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Vision for new church emerges after 20 years of yearning

ST. JEAN IBERVILLE, Quebec, Canada (BP)–From all appearances, it looks like a normal “Experiencing God group meeting — about 10 people sitting around a rectangular table in a rented Scouts building discussing ramifications of prayer.

Yet, in other ways differences abound. For one, participants converse in French and read from a book titled “Votre experience personelle avec Dieu” (Your Personal Experience with God), the French translation of Henry Blackaby’s classic Bible study about joining in where God is at work.

But more than that, the group’s leader, Michel Sweeney, radiates a passion to plant a French-language Southern Baptist church in his hometown of St-Jean Iberville, a predominantly French-speaking area about 30 miles south of Montreal, that will help turn back the secularism and cult influence gripping the region.

“It grieves my heart that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons are stealing children of God and putting them in bondage,” Sweeney said in an interview prior to the Experiencing God session. “It gets me mad inside that no one was doing anything about it.”

That anger, in fact, led Sweeney and his wife, Dominique, to leave the church where they had been members and leaders for 20 years to approach Southern Baptist leaders in Canada about starting their own church.

“Our former church just didn’t see the vision I saw for new churches to be planted here,” Sweeney said. “But after 20 years, you don’t just move on a feeling. My wife and I needed a clear sign.”

That sign came last year when, as part of his job as a trucker delivering anhydrous ammonia, Sweeney drove to the Rouyn-Noranda area in northwest Quebec, about 400 miles from Montreal.

While his truck hauled hazardous chemicals, Sweeney carried inside himself the emotional turmoil of trying to balance his desire to start a new church with the ties he had developed with his old congregation over the previous two decades. Finding a motel room, Sweeney looked up the local telephone number of an old friend, Jean-Charles Millette, who had attended the same revival in Florida 30 years earlier where Sweeney, as a self-described “17-year-old hippie,” became a Christian.

After pressing the correct seven digits on the phone, Sweeney reached Millette’s answering machine and pleaded, “If you’re still walking with the Lord, let’s pray tonight.”

Millette couldn’t turn down such an invitation. When he arrived at Sweeney’s room, Millette told his old friend that he now pastors the Église Baptiste Réformée de Rouyn-Noranda. After Sweeney unloaded his vision of planting a church in St-Jean Iberville, Millette said he shared the same dream for a new church in that region.

“We prayed together and had a wonderful time there in that room,” Sweeney recounted. “It was amazing that God was working in both of our hearts in the same way.”

Millette then told Sweeney he would pass along his name and telephone number to Georges Boujakly, a North American Mission Board church planter/catalyst serving in Montreal. “Georges will call you,” Millette said. “He’ll know what to do.”

Sweeney and Boujakly met last July. In addition, Sweeney has conferred with Paul Johnson, the Canadian Convention of Southern Baptists’ church planting consultant; Mark Clifton, Mission Service Corps church planter who last summer started Renaissance Church on the West Island of Montreal, the first English-language Southern Baptist church in Quebec; and David Brazzeal, International Mission Board French strategy coordinator for Quebec.

“I didn’t know anything about church planting — I didn’t know where to start,” Sweeney said. “But I was being wound up for 20 years by God to get ready for this.”

Brazzeal, who meets with Sweeney weekly to discuss church planting books and articles, described Sweeney’s enthusiasm for church planting as miraculous.

“When a strategy coordinator begins to think about strategies for reaching a culture, one of the first things on his ‘wish list’ is to find church planters from within that culture,” Brazzeal said. “Whenever I give him something to read on church planting, he already has it read by the next week and is ready for more.”

Sweeney termed his eagerness to learn church planting a little more descriptively: “I eat it up like a big, juicy steak.”

Not only does Sweeney lead the Experiencing God group, he plans to offer Alpha courses, a type of “Christianity 101” for non-believers and seekers. One of the advantages of the Alpha course, he said, comes from its “Catholic-friendly” nature, something Sweeney sees as an advantage in the traditionally Roman Catholic province.

With a master’s degree in Christian counseling from Minnesota Bible College, Sweeney also counsels individuals and couples. Sweeney employs a unique method of asking individuals or couples to draw up a contract before sessions begin defining how deeply committed they will be to counseling and what they expect from him.

“They do the contract themselves based on what they feel God is leading them to do,” Sweeney said. “This way, they don’t feel manipulated and it gives them security about what they can expect. It’s also a way I can find out if there is a hidden agenda.”

Sweeney and his wife also are planning weekend seminars based on Focus on the Family materials covering such subjects as marriage and child-rearing. Coincidentally, Focus on the Family Canada has announced the organization is increasing translations of its books and tapes into French.

While Sweeney has not scheduled a target date for his church to begin, he is looking at several possible locations to conduct services. Still, he passed a milestone in late January when, with about 50 friends and family members attending, Gerry Taillon, CCSB national ministry leader, ordained him as a Southern Baptist minister during a service at St-Jean Iberville.

Sweeney is himself truly “experiencing God” these days as he sees the Lord at work and joins him on mission in St. Jean Iberville.

“I spent 20 years waiting, crying and complaining, ” Sweeney said, “but now I have the vision to see many churches planted among my people — the people of Quebec.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: OUTREACH IN QUEBEC.

    About the Author

  • Harold Campbell