Transitioning in Clermont-Ferrand

by Bob Souza


The beginnings of the work in Clermont-Ferrand (Clermont) can be traced back to the early decades of the 20th century. The open-air and tent work of René Zinder, a Swiss evangelist, was used by God to bring together the nucleus of believers who would form the local church. The church remained small but maintained its witness through what we would call the 'ghetto years', that long period in the 20th century when evangelical Christians in France were marginalised and looked upon with suspicion by the general population.


At the end of the 1980s, the faithful French elder who had been holding things together in the church at Clermont retired from his job in the Michelin tyre factory and moved away. It looked as though the small light of gospel witness would go out - but the Lord had other plans. He laid it on the heart of Colin Porteous, then working in Le Havre, to take an interest in Clermont. Once a month, for a year, Colin did the 750-mile round trip to teach on a Sunday and visit the local Christians. Colin and his wife Rhoda then moved to Clermont and gave themselves wholly to the work here. The Lord honoured the faith of His servants and in 1992 the church moved to bigger premises.


Lenore and I joined Colin and Rhoda in 1999, after 17 years in Angers, in the west of France. Colin's teaching ministry and mine were complementary - you could say he taught the theology and I tried to bring out the practical applications! In 2002, the fellowship had again outgrown its accommodation and moved nearer the city centre (the Greater Clermont area has a population of 300,000). In 2004, Colin and Rhoda moved on to help out in a small church in south-west France. They are both now with the Lord.



In 1970, the estimated number of evangelical churches in France was 769; by 2012 this had increased to 2,112. The estimated number of evangelical Christians increased from 50,000 in 1950, to 460,000 in 2012. We have been privileged to serve the Lord here since the early 1970s. We sought to accompany and encourage small churches as they persevered in a hostile climate, through times when the general public considered the gospel to be out of date and totally irrelevant. Today we are amazed at the new situation which is emerging. Society in general, at least in the cities, has a new openness to talk about spiritual things and a curiosity about faith. In the churches, a new generation of believers has jettisoned the 'ghetto mentality' and is adopting an uninhibited, unapologetic approach to sharing the gospel. Leaders, and future leaders, are willing to invest time and energy in theological training, in order to be better able to equip Christians to stand up for the truth in a complex and ever-changing world. All these changes are evident in our local situation in Clermont and have to be taken into account as we ask ourselves, as mission workers, "What do we do next?"



For the numerous fellowships across France, which have benefited from the help of mission workers whose news you read inEchoesmagazine, an important facet of maturity is the ability to move on into the post-missionary era. The presence of a mission worker is a precious gift, which facilitates growth more than responsibility! It is a gift provided by churches in other parts of the world which support mission workers, a subsidy which can easily go unnoticed, until it is withdrawn. In agreement with the elders in the Clermont church, we made it known in early 2013 that we would lay down our responsibilities at the end of July 2015.


After the initial gut reaction of 'how will we manage?', we were able to identify a number of roles and tasks which needed to be delegated, and also to think about how the fellowship might function in the future. During the next phase we tried to redistribute the load among those who were available. This was helpful as some well-defined tasks were taken on by willing people, but it also revealed the limits of this solution. Two areas of concern were identified: we could call these 'availability' and 'coordination'. In our particular situation and at the present time, there is no one who feels equipped to take on the responsibility. As people often come to Christ with very little background knowledge of the Word of God, preparation for baptism has become the norm, as have marriage preparation classes for the same reason. Who can be available to lead these, at the times and in the places that family and professional constraints impose? A growing church means new and diverse activities, and new faces almost every week. Without coordination, there will be snags, friction, unnecessary tensions, lost opportunities, etc. Taking stock and thinking through all the implications of a new situation has taken time.


Encouraging progress towards maturity meant, for us, not proposing cut-and-dried solutions of our own invention. We have tried to help identify possibilities, and we have had to rekindle discussion and reflection on occasion. But the fellowship has to find its own way forward, in dependence on the Holy Spirit. After about a year, there was a turnaround in the thinking of most of the church members and the decision was made to look for a part-time worker. This is a transitional measure which seems wise. It will mean a real financial effort but is perceived as a challenge of faith, not an insurmountable task.



Once the idea of a transition had been digested, it generated a desire to move ahead. Projects we had been trying to promote at last got off the ground. In September 2013 we started a monthly session of church-based theological education. Eighteen people signed up and regularly attend the session, among them some of the present church leaders and also younger people with potential.


Our geographical situation means we rarely have visiting speakers, but we now have a team of eight preachers in the fellowship. We have begun to meet regularly to share perceived needs for teaching and to plan ahead. There are plans to share resources and we hope to organise some workshops on specific aspects of preaching and teaching.


Little 'think tanks' have been formed, one to stimulate our personal and corporate prayer life, another to reflect on new forms of evangelism and to offer basic training in how to share the gospel today. Two new elders have been appointed and several men and women in the 20 to 40 age group have taken on new responsibilities.


We have no qualms about moving on to a new phase of ministry, devoting our time and energy to encouraging and supporting the small churches scattered across our Massif Central region.


Pray for French churches contemplating the transition to the post-missionary era, that faith will prevail over fear.


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