Give Me That Mountain!
February 24, 2022
By Cristina Price
I will forever see February 24, 2022, as the turning point for our church. The day Russia invaded Ukraine had a galvanizing effect on our people, who sprang into action without hesitation. The Free Will Baptist church of St. Nazaire, known locally as “the little wooden church,” has been a gathering place for Ukrainian believers for the past few years. These men left their homes in Ukraine to work in the shipyards of St. Nazaire, building some of the largest cruise ships in the world. They came alone, leaving wives and children behind. Though they sent their families money regularly, they rarely saw them in person.
As Russian tanks rolled and bombs fell, our Ukrainian brothers expressed their anguish for their families and their homeland. We felt driven to do something, anything, for these families torn apart by war. Some wives fled Ukraine with their children to rejoin their husbands. Lilya and her two kids arrived in France to rejoin her husband Sergey following a harrowing drive across war-torn Ukraine and Western Europe. Though safe, they left everything behind except what fit into their small car. The city of Nantes provided their first week’s lodging, but they had nowhere to live afterward.
Within days, a woman in our church found a house for Sergey’s family. Church members donated furniture, appliances, pots and pans, beds, toys, clothing, cleaning supplies, and food. We cleaned the house top-to-bottom and set it up. As my husband Matt showed the family around the house, Sergey and Lilya repeated over and over, “This is so good! Thank you!”
Their four-year-old son found a backpack filled with toys. Running out of his room, he exclaimed he had been praying for a backpack just like it. It has been such a blessing for us to help this family, and we expect more families to arrive in the coming weeks. The plight of the thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine weighs heavy on our hearts, because we cannot help them all. We are thankful God has allowed us to help in a small way in our corner of the world.
A Look Back
Why is February 24 such a turning-point for our church? As I look back to where this church was four years ago, I can hardly believe it is the same one. Before our arrival in St. Nazaire, the church experienced the betrayal of a pastor. Many people left, resulting in low income and empty pews. The church was within months of closing its doors. Thankfully, Dennis and Carol Teague stepped into the fray and helped the wounds begin to heal. Matt and I followed a few months later, after our stateside assignment.
It wasn’t the ministry we envisioned starting in St. Nazaire (working with international students). We became ICU doctors reviving a church on life support. During that first year, we worked to rebuild fractured relationships, regain trust, and re-instill a vision for the church’s future. About the time the church was ready to leave ICU for a regular room, COVID arrived, and the world came to a screeching halt. The French government closed all public buildings, including churches.
Forced to get creative, Matt took a crash course in audiovisual technology, and we began broadcasting services on the church’s Facebook page. The first Sunday, about 40 people watched the broadcast. As the weeks of confinement dragged on, we noticed a surprising trend: the number of viewers each week rose steadily until we reached nearly a thousand viewers from 15 countries. Our little church, with its amateur broadcasts, was reaching the nations.
Just before the pandemic, Matt began working with a web developer to create a new website for the church. It was mostly finished when the world shut down. According to Google statistics, over the past two years, our website has averaged 3,000 hits each month. People actively searching for an evangelical Protestant church in St. Nazaire found our website.
Unlike many churches whose budgets and attendance declined alarmingly during the pandemic, our financial giving increased dramatically. Weekly attendance tripled, from a low of 30 Sunday morning attendees to an average of 90 to 100 in early 2022.
We ran into a happy predicament: we needed more seating in the sanctuary! In June 2021, we replaced the old wooden pews with chairs. Seating capacity increased from 65 people to a comfortable 105. More big changes are on the horizon as we reconfigure our parking lot for handicapped spaces, upgrade electrical and heating systems, build and expand Sunday School classrooms, and spruce up the landscaping and exterior signage.
I wish I could tell you the secret to growing a church during a pandemic, but the truth is, we had nothing to do with it. God is bringing people to us in a way we have never seen before, sometimes more than we can keep up with. He is using Facebook Live, YouTube, the church website, word of mouth, the testimony of friends and family, a casual glimpse of the church sign by drivers, and many other means. In humanist, secular France, it is extremely rare for non-believers to walk into a church on their own, yet we have seen this happen time and time again.
Valentin, the 16-year-old son of two avowed atheists, came to church with his mother after stumbling across an evangelical preacher from eastern France on YouTube. Valentin messaged the preacher, who put him in contact with us, since Valentin lives in our region. He showed up one Sunday morning full of enthusiasm and questions. Recently, he brought his girlfriend to church and confidently informed us they would be the “Matt and Cristina” of a church one day. We earnestly hope he is right.
Fortunately, only a small number of our church members caught COVID-19. Only Cindy ended up hospitalized. Her unsaved boyfriend, Jean, rattled by the possibility of losing Cindy, asked to speak with Matt about death and eternity. After just one conversation, Jean gave his heart to God. He told Matt, “I had never seen a church rally around someone like that. You prayed for Cindy to be healed, and she was—miraculously! I want to know a God who can do that!”
Aymeric showed up one Sunday in January 2021 with his two children and his fiancée, Valériane. While Valériane had been a believer her whole life, Aymeric was skeptical and had never really concerned himself with religion before meeting her. For four years, she prayed and witnessed. Gradually, his heart softened, and his curiosity grew. By the time we met him, he was convinced Jesus had the answers he sought. He just couldn’t bring himself to make that crucial, final decision. We didn’t give up on him, and August 29, 2021, Aymeric gave his heart to the Lord. We all blubbered like babies. Seeing someone become a new creature before your eyes just never gets old!
During 17 years of ministry in France, Matt and I have often remarked we are standing on the shoulders of giants—pioneer missionaries who, 60 years ago, prepared this hard soil for the harvest we are beginning to see today. What a privilege to see the results of their diligence!
About the Author: Cristina Price and her husband Matt live and minister in St. Nazaire, France, after spending 12 years in Nantes, France. Learn more: iminc.org.