Church planter confronts barriers to evangelical faith in Quebec

MONTREAL (BP)--Many North American missionaries see themselves as being ambassadors for Christ. Georges Boujakly also sees himself as being an ambassador for Southern Baptists.

That's because in Canada where he serves, Southern Baptists -- or any evangelical faith group -- are clearly in the minority. In the new millennium, faith based on scriptural absolutes is out; postmodernism and its culture of relative truth are in.

"Quebec Province is the most postmodern society in North America," he says with a tone of heaviness in his voice.

Boujakly, a church planter strategist, and his wife, Carolyn, are featured during the 2001 Week of Prayer for North American Missions, March 4-11.

As he drives around the city looking for places to plant a new congregation, he is constantly reminded of the barriers to the gospel. Symbols of Christianity are everywhere and serve as anchors of the French Catholic heritage of its past.

Churches stand tall and proud with spires pointing heavenward. But they are largely empty, visited by a handful of the faithful and given lip service, if that, by the majority of the population.

"Forty years ago the 'Silent Revolution' started in our universities. It began not by teaching against the Catholic Church but by teaching beyond a religious framework or perspective," Boujakly explains.

"Up until then all of Quebecois life was dominated by the Catholic Church. ... The students didn't demonstrate in the streets, they didn't seek media attention for their cause; they simply dropped out of church, one by one."

Today it's a different society that greets internationals to this province -- which considers itself a distinct nation and is known for its European-style cities and natural beauty. It's a society that has relegated the church to the bottom of the heap like some castoff old coat. It's a society where 55 percent of children are born out of wedlock to couples living together, and the abortion rate is the highest in the Western world.

"Thirty-five percent of all pregnancies end in abortion in this province," Boujakly laments.

Quebec has more New Age bookstores than the rest of Canada combined. The people are searching, he says, but they don't know it's Christ for whom they are searching.

All of this can be found in a province which professes to be 91 percent Catholic, but where only 11 percent practice the faith.

Quebec is also different in its secular history, Boujackly notes. It's the only French-speaking province in Canada and is acknowledged as a co-founding nation in the history of the country. The French settled the territory, but eventually lost out to the English in a series of battles. The rivalry is longstanding and remains a point of contention between the two national influences. Not only is Quebec the only French-speaking province, but French is the mandated official language.

Into this mix of secular and religious turmoil, Canadian Southern Baptists are trying to reach their countrymen for Christ. And Boujakly, as a church starter strategist, until recently was the lone missionary in a province that is just beginning to learn about Southern Baptists.

He may not be a native of Quebec -- which would make him a blue blood in the eyes of many -- but he is part of that large immigrant population which the nation encourages to flock to its shores.

In 1969, on the eve of war in the Middle East, Boujakly immigrated to Canada as had other skilled workers before him. Canada has always courted the immigration of skilled workers as a way to build its population base through a highly selective immigration policy, and his woodcarving skills were in demand. But moving to Canada from his native Beirut, Lebanon, with just $30 in his pocket, took some adjustment.

"The night I landed in Edmonton, in Alberta Province where my brother lived, the temperature was minus 30 degrees. I almost got back on the plane and returned home," he says with a laugh.

But he stayed, and eventually became a foreman in a cabinet-making shop in Calgary. He accepted Christ through the ministry of students from Faith Baptist Church in Saskatoon who were in town for the summer doing mission work at another church.

After graduating from the University of Calgary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas, he became a church planter in Cochran and eventually moved to Montreal about 10 years ago to help start churches. His French-speaking ability helped him meet the qualifications for the position.

"There were eight churches when Carolyn and I moved here, and now there are 22," he says. The couple regularly prays for more missionaries to help with the workload, and God has raised up other workers to help them lay the foundation for more churches through building a strong base of lay leadership.

During the week he concentrates his ministry in Montreal, mentoring five ethnic church planters of the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists. He focuses on problem-solving, brainstorming effective ways to reach the diverse population, and determining better ways of resourcing the new congregations.

On weekends he packs a suitcase and hits the road, driving hundreds of kilometers to meet with pastors in far-flung locations, to deliver guest sermons and become the face of the denomination among new believers who are just learning what it means to be a Christian and a Canadian Southern Baptist.

On a recent weekend he could be found at Camp Blue and White, about two hours outside of Montreal, becoming acquainted with members of a church on a weekend retreat. In the woods of the camp setting, the sounds of an ancient language filled the camp chapel as the congregation worshiped in their native Arabic tongue.

Through the morning he visited with members of the congregation and preached a sermon, then hit the road again. Later that afternoon he was helping conduct a wedding in French at a church in Maniwaki, an hour further west.

The demands of his calling weigh heavily on his family; it's tough to be a father of four girls when weekends require him to be on the mission field. His family used to travel with him, but as the older girls entered their teenage years it became necessary for them to have the stability of a home church.

Today, Carolyn sees her role in their ministry as helping provide a sense of stability and normalcy to their daughters' lives. She also homeschools them to avoid some of the cultural and social differences encountered in the school system.

Boujakly's family also takes the calling to start churches seriously. His 15-year-old twin daughters, Sarah and Hanah, co-lead a cell group every Tuesday in the home of a friend. A dozen of their friends attend; eight have accepted Christ.

And Boujakly is starting a church by himself -- at this time meeting as a cell group -- in the Montreal suburbs.

The task is daunting, given the few numbers of churches and laypersons with leadership skills. But Boujakly remains true to his calling as he and other evangelicals attempt to hold back the rising tide of the "Silent Revolution."

"I've come to the point of realizing that the denomination can never resource our church planting the way it needs to be done; there will never be enough money.

"In order to bring our ratio down from one church for every 28,000 Quebecois to the desired one for every 2,000, we need to start 10,000 churches immediately. There are just not enough funds for that.

"But we can accomplish much by training leaders within our churches to accept the responsibility of starting other congregations. That's why we have to rethink what church is. Is the fact that I'm meeting with 10 to 20 people in a cell group learning to follow Christ and to do outreach -- do we call that a church? It probably would qualify in New Testament times.

"My hope personally is to start a movement of house churches, a fellowship of house churches who meet for worship, learning and ministry at the local level while joining together to determine how to meet greater needs in the community locally while doing so also globally. This loose network of churches would all be lay-led, with one person overseeing the larger grouping. I think that is very Baptistic."

(For more information on the Boujaklys and other missionaries featured in the Week of Prayer for North American Missions, visit the www.anniearmstrong.com Web site.)


(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: QUEBEC OUTREACH and PLANNING AT HOME.

Download Story