Start an international church!” they said. “We’re doing it to reach French people!” We listened politely, but we weren’t convinced.
After all, we’d come to Bordeaux with certain tasks in mind to join a growing team. Not only that, but we were wrestling with the subtleties and glories of French grammar, and working in English couldn’t be further from our thoughts.
Nine years later, in 2014, the situation was so different. We had just taken our first long break from work in France. Nine months of reflection, exploring the city, visiting the churches, and talking and praying. We had become convicted by the need for churches in the centre of the city of Bordeaux. Over 200,000 people were served by just four gospel churches, and large tracts of the city had no local witness at all. Aided by a small, but excellent, team of keen friends, we started an international church in the city centre. We were 15 people that first year.
The challenges of bilingualism
Soon half our folk were French people. “Did you follow that?” I’d ask, in French. “Not at all.” So we started mixing French and English into the service, enough, hopefully, that people could follow and understand. It made the sermons longer, but nobody complained and some people appreciated having two stabs in two different languages, smiling knowingly when the French differed significantly from the English, as sometimes it did!
Our little team expanded. A Canadian missionary joined us, though he too had come to work in French, not in English. Other friends showed themselves able to preach and to teach, though most people were not comfortable switching from one language to the other. We knew another solution had to come one day.
We outgrew the little restaurant where we met and found a home at the Brethren meeting hall. Now we could do simultaneous translation via headphones, or by seating people in different parts of the room, but people didn’t want to have linguistic barriers set up between each other. However, the long-term loan of a video projector meant that we could put subtitles on the wall to help people to latch on to the meaning of the message.
A new French church
But to really reach French people we’d have to work in French. But how? And with whom? We agonised over it. We tried alternating our Bible Studies in English and French. But that felt like simply a token. What was needed was another congregation, a new congregation in the centre of the city.
In 2017, our Brethren hosts refurbished their meeting room. Alan was invited to bring greetings from the International Church. Somewhat cheekily he said that our ambitions did not rest with an English language church, but we wanted to see new French churches established in other parts of the city, for example the Chartrons.
This charming part of Bordeaux is a lively patchwork of antique shops, restaurants and cafés and has no gospel witness. How wonderful it would be to see a new church in the Chartrons!
Meanwhile we were talking with some old friends, Maxime and Demelza Soumagnas. Maxime had been a student here in 2005 and had since been preparing and training for gospel ministry in Cambridge, London and Brussels. Could it be possible that they might come and work in Bordeaux? They came to visit the church. Maxime preached in French. Demelza interpreted. People loved them and their two fine little lads. Then, in January 2018, Maxime and Demelza found a flat to rent in the Chartrons area of Bordeaux. They moved in and we began to plan a new French work. Maxime and Demelza are now serving with UFM and are involved in the hard work of raising their financial support.
Stepping out in faith
Meanwhile we continued to grow slowly, now reaching about 40 people each Sunday. We’re still far too small to start a new work, and it’s too soon. Nothing is sufficient and everything is inadequate, but what do you wait for? When is it right to start? We decided on September 2018. We prayed and hunted for a meeting place. We looked in the very centre of Bordeaux. Theatres refused. The town hall said no. Three more promising possibilities came to nothing. As July ended we had no meeting place lined up.
Then, in August, a restaurateur agreed to rent us his back room on Sunday mornings, right by the tram, in the heart of the Chartrons area of Bordeaux. A deposit has been paid, plans are being made, a preaching schedule is lined up and the first meeting took place in late September 2018.
Please pray for this new-born church – “the Lord has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).