Missionary Diary: a listening ear on a patch of ground in a rich land

What does reaching gospel poor people for Christ mean for Aussie missionaries in France? Catherine and Colin Puffett are Church Missionary Society workers who are church planting and discipling in Nantes, a city on the Loire River in the lower Brittany region of western France. They believe France needs more church planters.

Cath: I’ve cried with quite a few people this month. An ectopic pregnancy that was unplanned and ended in an abortion, a separation, a new marriage struggling, fears of breast cancer after finding a lump. It feels like life is pretty hard for people around me at the moment. People’s secret problems, which they are ashamed of, keep spilling out. People are desperate to be listened to, and understood, to have friends meet them where they are at in their sadness and frustration. Sometimes I wonder at God’s plans for this world that so desperately needs the hope of Jesus. I signed up with CMS to see a world that knows Jesus, but it isn’t happening quickly here. People are hurting and in need of this radical hope but still rarely ready to hear it. Why are Australians giving up their money for my ministry in France? A life in a rich country, where I live in the inner city and ride my bike around so happily. Where we are hidden migrants until we open our mouths and our funny accents come out. What does reaching gospel poor people for Christ mean for Aussie missionaries in France?

Colin: “Why would you leave Australia to live in France!” It’s the shocked question we are asked very regularly when we introduce ourselves. Australia is viewed as a paradise (albeit one full of dangerous animals) and, with a somewhat grim view of life in France at the moment, the locals can’t believe someone would choose to move in this direction. “I’m a pastor, working with local Protestant churches”, is the standard reply, which is also met with a predictable response, “Oh. There aren’t many Protestants here, though!” How true it is. The concentration of Bible-believing Christians is so low, and the stigma around faith discussion so strong, that many French people can be born, live and die without ever knowingly meeting a Christian, let alone having the gospel explained.

Christianity in France

Most Eternity readers would be aware of the spiritual state of western Europe, but the reality and the numbers surrounding the spiritual poverty are still somewhat shocking. At less than 2 per cent evangelical Christian, France is a place of gospel poverty. Further, France is one of the most secular nations in the world, with a deeply ingrained culture of suppressing faith, meaning Christianity is hampered in its growth, and many Christians feel very isolated, often struggling to identify each other in a school or workplace.

But the “National Council of Evangelical Churches” (CNEF) in France has not given up; they wish to see Bible-believing Christians meeting together, encouraging each other and having a visible presence in their communities. To this end, a goal was set to have one evangelical church for every 10,000 population spread across France. On average at this point, we have roughly 1 per 30,000 (in contrast to about 1 per 3200 in Sydney), with some regions, including the west where we live, hovering around 1 per 80-90,000.

Introducing Perspectives

Perspectives is a denomination here in France, a union of churches with a strong emphasis on church planting and revitalisation. In the past decade, and thanks to the long-term investment of CMS missionaries in French university ministries, CMS and Perspectives formed a new partnership to work towards realising an ambitious goal of tripling the number of churches in France. Both these organisations appreciate the necessity of meeting people where they’re at, of portraying the gospel in a way that people can see its relevance in their lives. This is a long-term investment and involves Christians who are active and intentional in their Christ-likeness in day-to-day activities. Reaching gospel-poor people for Christ isn’t an instantaneous endeavour. It takes time to build language, understand the culture and then build trust in individual relationships to the point where friends are ready to listen to the radical message of the gospel. Working under local leadership, and learning from the Christians here, has been a beautiful gift for us.

Enter the Puffetts, willing to go anywhere, sent to France for church planting

Parents to two kids, Julien, 9, and Simone, 5, we have been married 16 years in December and are currently residing in our 13th fixed address, spread through six cities. It feels as if we’ve been in training most of our life together to settle in, make the most of where we are, connect with people and grow relationships.

We were not fixated on France as a destination, despite having spent some time here in the past and Cath having a reasonable grip of the language since the age of 18. We were keen to be used by the Lord somewhere that was “less reached” than the context of Bible-belt Sydney, where we grew up. This left most places on the globe, but under the guidance of CMS and the confirmation from many around us, we were sent to France to join in this good work of equipping, mobilising and encouraging French Christians to live out intentional discipleship, thereby impacting their networks and their country for Jesus.

To this end, we are partnering with Perspectives, alongside a French/Swiss couple, on a river island in the centre of the city of Nantes, a patch of land home to roughly 20,000 people and one evangelical church (ours). Having been actively involved in a church plant in the inner west of Sydney while at Bible college and having attempted a plant in Newcastle, we find ourselves in quite a different social context here in post-industrial, post-Covid Nantes. But something we find in common among all these contexts is that people are suffering, particularly with relationship breakdown, and being available to listen makes an enormous difference.