Wycliffe France’s new beginning

Stewart Johnson remembers hearing a presentation back in 2008 which focused on the men of Issachar. The author of 1 Chronicles wrote that these were people who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.

Stewart Johnson

The message stayed with Stewart through his years as church engagement director for Wycliffe UK. He thought about what it could mean for the 21st century church, ministry and mission.

“I had this revelation that we just carry on doing what we do well, thinking it’s going to be fine in the end,” he says. “I’m not being negative. If it works for people, praise God. His grace and his abilities far outstrip ours.”

But he also knew that serious rethinking could be in order—and never more so than during the past two years as he has served as interim director of Wycliffe France. It has been a rare opportunity to help restart and reimagine an organisation that, for various reasons, officially had no remaining field missionaries. They certainly still had strong connections with French people working abroad in Bible translation. But, administratively it made more sense to have all of those individuals or families re-sent by their church denominations rather than Wycliffe France.

All of which meant that in 2021, as the pandemic forced all mission organisations to rethink, Stewart approached his new assignment with the men of Issachar in mind—not in the sense of telling Christians what they should think and do, but of gaining wisdom and clarity by going to churches and listening. They simply ask questions relating to missio dei, the mission of God. Questions like:

  • What is God is laying on your hearts as a church, in terms of mission both at home and further afield?
  • How did COVID impact you and your church? Both positively and negatively?
  • Is there one advantage that COVID gave you that you have maintained?
  • Which downloadable resource would you want from Wycliffe France tomorrow and be able to use the day after?

The questions all lead to a conclusion: God still has a mission for his churches in France and it's up to individuals and churches to work out what that is. Which relates directly to Wycliffe France’s mission statement: “Serving French churches who share the same ideal that all people can be transformed by the Word of God.”  

“And you hope that almost like a grain of mustard seed, it sticks,” Stewart says. “It takes time. We’re building relationships. We constantly have to steer conversations away from old-fashioned ways of talking about Bible translation, where Wycliffe does the work. You’ve got to talk about friends and partners.” 

Thérèse Stauder and Stewart Johnson promote Wycliffe France at a gathering of pastors and church leaders in Paris.

Two streams

As an organisation with few staff members or sustainable resources, they also decided on a tighter strategy. As a Wycliffe Global Alliance member, Wycliffe France would focus on two of the seven Participation Streams: prayer and the life of the church.

“Everything that we have done and everything that we have built in the last two years has literally revolved around those two orbits,” Stewart says. “The first posture is obviously to say to the church, “Hey, we would like you praying. Please go to our website, join the Facebook group, we have WhatsApp groups as well, we have a Zoom prayer meeting.”

The prayer emphasis starts with Wycliffe France’s board and extends to everyone in the organisation’s orbit.

“They know that they’re not just praying for themselves or praying for an individual partner in mission somewhere in the world,” Stewart says, “but they are actually praying into the life and the well-being of specific Alliance organisations.”

Wycliffe France’s website contains not just prayer requests, but theological reasons why it is so important, how it relates to attributes like generosity, and why God is calling the church in France to pray.

Five communities

Then, they narrowed Wycliffe France’s focus even further by identifying five “Communities of Interest and Engagement”:

  • LSF—the Deaf sign language of France
  • The Roma people living in France and throughout Europe
  • Ongoing Bible translation work in Siberia
  • The neighbouring francophone West African countries of Togo and Benin
  • and the francophone Democratic Republic of Congo.

“The philosophy behind the choices was that we feel that French churches, particularly post-COVID, are coming back into life and energy, and they needed to understand that they could be involved in the mission of God,” Stewart says. “You don’t want to confuse people with too many choices. It’s quite hard because you are almost burning many other bridges to have one in place.”

A big part of choosing those five communities was to help French people realise there are communities in their own country who need Bible translation – namely, about 100,000 in the Deaf community who use French Sign Language; and the Roma people which number 250,000 to 300,000 in France at any given moment (The number varies because many Roma groups are nomadic, moving from country to country in Europe.)

From Wycliffe France's website. Translation: "A French speaking stone in a global building"


A direct connection

It's all intended to engage churches directly with impacted communities, rather than treating individual missionaries as churches’ primary focus of engagement, prayer and financial support.

“One of the things that the board was very clear about,” Stewart says, “was that they wanted me to facilitate the direct sending of people, not even necessarily through Wycliffe France but from their churches to one of these Communities of Interest and Engagement.”

In such a scenario, Wycliffe France becomes a third-party facilitator of relationships that engage churches, or even other mission organisations, with Bible translation work in those five communities. With churches, those relationships are often initiated by telephone surveys conducted by Wycliffe staff and volunteers—again, asking churches how they’re doing and what they need, rather than asking them to support missionaries.

“It’s like there’s a bilateral stream now,” Stewart says. “You have all the good of the past, that is being garnered and promoted as well as people parachuting into the paradigm we used to join Wycliffe. And then you’ve got this brand-new stream.”

He compares the new paradigm to a dinner party that takes on a life of its own—even though it takes lots of planning and work for things to reach that stage.

“The people get so fixated, so excited about what’s going on in different places that Wycliffe France kind of draws back or starts to grandparent the thing. You recognize your grandparents are in the room, but they’re not the ones cooking or out there dancing.” 

• • •

Practical hints for Alliance organisations

From Stewart Johnson

  • Take time to focus. Take your time to do your research. Then survey churches. We find any excuse to do surveys. We came out of COVID saying, “Hey, we really want to know how COVID affected you and what was the one advantage?” Another survey was, we saw that during COVID, lots of churches were scratching around for downloadable resources. Which resource would you want tomorrow and be able to use the day after? And it was always kids’ stuff.

    When you talk to other churches and you already know what they know, it really gets you respect. And so we are able to manage expectations for a church, and already get a sense of what they want to do and what they want to hear about. So ultimately when we do church engagement, we are talking about the mission of God, why the mission of God is important and why it is the agent for mission. Then we talk very specifically about one of those five Communities of Interest and Engagement.

  • We do want churches to be really excited. We do want them to send people overseas. Because we want to see churches sending their people to be involved in these Communities of Interest and Engagement, and it's really difficult to send them through Wycliffe France at the moment, we've done lots of research on how to set up a local charity.
  • Because our approach looks so different than it once did, we have to have different indicators of performance and we have to have very, very clear moments where we celebrate the good stuff that’s happening. Because we do also have dark nights of the soul. 

Stewart Johnson may be reached at: directeur@wycliffe.fr

• • •

Story: Jim Killam and Gwen Davies, Wycliffe Global Alliance

Alliance organisations may download and use the images from this article.

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