Parlez-Vous Francais?

by Erik Tryggestad

Learning French is on-the-job training for Keith Percell.

The minister and his wife, Jennifer, left their home in Iowa about a year ago to pursue their longtime dream of mission work in Quebec City. They joined the ranks of church members ministering to the world's approximately 130 million Francophones-people who speak French fluently and use it regularly. French speakers inhabit nations from the Caribbean to Europe, from Africa to South Asia.

Keith Percell said he occasionally gets frustrated with his lack of French vocabulary. But he's learning, and the broad smiles and hugs he receives after a Wednesday night Bible study at his church show that he's appreciated.

The church had no minister for several years, member Mary Ann Leblanc said. That's a common problem in many French-speaking nations, said Doyle Kee, a missionary in Geneva, Switzerland.

"There are so many places in the world where you can do your work in English-and they're valid places to go, receptive areas," Kee said. But many unreached parts of the world-including nations where Islam is making inroads-require French language skills.

Missions experts often point to phenomenal church growth in Africa as a gospel success story. But most of that growth has occurred in English-speaking countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, said missionary Aaron Burk.

Burk and his teammates trained in France before moving to Burkina Faso, a French-speaking country in West Africa. In four years the group has helped plant more than 10 churches with a combined membership of more than 400.

"The church is now growing in countries where it was illegal until recently," said Bren White, an elder of Frederick (Md.) Church of Christ and overseer of Operation French World, a ministry that sends mission teams to French-speaking countries. Missionaries have made progress in the mostly Muslim countries of northern Africa through French-language gospel radio broadcasts, White said.

 But, like many mission points around the globe, French-speaking communities need more workers, Kee said. "Canada is not Europe, and Europe is not Africa," he said. "They have common ties, though, and most of them lead right back to Paris -a huge mission field."

Why Learn French?

If money were no object, Charles White would send 50 missionaries to each major city in France except Paris-where he'd send 700.

"We need to get the word out to the French people," said the missionary in Lyon, France.

But recruiting missionaries for French-speaking countries is a challenge, according to Robert McCready, associate professor of French at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. Students who grew up in churches in the southern United States are more likely to have ties to missions in Latin America and take Spanish classes.

Elizabeth Kittrell took French in high school and studied the language at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. A mission trip to Haiti during her sophomore year convinced her that French was a valuable tool for missions.

Kittrell graduated a year ago with a degree in French education and teaches English as a Second Language at a Nashville elementary school. She takes mission teams to French-speaking St. Martin in the Caribbean.

Schools in middle Tennessee are dropping French classes in favor of new language programs-including Mandarin Chinese, Kittrell said. Students regard French as an "artsy" language and are more likely to study Spanish. If they study French, "people think they'll never be able to use it," she said. "But they can go into Wal-Mart and use Spanish." But French is a world language-a language of diplomacy and commerce, Kittrell tells her students. She urges them to visit French-speaking countries.

French teachers and mission recruiters also must combat the notion that French speakers are intolerant of those who can't speak their language fluently.

In Geneva, that's simply not the case, Kee said.

"I'm not a good foreign-language speaker," he said. After 35 years, he still speaks French with a strong Texas accent. "I have to say that God uses me in spite of that weakness. He'll do the same for anyone else."

In France, French speakers are tolerant and appreciative of people who attempt to learn their language, said Philippe Dauner, a minister in Marseilles.

"However, people will go from tolerant to suspicious if you are perceived as trying to infiltrate French culture-especially religious culture-with an American ideology, Dauner said. That is why a two-to-three-year immersion in French culture and language before starting any ‘real' missionary work is an essential step."

McCready, who worked for 20 years as a missionary in Nantes and Toulouse, France, said church members in Arkansas often are stunned when he tells them about the country's needs. The nation of more than 60 million people is almost totally secularized except for a rapidly growing Muslim minority.

Students are getting the message, and Harding has about 60 students with French as their major or minor, the professor said. The school recently added a new French instructor and launched a study-abroad program in France and Switzerland.

McCready said Americans must be willing to partner with native Christians for effective missions in France and French-speaking countries around the world. "I believe in the team," he said. "You need to make sure it's not just an American team."

Reprinted from The Christian Chronicle, December 2006 issue.

Erik Tryggestad is assistant managing editor for the Chronicle.

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