirit, a tendency to question before accepting, and a freethinking and individualistic approach to life, are some of the consequences attributed to this period.

 

The more recent revolution of May 1968 would be described by most French people as a watershed in the cultural, social and spiritual identity of their nation. This short-lived movement, intent on shaking off all forms of restraint to enjoy social and moral freedom, has had long-lasting consequences.

 

Previously, following the predominantly Catholic tradition, children in most families would be baptised and sent to catechism classes, where they gained basic knowledge of the Bible, God, Jesus Christ and Christian values. After 1968 the new sense of 'freedom' included rejection of religion in general, which from then on they considered as repressive and outdated. Hence, France took a lead in becoming a de-Christianised nation.

 

It is against this historical backdrop that we can better understand the confusion of French people today. I recently heard one lady explain that she is an agnostic Catholic. Most will describe themselves as 'non-practising Catholics', meaning they were born into a culturally Catholic family, probably received no religious education whatever and do not attend church. Some may attend a Christmas or Easter service and have had a religious wedding ceremony; the same can be said for funerals. 

 

Within this context, an invitation to come to church or to a Christian meeting, or event, does not have much appeal. I have seen non-Christians arrive for a wedding ceremony looking as if they were going to a funeral! The apprehension of entering a church building to endure a religious ceremony was tangible. It was pleasing to see they often had smiles on their faces on the way out!

 

While the general attitude to religious institutions remains negative, over the past four or five years, we have noticed an increased interest in spirituality. Expectations linked to the different philosophical trends have given way to various forms of post-modern disillusionment. Questions about the meaning of life, uncertainty as to the economic situation, a new awareness of the fragility of the planet, and fears related to terrorist activity, are all factors that are causing people to seek real answers to deeper considerations, which materialism and the Western European consumer frenzy do not resolve.

 

This has had the negative effect of opening doors to all forms of pseudo-spiritual beliefs and practices, but it still provides believers with a wonderful opportunity to share Kingdom values and principles.

 

In our contact with friends and acquaintances, these subjects started to come up regularly in conversation over a meal or coffee. We were surprised to discover how open people were to discuss the biblical perspective, when it was explained in everyday language and with relevance to their context.

 

As we became aware of this shift in attitude, we began to measure the growing importance of personal contact and friendship as a powerful means of sharing the gospel. This led us to become intentional in relationships, believing that there is potential in every situation to be salt and light for those we meet. As we started to list the different people whose paths we cross, we were astonished at the number! We began to pray for opportunities to witness about God's love, and were amazed to see firstly how our attitude towards them changed and then how opportunities arose to go a step further in the relationship. Whether it is the postman, the local greengrocer, the hairdresser or the GP, a friendly approach and an interest in how they are, can lead to something deeper! Recently, Marie-Pierre Weiner1 (France) prayed informally with her hairdresser for a difficult situation in her family, right there in the salon. She has since called to say how that prayer is being answered!

 

I would define five prerequisites which have led to us experiencing more in-depth relationships with a greater number of people: open eyes, open ears, open heart, open hands and an open home.

 

OPEN EYES

We need to see the needs around us, to see the people who cross our path, to see the God-given opportunities to be a witness in actions or in words. Needs in a society of material comfort and abundance are not always obvious, and yet they are real.

 

Open ears

We live in a society of activity, noise and pressures on every side. In all the rush and bustle, time may not allow for anything more than banal conversation. However, when we stop, listen, show a genuine interest, concern and respect, avoiding personal opinions or judgment, it is amazing how people open up to share deep-rooted worries or questions. We gain their confidence and 'earn the right', as it were, to speak of Jesus Christ, and His power to transform the hearts and lives of those who trust in Him.

 

I go walking almost every Sunday afternoon with a neighbour who, in spite of much material well-being, has deep-seated anxieties. Gradually, some of the barriers have come down, as many of her negative, preconceived ideas about religion have been vented. Just as gradually, I have been able to share what it means to know God, His love, His plan for my life and His faithfulness in all circumstances. In reply to some of her questions, corresponding Bible passages, conveyed in story form and using simple everyday language, illustrate how relevant the message of Christ still is today. But more than anything I keep listening to what is being said and to what is hidden behind the words.

 

Open heart

As we see and hear needs, we ask God to fill our hearts with compassion and to show us how to respond. We do not have all the answers, but we can bring comfort, help and support.

 

We have been helping a widowed mother whose adult son is suffering from a mental disorder due to extended drug abuse. While unable to resolve the situation or relieve her pain, we were able to pray with her and help in practical ways. Recently, we had the joy of seeing her come to a personal faith in Christ.

 

Open hands

Identifying needs often leads to rolling up our sleeves. Being a practical person, it is a relief for me to do something hands-on to express God's love and prepare the way to 'speak the gospel', in a natural, friendly way.

 

'Open hands' can involve anything from accompanying someone to a lawyer's office, to distributing bread and food. Marie-Pierre has been doing the latter for the past three years. Shocked by how much food was being thrown away, while numerous families, students and elderly people were finding it hard to make ends meet, she approached shop owners who were more than happy to pass on their surplus stock. Through this daily distribution she has been able to meet more than just material needs. Her caring attitude and personal interest have sparked off many deeper relationships.

 

Open home

Inviting someone for a meal, a coffee or an 'aperitif' seems natural for us as Christians, but it is less and less common today. What a joy to invite non-believers into a simple, relaxed and non-threatening environment! Birthdays, the Christmas season and other special occasions are ideal for opening a home, providing a special welcome, allowing time, especially in France where meals last for hours, to listen, answer questions and share simply how God is present in our everyday lives. People are looking for authenticity and lives that reflect what they preach. What better place than a home to be ourselves?

 

For three months Le Petit Jaswas a place of security and rebuilding for Suzi, a young student from a broken family, until she found work and a place to live. It is in homes that we do simple introductory Bible studies, or anAlphacourse, with those who express a desire to know more about God. A friendly atmosphere and the chance to share their opinion, pave the way for hearts to open to the message of the gospel. Following time in one such group, Robert, who was baptised in July, has already opened his home to reach friends and family members.

 

Whatever the means of establishing personal relationships, it is something every believer can do! More often than not, it involves moving out of our comfort zone; it disturbs our agenda, takes time, energy and a lot of perseverance. But what a joy to see hearts opening and lives changing, as the transforming power of our Lord and Saviour touches others!

 

Prayer is vital as we pursue the challenge of 'leading a contagious Christian life'.2 Pray for a multiplication of witnesses, so that a greater number of French people may discover a personal relationship with Christ and the true, biblical reality of His Church, and His Kingdom.

 

1.Janice works alongside Marie-Pierre Weiner atLe Petit Jas.

2. Becoming a Contagious Christian (1996), B. Hybels and M. Mittelburg.

 

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