France: Not a Little Bit Christian

After more than a decade of government roadblocks, a French church has finally found a place to call home.

Written by Bethany DuVal / Photographs by TEAM

Michael and Rebecca Borde want their children to love God more than anything —

 so they took a leap of faith and moved away from the only evangelical congregation in 26 miles to a region with 80,000 people and one small Bible study.

“What I would like them to feel is that they cannot be a little bit Christian,” Michael said. “They should be completely Christian.”

For the Bordes, being “completely Christian” has meant spending 10 years working with their fellow believers to plant the Protestant Evangelical Church of Pontcharra in Pontcharra, France.

Since the group began around 2000, it has endured suspicion from neighbors, crammed into homes for Sunday services, been blocked from buying four buildings and gone years without a pastor. On September 19, however, the members celebrated the inauguration of their own building.

With that celebration, they remembered God’s acts of faithfulness, including the arrival of TEAM missionaries Paul and Karan Davis when it seemed every door had been closed.

  • The Pontcharra church plant inaugurated its building with a gospel choir performance, directed by Rebecca Borde. France’s love of the gospel music genre provides natural opportunities to share Christ as non-believers join church-sponsored community choirs like this one.

Each time the group found a viable option, the city blocked the sale.

GROWING PAINS AND NEIGHBORLY SUSPICIONS

In the 37 years since the Davises began planting churches in France, the couple has always begun the same way.

“You’d start,” Karan said, “with a very small group of believers who were very enthused about having their own church in their own location.”

The latest group began at the turn of the millennium, when French pastor Patrice Alcindor began sharing his vision for the valley with his Alpine congregation in Brignoud. He started home Bible studies in several different areas, and in Pontcharra, people began coming to Christ.

Set in the center of three major cities, Pontcharra was already becoming a center for development. It was where transportation systems met, homes were being built and businesses wanted to move. By all counts, it was the perfect place to start a church.

Over the next five years, the church slowly grew enough to be recognized as a legal entity. In 2005, the Bordes, members of Alcindor’s church, moved to the city to join the work and helped establish a community gospel choir. They soon realized they had outgrown meeting in people’s homes.

“We were not able to find a place big enough for everybody,” Michael said, “so typically, what we had is the service in one family’s house and the service for children two or three kilometers away. ... And when you want to invite somebody, ‘OK, you need to leave your children in that place, and we’ll be at that place for the service.’”

The country’s culture added further difficulties: In France, it is expected that any special interest group, whether for sports or for worship services, will form a legally recognized association. Although it is not required, these associations are also expected to have their own building and mailing address. Without a building, a church isn’t seen as legitimate, and many will view it as a cult.

The congregation began looking at buildings, but the mayor’s office didn’t like the idea of a group from another city trying to start something in Pontcharra. Each time the group found a viable option, the city blocked the sale.

One building, a former department store called Prisunic, had sat empty for more than a decade. The city said the building was in a flood zone, it had a leak in the roof and, besides, the church would need to pay a $10,000 fee for each of the public parking spaces in the shopping center that the church would need to use.

After a year and a half of trying to buy places and being blocked four times, the church decided it must not be God’s timing for them to have a building. A couple years later, Alcindor accepted a ministry role in another part of the country, leaving both the plant and the mother church without a pastor.

“We [could] not imagine starting a new church without a pastor in Brignoud,” Michael said, so the plant decided to stop holding Bible studies and see if the elders could lead the mother church without a pastor. The sabbatical would last over a year.

UNITED BY FAILURE

Thirty miles away, near Albertville, the Davises were facing their own church planting trials. The small group of believers they were working with had left everything to be done by Paul and Karan. When confronted, they refused to take on any of the burden.

“We basically had to tell them that we cannot devote our time to this project if you’re not behind it,” Paul said. “And that was a hard decision to make, but we did make it.”

Discouraged, they began looking at other opportunities. As a member of their church denomination’s board, Paul had heard about the Pontcharra project for a while, and when Alcindor began telling the couple how wonderful the people at the plant were, the Davises decided to meet the group.

The nine adults of the plant were clearly worn out from their efforts, Paul said. “And yet, when we came to talk to them, you could see this spark of, ‘Maybe with you coming, something might happen.’”

Not wanting a repeat of their last venture, the Davises held a meeting at the Bordes’s house and asked each member if they were willing to play an active role in establishing the church. One by one, each of them said they were.

RELATIONSHIPS AS CHURCH PLANTING

Whenever the Davises help plant a new church, Paul likes to start by leading a study on the book of Joshua and how the Israelites approached the “impossible” challenge of taking the Promised Land.

Despite its long history of Catholicism, France has become known as a graveyard for missionaries. A heavy emphasis on secularism has convinced most French people that they’ve moved past the need for God, and the belief runs so deeply that the French show not hostility, but an exhausting apathy toward spiritual things.

They listen to, engage in and affirm apologetic arguments and then tell believers it’s simply not for them. As a friend summed it up to Karan, “If I were to believe, I would want to believe like you. But I don’t."

The only way to effectively reach the French, missionaries say, is to build relationships. And in French culture, building relationships deep enough to discuss spiritual things can take years of commitment.

“One really good point with Paul and Karan,” Michael said, “is that they really love people. ... We started again the Bible study and really spent time with people and welcomed people. And more and more people were interested.”

In addition to revealing Christ’s relevance to the French, Paul knew the church’s chief obstacle would be getting City Hall’s blessing. The mayor who blocked previous attempts had been in office for 26 years and would have the power to block purchases for years to come.

In January 2011, Paul asked to set up a meeting with the mayor. Eight months later, he was granted an audience. Unlike Alcindor, Paul was able to tell the mayor that he and Karan actually lived in Pontcharra — in the apartments next to City Hall. This caught the mayor’s attention. By the end of meeting, the church had a small community room to hold worship services in once a month.

Meanwhile, Paul and Karan began attending every community event where they might see the mayor. As the church outgrew its new space, with 45 people attending, Paul continued to strengthen his relationship with the mayor and began to notice the mayor’s aide, Yvette Tosolini.

“She was always next to him,” Paul said, “handing him papers, directing him to the next place, whispering in his ear, reminding him of something, handing him notes, and I thought, ‘She’s the one that runs things around here.’”

In July 2012, a team from the Davises’ home church visited and, because the team didn’t speak French, spent a lot of time in prayer. The team took a walk around City Hall and asked God to give the church favor with whoever could give them their own meeting place.

One month later, Pontcharra held its annual twin city festival. The festival always included a Catholic mass, and the Davises attended, just as they would any other city event. Tosolini had come with the mayor, and after the service, Paul decided to introduce himself.

“I expected her simply to say, ‘Bonjour,’ and that would be the end of the conversation,” Paul said. Instead, Tosolini held his hand a moment longer and said, “Permit me to say that I am pleased you came to this.”

The message baffled Paul at first. Tosolini wasn’t a practicing Catholic, to his knowledge. But then he realized that when Tosolini saw Paul, a protestant pastor, attending a Catholic mass just to support the city, she knew she could work with him. It was time, Paul decided, for another meeting at City Hall.

A CITY OF POSSIBILITIES

As soon as Tosolini heard Paul wanted to meet with her, she invited him into her office. Paul walked out with an agreement that he would come directly to Tosolini about any building the church was interested in, instead of filling out the usual paperwork. Tosolini would tell him on the spot if the purchase would be approved.

Not long after, the group found a small grocery store for sale. Tosolini cleared the sale, overriding the city’s regular objections. This time, however, the sale was blocked by the sellers themselves.

Although the store belonged to a major chain that was eager to sell, no one could find the basic paperwork to sell it. The church waited five months and returned to square one.

They began working with a realtor and expanding their search. One day, the realtor took Paul to see a 1,184 square foot funeral home selling for over $200,000. In the middle of the showing, inspiration struck.

“You want to start a church, right?” the realtor asked. “Yes,” Paul said.

“That’s not big enough! I would hope you’d [have] more people than could fit in a building like that. Why don’t you buy the Prisunic?”

The old department store was over 8,000 square feet and would be perfect for a growing congregation. But it was the same store they had been turned down for six years ago. Still, the realtor pressed Paul for the city’s objections, and one by one, the realtor shared how each issue had been resolved over the years.

The realtor asked who they worked with at City Hall. “You at least consult with Madame Tosolini, don’t you?” he said. A few minutes later, he had called Tosolini and received permission.

  • When the church bought its new building, it had no interior walls, no bathrooms and an electrical system that had to be entirely rewired. In 15 months, a volunteer crew of church members, mother church members and American teams turned it into an inviting house of worship with room to grow.

  • Over the years, Karan has helped create relationship opportunities through music nights, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and other events. “Karan’s specialty is creating a context for people to feel comfortable and want to come to something. ... Then I’m able to share the message that they need to hear,” Paul said.

  • After weeks of preparation, Paul (left) and inauguration guests enjoyed speakers who shared about the evangelical church and God’s call on the new congregation. Nine months earlier, they were still in the middle of renovating and figuring out what the new space should look like.

  • Karan (left), Rebecca (center) and guest singer Beverly Minor (right) led worship at the inaugural Sunday service. (Bottom right) The 160-seat sanctuary gives the congregation room to grow and one day sponsor church plants of its own.

  • After the program, guests chatted over refreshments in the foyer, where photos of the renovation process were hung along the walls.

It was the exact amount the mother church and others had saved up over the years for the new project.

Astounded, Paul asked how much the building cost. Because it had been standing empty for 20 years, the realtor suggested they offer just $80,000.

It was the exact amount the mother church and others had saved up over the years for the new project. Within three weeks, the Prisunic was theirs.

MAKING IT HOME

Of course, owning a building is not the same as having it worship service-ready. The building had no interior walls or bathrooms, and the heating and electricity had to be entirely redone.

Paul formed a team of four men from the mother church and the plant to oversee renovations. Every Saturday for 15 months, volunteers came to build walls, put in ceilings, learn wiring and do whatever else they were asked. Many were from the new church, but others came from the mother church and the Davises’ supporting churches in the U.S.

The church took out a no-interest loan from TEAM France’s revolving church planting fund, and the Davises wrote about the remaining renovation needs in their newsletter.

“People were extremely generous,” Paul said. “The gifts just kept coming in, coming in, coming in, and we were able to  nance the balance of all the renovations through the gifts from people.”

Friends from back home got so involved with the project that they even voted on the chairs for the sanctuary. Go for the nice ones, they urged the Davises.

By March 8, 2015, the renovations had progressed enough for the church to hold its first worship service in the building. Six months later, on the morning of September 19, choir members gathered at the church for a final rehearsal before the building’s inauguration.

While Rebecca Borde led the choir through vocal exercises, patrons of the nearby ATM and post office peered through the windows at the newly finished foyer. Comfortable couches and a small coffee bar beckoned to guests, and from the open door of his office, Paul could easily see and welcome them as they approached.

The new church had Sunday school rooms, a kitchen, a youth room and a sanctuary for 160 people. Later that afternoon, the sanctuary overflowed with government offcials, curious neighbors, members of the mother church and TEAM missionaries from all over France.

Alcindor, Pontcharra’s new mayor and others spoke to the crowd, and the audience was invigorated as the choir sang the words each believer now knew to be true: “He is our hope, even in the midnight hour. He is our hope. Our God gives strength and power.”

30,000 CITIES

“We are so thankful for the Lord to have this place,” Michael said after the inauguration. “And for me, I feel like I’m blessed, not because what I’ve done, but what a lot of people have done. A lot of people prayed for these projects for so many years. A lot of people helped us to spend time for the building, to send money. ... It’s really because of them, what God told them to do.”

Since the inauguration, the Protestant Evangelical Church of Pontcharra has held worship services every Sunday and packed the sanctuary for a Christmas concert more than 200 people attended. It is a dream come true for families like the Bordes, and for the Davises, it’s a sign that it’s time to start thinking about where they’ll go next.

“From day one,” Paul said, “I tell [local Christians], ‘We’re here to help you have your church, but we will be slowly but surely pulling away from the leadership to let you do it, because there are still 30,000 cities out there that need a church. And as much as we love you and want to be with you, we also feel called to be planting other churches.”

The next five years will be a time of taking on responsibilities for the young congregation and transitioning to a new assignment for the Davises. As Paul and Karan approach retirement, they hope to devote time to mentoring French church planters and walking them through the process of finding their own starter groups: small collections of believers who may not know each other yet, but perhaps already feel God’s stirring in their hearts, asking them to have faith, to persevere and to show their cities what it means to be “completely Christian.”

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