It has been twelve years since I first moved to this field. I know that’s only a fraction of the time other missionaries have been at it, but still, it’s long enough to have been able to experience change on various levels: changes in policies, changes in government, changes in staff, changes in culture, changes in my status, changes in my theology, changes in my person…
On moving to France as a single man to work at Camp des Cimes, my ministry was straightforward: camp ministry, which involved maintenance (= dealing with things) and program (= dealing with people).
Ten years later, married to Candide and with two children, our ministry here in France has become three-fold:
1) Working at camp (maintenance) and ministering at camp (program).
2) Living and working in the area, leading to friendship evangelism.
3) Living in the same area as many Christian Catholics* and reading the Bible with them (I guess you could call this discipleship).
[*I’ll just offer a quick word of explanation here: as an Australian born-again Christian, the term ‘Christian’, to me, refers to someone who has accepted Christ as his or her Saviour. The term ‘Christian’, in France, refers to any Catholic (anyone who has been baptized as a baby, attends a church or calls themselves a Christian or Catholic) and also Protestants (including people from evangelical churches, though you have to be careful with the term ‘Evangelical’, as the media likes to refer to TV evangelists and crazy sectarian gurus as ‘Evangelicals’), or in that sense anyone who subscribes to the Christian faith (closely or loosely). So for the purpose of this article, I’ll use ‘Christian’ in its real, meaningful definition (i.e. truly saved), as opposed to a purely cultural one.]
Working and ministering at camp with and around other people is always changing as people change: some come or leave, and others change inwardly. While we could focus on this area of change, it’s not what we thought of straight away when being asked to write a few words. Living and working in the area has also changed for similar reasons. (Having children has been the biggest change/adjustment to make, but this is not specific to ministry, so we’ll leave that one alone too!)
The biggest change we have noticed in our time here has been a shift in (or within) the Catholic Church (and it does seem to be a widespread phenomenon at least across France, since it’s relevant to many Catholics we meet).
As born-again Christians who have attended Bible-believing and preaching churches, we’ve always been taught and have learned for ourselves the importance of reading the Bible, studying the Bible and making sure that our faith has its foundation grounded in the Bible. This is something we’ve also preached here in France, whether at camp with the 1000 or so campers we see every year (Christian or not) or in conversations with our friends in the area (whom we have come to know over the years, and with some of them we have been able to have deep and spiritual conversations).
The newest part of our ministry is within the local Catholic parish. How did that happen? We were asked to attend a local Alpha course, run by some keen Christians in this local Catholic church, which has paved the way for subsequent Bible studies and prayer and praise times with those who wanted more.
While we are very happy working alongside Christians who have different theological views to ours, some things are quite sad and others more than border on heresy or idolatry. It was after a time of prayer with some Catholics that I (Dan) understood the vicious circle the Catholic Church is in (and any other Christian group that shies away from the Bible). You see, for many years and until quite recently, Catholics generally were not encouraged to read the Bible, and in some countries/regions/churches, it was even forbidden. This explains why so much of what is done in the Catholic Church seems strange to a Bible-believing Christian: it’s not biblical! And so a Catholic, who has attended church their whole life, has only received snippets of the Bible (even less than the snippets you would get if your only interaction with the Bible was from the sermon you heard at your local Gospel Hall). But unfortunately they have heard (and repeated!) so much more extra-biblical nonsense, that they don’t know what is true and what is not.
The whole Mary worship issue, which is more or less present depending on where you go or to whom you talk, is the perfect example of how the lack of biblical knowledge can lead to dodgy theology, which leads to heresy and idolatry (we won’t go into where or how it started, that's another issue altogether).
Here is the present reality with which we’re faced: Christians who believe in God, trust in Jesus and have received the Spirit (which we would call born-again believers) and yet still don’t know that Mary is not the mother of God and not of equal standing with Him. Why? Because they have had years and years of misleading
doctrine and lack of biblical grounding (whether done purposefully or not), and years of stories, songs, chants or extra-biblical prayers passed on orally or in writing.
It’s so sad to think that someone is genuinely worshipping God, the one true God, but feels they need to do it in a certain way, in a certain place — and go through Mary to do it — all because that’s what they have been taught all their lives and they have never spent time to read what the Bible has to say about any of it.
So what change are we talking about? The change is that Catholics are actually starting to read the Bible! And this is a huge change! Not all priests encourage it and not all parishes do it, but it’s become acceptable and even encouraged from ‘higher up’ in the Catholic hierarchy.
This doesn’t mean that the Catholic Church will change straight away; this doesn’t mean that Catholic Christians will be able to differentiate between truth and heresy straight away. This also doesn’t mean that ALL Catholics will agree to read the Bible or be happy with others reading it (there is still some opposition, mainly due to a misunderstanding that the Bible cannot be read by ‘average’ people but that it’s reserved for the spiritual elite like priests, or that it’s an out-dated and irrelevant book).
Thankfully none of this is really our concern, since we believe that the Word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4:12); and all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17). In a sense, the Bible ‘speaks for itself’, since we know that God’s Spirit is at work through it. Yes, we do our best to explain what we can, but thankfully it’s not up to us to convince through wisdom or clever speech.
What we have witnessed already is that those who start reading and studying the Bible become so excited that they want more and they also want others to discover what they have. So while we have encouraged and pushed people to meet and study the Bible together, and will continue to do so, it’s now at a stage where ‘insiders’ are doing the advertising (as opposed to us ‘outsiders’). This is an amazing change!
We’re certainly taking advantage of this positive change in one of the ministries we’re involved in, and we pray that it will last. Let’s also pray that the next shift within the Catholic Church is to have ‘true Catholics’ (as opposed to missionaries who come from outside this Church) standing up and saying that what is being taught is wrong. Let’s pray that the deacons (who are starting to read the Bible and who are involved in teaching Catechism) will ‘keep it biblical’ and not keep passing on lies and traditions (which are based solely on other lies and traditions). Let’s pray that the next generation of Christians in France will be a generation grounded in biblical Truth!