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'The terrorist started just outside our church' - The Aussie church planters in Strasbourg

Planting a church where John Calvin did

They are sitting in Sydney but their heart is in Strasbourg, France.

Peter and Mariella Demetriou are sitting in the Bible Society offices in Sydney, but their hearts and minds are in Eastern France where the death toll from a terrorist shooting is still rising as we speak.

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The shooter started from just outside the church Peter and Mariella have planted.

“I have been being a pastor for the last 48 hours on the phone,” Peter tells me.

He’s been looking after his fledgling church. Liberté Church, planted by the Demetrious, meets in the historic centre of Strasbourg, the home of the European parliament.

“It’s been stressful. Imagine walking to work, or school or church in that environment.”

The shooter started outside the church, ran down a lane and into the historic marketplace which has been on our TV screens. As I write this the toll has risen to five.

The beard is a lot greyer, but Peter a former colleague of mine at Bible Society Australia is just as passionate as ever. But he never expected to be the senior pastor meeting in an historic church on whose site John Calvin preached and edited his Institutes.

“And because it is in the centre of town every night we open the doors it is packed. All the tourists are coming in and they want to see what is happening.”

Liberté meet in Temple Neuf, “the new church” though as Peter says,  “it has been there for about 800 years”. The church was originally a place where the Dominican monks worshipped but “about 500 years ago, John Calvin started the first French-speaking services there for refugees,” Demetriou explains.

It’s a decidedly odd church destination for a Pentecostal from Sydney. You’d expect to find some Aussie Pentecostals set up in a warehouse or some funky space. But instead they are in Temple Neuf, welcomed by the Lutherans. “It’s a Cathedral-like building,” says Mariella. “You have got these great chandeliers. It’s awe inspiring.

“And because it is in the centre of town every night we open the doors it is packed. All the tourists are coming in and they want to see what is happening.”

Peter and Mariella Demetriou

Peter and Mariella Demetriou

Five years ago, Peter and Mariella and their two daughters left Sydney, as part of a church planting team of sixteen from an inner city Pentecostal church. Visa issues and work and language difficulties caused all but the Demetrious and one other member of the team to leave.

“But even when the others left, we were not there to be a one-hit wonder. We had sold up (in Sydney). That was where we were going to plant. We just had that burning on our hearts,” says Peter.

Expecting to be a behind-the-scenes helper Peter Demetriou found himself the leader of the church plant. It is the sort of struggle story many stay-at-home Christians only hear when missionaries are home on leave. Would he have gone if he knew the others would not stay, I wonder as the story unfolds. Maybe it was God’s way of getting him there.

Peter believes God has continued to open doors for their church. As he met the pastor for the first time he saw a copy of “Zee Bible” a new translation by the French Bible Society on the pastor’s desk – which he had helped support in his role at Bible Society Australia back in Sydney. “’I know about this project, I said. Bible Society Australia was one of the fundraising Bible Societies for Zee Bible.’ Then he informed me that he was one of the contributing editors. I think God opened up a door through that.”

“But even when the others left, we were not there to be a one-hit wonder. We had sold up (in Sydney). That was where we were going to plant. We just had that burning on our hearts,” says Peter.

But “France has been deeply on our hearts for many ,many years,” Mariella, a fashion writer and editor remembers. Peter proposed to me in Paris 22 years ago and we always felt burdened for France.

“It is an incredible nation, but almost third world in a spiritual sense,” she says referencing France’s spiritual poverty. “There are 55,000 full-time occult practitioners versus 35,000 full-time Christian workers. Eighty per cent of French people have not seen a Bible. The harvest is truly ripe – and plentiful.”

In Strasbourg “we feel like we are in a gold mine,” Mariella explains. “We can actually get Scripture into schools which is very special because in no other part of France can you do that.

“We had a former prostitute come into our church, and give her life to the lord. We had a guy battling with many issues, who found a place of love.

They went to Strasbourg, a very international city, expecting to reach internationals but their church is 95 per cent French. That’s actually an achievement – other church planters ask them, “How come you can reach French people.”

“We have heavily promoted Alpha – it has been a wonderful way to reach out to people. As you know the French are highly educated.
Many French people have diplomas coming out of their ears – they come along to get that intellectual conversation about Christianity. But by week four – week five – they are just touched by the love of Jesus.”

So along with some transfer growth Liberté is living up to its name, with new Christians. Mariella the storyteller chimes in. “Let me think about our baptisms… We had a former Satanist – he had a God encounter in a car and felt compelled to go to our Alpha and he did – and rededicated his life to Jesus – he has walked away and gone extremely the other way.

“We had a former prostitute come into our church, and give her life to the lord. We had a guy battling with many issues, who found a place of love.

“It been story after story. Even in the texts we are getting while we are here. I got one the other day from a lady who found the Lord three years ago and her life was just turned around. She’s evangelising to the president of this company where she works, and starting Bible studies in her workplace.

Mariella is buoyed by the unity in Liberté. “Look at the older women,” she says. “If one is going though a hard time, they are all there cooking the meals. It feels like Acts. It is the church of our dreams.”

“I feel honoured and overwhelmed that God would use a regular couple from good old Sydney.”

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