NANCY, France (BP)–It’s a dark little bar off the main square in downtown Nancy, France.
Inside, a few locals lean on tiny tables, mesmerized by music videos blaring from a television on the wall.
Bruno, the big bartender, leans in to listen, stopping now and then to wipe the bar or fill an order. To one side a little group talks sports in the earnest, low-pitched way men talk sports around the world.
Smack in the middle of the group — surprise! — is Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board missionary Rod Boatwright.
They listen to him because the sport they’re enthusing about is American football. And Boatwright, after all, is an American — and a football coach.
Say “football” in Europe and people think soccer. You have to specify “American football” to indicate you’re talking about the pointy-ended ball and the game Yanks play across the water. But the game has grown in popularity in recent years. American NFL teams have played exhibition games in Europe, and many young people wear clothes with “Cowboys” or “Packers” logos even if they don’t know the sport well.
Of course, Southern Baptists didn’t send Boatwright and his wife, Donna, to Nancy in 1993 to play football, but to share the gospel and start churches. Football, however, has opened doors for them to witness. Coaching the local team has given Boatwright respectability, recognition and acceptance years quicker than a missions worker normally would get it.
A French television network reported on them — unheard of for Baptists in France, which often are seen as suspect, and possibly a dangerous cult. And Boatwright got five columns in the local newspaper because of his coaching. “A Baptist pastor from America,” the headline declared.
Between games, practices and general talk sessions, Boatwright has unique opportunities to share the gospel with the young men. After several months, they began to see response, one and two and three at a time.
“We’re standing in awe of what we’re seeing,” said Donna, who works closely with her husband in the church-planting ministry.
The Boatwrights also have gotten to know neighbors and spend many hours each week visiting in homes for contacts or Bible studies. Thirty-one people attended their first service in September 1995, and attendance has averaged 20 to 30 since then. Such slow growth is typical for church planting in France, where it usually requires 15 or more years to develop a self-supporting church.
“Almost without exception, everyone is either a new Christian or a seeker. Rod is teaching the basics of the Christian faith. We are seeing the people grow. But they really have no religious background and it’s taking time for them to mature. During the first 16 months of beginning the church, we had 10 baptisms. Three were football players,” Donna said.
The Boatwrights agree they are working among people with monumental faith needs.
“You have a lot of people today who have no background or experience, just nothing religious. That’s especially true of everybody under the age of 35,” Rod said. “They know the words of faith and understand Catholicism but basically have said no to it. But they feel an emptiness, a void inside.”
Fewer than 6 percent of France’s 55 million people identify themselves as “practicing Christians.” Fortune telling, however, is popular in France; the country has 40,000 registered professional astrologers. And Muslims outnumber active Catholics and evangelical Christians combined; a new mosque opens every two weeks in France and Germany. Boatwright spends much of his time discussing the difference between Roman Catholic views and Baptist ones.
One man asked him, for example, about saints. “I said, ‘It’s nice to be one!'” Boatwright recalled with a laugh. “He looked at me funny. Then I explained the difference. Catholics see saints as miracle workers. But we Protestants believe every believer is a saint.
“He said, ‘Wow, that’s interesting.'”