By Geoff & Annette Cawston
Geoff and Annette have been involved in evangelism, bible teaching and pastoral care in West France since 2000. They take a look at the history of mission in the area of Angers, and note their hopes for the future.
It was 50 years ago, in March 1967, that Geoff first discovered the Angers church as a student. Later, we both enjoyed fellowship with successive mission workers and elders, and finally we were called to serve there ourselves in 2000. We are glad to share its testimony to God’s provision over the years and its hopes for the future.
During the 1950s, when transport was slow, the small church in Nantes worked very hard to evangelise over a wide area of West France, including Angers. Home meetings began and soon Peter and Doris Patching (UK) arrived with their family to plant a church. Senior Christians still remember them well. “Angers is 51% encouragement and 49% discouragement,” Peter once told David Pollard (UK) who was soon to come to Angers as a student. Some years later, after Peter’s sudden death, David became a mainstay of the work, and also developed student groups in West France.
For about 30 years, the church was based in small shop premises in the town centre. In a traditional Catholic culture, such buildings, as well as being inconvenient, probably did not seem very credible as alternative places of worship. However, valiant efforts were made to reach out to young people, through an evangelical scout movement; to students, by involvement with the Christian Union; and to the general public, through summer missions and evangelistic events. One man received a tract, ‘Seven reasons you need Jesus Christ’, contacted the church and completed all the Emmaus courses available at the time. He was baptised in the river and managed to sell many Bibles while witnessing in the street. Now over 90 years old, in a retirement home and given to periods of doubt, he derives peace from the Bible passages he learned by heart in his early Christian life.
Towards the end of the last century, when Bob and Lenore Souza were helping the church, a more spacious building was eventually found on the outskirts of Angers. It served its purpose well, with capacity for children and young people’s activities. A few years later, when we arrived, Sunday worship was well attended by international students and, for some years, Annette prepared Sunday dinners for all who wished to stay. These meals brought Christians and seekers together, and were a great blessing. One Chinese student, who was baptised, was apprehensive of returning home. She tried to explain her new-found faith to her family by letter and when she reached home, was amazed to find Bible posters on the walls of the flat! Her mother had been in contact with a Christian neighbour. Another ex-student, from Cameroon, recently wrote to say that he and his Romanian wife now live in Zurich, where he has a demanding job with a bank. As a doctoral student, he had acknowledged the meaning God gave to his work in the preface to his thesis. Many who attended our church during this period are now scattered over the world.
“We were making little impact among local people but evangelism continued through debates…”
We were making little impact among local people but evangelism continued through debates, film evenings or simply by invitation to Sunday worship. One retired teacher, who is disabled, believed in Christ after a talk on science and the Christian faith. He and his wife were baptised in their garden swimming pool surrounded by friends they had invited. With the beginning of some growth, it was a blow when, in 2006, we were informed that we would soon have to leave our building. As it was rented, no compensation was owed to us. While serving in Le Mans, Geoff had found the purchase and adaptation of a building for the church a challenge, and the idea of beginning the process all over again was not appealing! However, the One who ‘knows our frame’, came to our aid.
The Long Search
The church left its building and for six years had no home. However, the Lord kept the fellowship together. Our mayor agreed to rent us rooms on Sunday mornings until we found a solution. These were some distance from bus routes but, surprisingly, attendance increased slightly. We were encouraged when a young Bulgarian woman, who had been in touch with the church for many years, finally came to faith. Amazingly, in answer to prayer, she was later to discover her biological family in Bulgaria and is now sharing her faith with them. The church was thrilled when a female student from a Muslim background believed. These two women, and others, were baptised in our faithful, old, portable baptistry, bought 30 years before. We prayed for a permanent building which would be ‘visible, accessible and welcoming’ and we thank God for answering! After a long search, a suitable option was finally chosen a few hundred yards from our original building and on the tramway. Meanwhile, a Christian had arrived in the church who had all the training and experience necessary to steer the purchase and renovation. His timely arrival, the teams from Brass Tacks who carried out the basic work and the commitment of a plumber, an electrician and a sound expert in the church, were gifts from God. It was astonishing to find so many qualifications of the kind we needed in our small fellowship! After unexpected gifts and a legacy, the church was left with reasonable loan repayments.
“…we now had a convenient home…The Lord has done great things for us.”
In July 2016, we held our first Sunday service in the new building. No more loading and unloading of musical instruments, sound equipment and the paraphernalia which our faithful old trailer had stored and transported week after week! Above all we now had a convenient home for the church and the challenge of new opportunities. Psalm 126:3 took on a special meaning for us: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad”. Soon after the building opened, a young man from a Christian family was baptised. About 30 friends and neighbours attended from their village. We pray this will be the beginning of new life among other young people from families in the church.
The population of greater Angers is now 280,000. Regularly classified as one of the most desirable places to live and study in France, it is divided in two by the River Maine, which is crossed by five bridges. The town has grown around a massive 17-towered chateau and a prominent cathedral. Carefully preserved in the castle is a magnificent tapestry, over 100m long, portraying the book of Revelation in surprising detail. Excellent guides give a fair account of the Bible text and must surely leave many visitors thinking deeply. With a Catholic university as well as a state university, a medical faculty and several specialised academic institutions, Angers has a regular student population of over 30,000.
The Church Today
Attendance at Sunday services is between 45 and 65 people. Total attendance at all evangelical churches in Angers probably reaches 800. Some of the other churches were extremely kind to us when we were without a building, lending rooms for special events and praying in public that we would be able to find a solution. A fellowship of the leaders of local evangelical churches meets every few months for Bible study, prayer and the exchange of news. It is also a huge blessing to be part of the Brethren network, Communautés et Assemblées Evangéliques de France (CAEF). The friendly supports of seven churches in our region, that are part of this network, have been a real source of encouragement to us in recent years. We regularly benefit from the preaching and fellowship of their members.
Recognition of new elders remains a priority for us. An excellent CAEF course for future leaders exists. We pray that some from the Angers church will be able to benefit from this training, which is not easy to organise for men who have busy family and professional lives. The new building offers possibilities for evangelism which we have not enjoyed for some time. Some people who have begun attending the church have come to faith in Christ and we pray we will be able to help them grow in Christian living; two are preparing for baptism. Several members of the church travel from a distance to attend. We pray that we will also be able to reach out more effectively to north Angers and the many flats being built around the church. With so many students in Angers, it is sad that the two small Christian Unions number only about 10 people. We are looking for the best way to continue supporting Christian witness among students. Another challenge is the need for activities for children and young people who grow up in the church. We have enjoyed the help of Sam and Sara Boukorras (France), who are national coordinators of youth programmes in CAEF churches; however, their present ministry takes them all over France and we now need help to continue their work in Angers. Our prayer is that the church will move beyond the years of survival, to a period of growth and multiplication to the glory of God.