What is Christian Mission, and Why France?

What is mission?

Mission is not our thing. It’s God’s thing. ‘Mission’ comes from the latin missio, meaning ‘sending’. God sent Jesus into the world to take on human flesh and live amongst us, teaching, ministering to the rich and poor, and to die in our place, defeating the powers of evil and rising again to take his place at the right hand of the Father until the last enemy, death itself, is vanquished forever. Our God is a sending God.

Although mission is not our thing, God still invites us to join in.  We are His ambassadors in the ministry of reconciliation, ‘as though God were making his appeal through us’ (2 Corinthians 5.20) to be in Christ and reconciled to Himself, sins forgiven, living not for ourselves but for Him who set us free from ‘the law of sin and death’ (Romans 8.2). We do mission for the sake of the lost, and for the sake of His glory.

But how do we actually do mission? The consensus is that we should witness to the saving love of God by our words and through our deeds. As John Stott says of Jesus’ mission:

He came to serve. He gave himself in selfless service for others, and his service took a wide variety of forms according to men’s needs… He served in deed as well as in word, and it would be impossible in the ministry of Jesus to separate his works from his words… Our mission, like his, is to be one of service.

Christian Mission in the Modern World, 24

As a global church, we can serve one another, and reach out to those who don’t yet know Jesus.

Why send missionaries?

Jesus commands in Matthew 28.19-20: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ God loves the whole world; Jesus is the head of the worldwide Church. The Church is God’s chosen instrument for sharing the good news of Jesus with the world.

On a practical level, there are parts of the world that are more ‘reached’ with the good news of Jesus than others. Some parts of the world have a lot of Christians already; some have never heard of Jesus. Others have become secular over time, so much so that in recent years the churches in traditional mission fields, such as Africa and Latin America, have been sending missionaries to Western Europe.

After many years of equating ‘mission’ with ‘going abroad’, recently there has been an emphasis on local mission. The idea being that, quite rightly, mission isn’t something that happens merely ‘over there’ but is a posture for every Christian to live their life by – sharing Jesus holistically through what they say and do. 

If mission is something we could do by staying here in the North East, what is the point of going elsewhere? I believe that God calls different people to different things. Some are called to stay where they are and share Jesus with their neighbours, colleagues, school friends and family. Some are called to move onto council estates. Some are called to move out of central Durham to East Durham or West Durham. Some are called to be like Barnabas – encouraging others as they do mission and through financial support. Some are called to work for social justice in the political sphere.

But, despite the shift in our understanding of mission, some are still called to move overseas. In the last 50 years or so, Western Europe has become a ‘mission field’ due to increasing secularisation, postmodern attitudes to truth, individualism and apathy towards faith, amongst other factors. 

What is so special about Tours, France?

France, though historically Catholic, has had a strict separation between church and state since the early 20th century. This means, amongst other things, that religion is considered a private matter – there is no Religious Education in schools, and religious symbols cannot be worn in schools or public sector workplaces. Although around half of people identify as Catholics, only a very small proportion of declared Roman Catholics are reported habitually to attend mass

Though the Catholic heritage still has an impact on society in terms of things like national holidays, secularism is the overall narrative, and new age religions and the occult are regularly practised by many people. Furthermore, around 10% of the population is Muslim. Around 1% identify as evangelicals. When I talk about evangelicals, I mean Christians who are Bible-based, cross-centred, activist and with an emphasis on personal conversion (Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain, 1).

One exciting development is the amount of church planting that is taking place. The CNEF (National Council of French Evangelicals), is aiming to see one church planted for every 10,000 people in France. According to CNEF, the north/central western area of France, in which Tours is located, has several departments with fewer than 0.2 churches per 100,000 inhabitants. The church we will be working with was itself planted some 20 years ago, and other churches have been planted out of it.

The city of Tours itself is famous for Martin of Tours, and for at one time being the home of the French court. Tours has around 136,000 people (not including nearby suburban areas), which is similar to the size of York. North Tours, where we will be based, has around 40,000 people (comparable to Durham’s 48,000) but only one evangelical church, consisting of 60 people. Like in many places, church in the pandemic has been challenging. Recently, there has been mass protesting about the introduction of a strict ‘health pass’. We are praying that the difficult circumstances would be a turning point for the French population who don’t know Jesus or who are apathetic towards faith, to want to know more.

We want to serve God and build up and encourage the church in Tours, and share the good news of Jesus with people we meet in word and deed. This will involve different things. We will be working as a team with missionaries already in Tours who will be our mentors.  Jack will attend language school in the first year so that he can better serve the French church in the long term. We will volunteer with the local charity centre which runs a foodbank, charity shop and lessons for adults in IT and maths, amongst other things. Serving the church will involve things like preaching, worship music, children’s work, helping with midweek activities, and visiting other church plants in nearby towns to help out and encourage believers there. 

We also want to get to know our neighbours and others in the community. We’re aware that the French tend to be more naturally suspicious even than Brits, and that building trust and friendships will take time. Also, general understanding of who Jesus is is less than in the UK, so sharing our faith may look a bit different.

We hope to help host international teams for short term mission trips. The church building is in the process of being renovated, which we can help with (though neither of us is very skilled at DIY). After the first year, this work should be finished and the building will be suitable for running new groups or ministries. So we could set up something like Alpha or the marriage course, but want to follow God’s leading and understand the culture well before setting up something new.

After the first couple of years in Tours, we are open to being part of a church planting team in the future, if that’s where God leads us.

Mission is God’s thing, but we are invited to join in. The Church is a global body, and we can support one another and see God’s Kingdom grow through participating in sending and supporting missionaries.

Sarah Winterburn is about to be sent to Tours, France by Kings. She is married to Jack and they have an almost 2 year old son. In previous years she has been a Theology student, a church Intern and a Religious Studies and French teacher.

Photo by Anthony Choren on Unsplash