Church planters in Belgium see signs of hope in a difficult mission field
GHENT, Belgium — About a dozen Christians gather in the…
Paul and Carol Brazle love telling the story of Jesus — in Flemish, English or even Spanish.
For three decades, the couple has lived and labored in Antwerp, Belgium, where Flemish (or Dutch) is the predominant tongue, although the metro area of 1 million souls is increasingly international.
Paul Brazle’s father, Clinton, was a well-known preacher and church planter in the Pacific Northwest. His family lived in Montana and Saskatchewan, Canada.
Clinton Brazle made certain his six children were aware of mission efforts. Missionaries stayed in their home, ate at their table and were included in their prayers. Clinton Brazle helped his children pursue mission opportunities in Belgium, India and Italy. Not surprisingly, Paul and his three brothers became preachers and missionaries.
Carol Brazle grew up in the 8th and Lee Church of Christ in Lawton, Okla., and attended Oklahoma Christian University. She was inspired to be a missionary by Jennifer Jackson, an OC graduate who participated in a medical mission to Africa.
Paul and Carol Brazle have conducted retreats and church camps across Europe. For 24 years, Paul Brazle has directed the annual Advanced Bible Study Series (ABSS) attended by church leaders across the continent. They raised their four children in Belgium.
The Springs Church of Christ in Oklahoma City provides about half of the funds for their work. The rest comes from a small group of faithful supporters.
Carol was on a visit to a World Mission Workshop during her sophomore year in college. The speaker asked the students to write on a paper: “I will serve the Lord in a foreign field some day.” She did. And — ever true to her word — she has, and still does.
My father, Clinton, encouraged me with information on missions and his own example of doing mission work in Montana and later in Canada. The time I had in Italy and Belgium was blessed enough by God that I said, “I can do this some more.”
Along with an internship year in Italy, I also had a connection with Flemish Belgium via interns that came there from Saskatchewan.
My brother, Mark, was the first of these. Three times I was part of summer projects there, two of which Mark coordinated with teams from Oklahoma Christian.
God has blessed us along the way, mostly with patient and faithful supporters.
Then, Carol and I went together on a Belgium project and added a survey visit to northeast Italy. We actually went home, waited six weeks, then sat down with a steno pad and made a line down the middle. We wrote “Pros” and “Cons” over the columns.
In spite of the appeal of Italy — coastline and ski resorts, all within 30 minutes — we quickly settled on Belgium, cloudy and grey Belgium, far removed from the blue skies and sunshine of Oklahoma and Saskatchewan. The reason: There was a family already working there.
We knew that in a culture like Flemish Belgium, to do something meaningful would mean a longer-term commitment, including language learning and cultural adaptation. This has changed a lot in 30 years. There is a lot more one can do here now speaking English.
Our initial commitment was for five years and the pledge from our supporters was only for two years. The two dates passed, and the support continued.
When the five years came, our instincts said “stay” rather than “go home.” Our kids were doing well, so the motivation to “restore normalcy” for them was not applicable. God has blessed us along the way, mostly with patient and faithful supporters.
It’s a different world, for sure. When we first came, our demographic was mostly native Flemish folks. If we distributed 10,000 little flyers about a free Bible course in mailboxes, we could count on a 4 percent response rate (that’s four interested people per 100 flyers).
Today, that response rate is even lower. So most of our contact with people now comes through expanding friendships and personal relationships. And church growth comes as much via immigrant populations as European.
The wave of immigration here has been going on since before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, starting with immigrant contacts from Poland. Next, contacts came from previously Eastern bloc nations.
Then we had a wave of immigrants from Africa, specifically Ghana, many of whom were already members of the Church of Christ. This was a blessing but also a challenge. Some of the Ghanaians were seeking to adapt to Belgian culture; others were not. We were here to work among native Europeans, so sometimes we struggled to be on the same track.
The most recent immigration “crisis” was not so clear in Belgium. Belgium was not initially one of their primary destinations, such as Germany or the U.K.
We have been blessed with a group of both immigrants and refugees from Venezuela. For nearly two years, we have hosted a Spanish-language outreach and assembly in our meeting hall.
To be candid, when challenges come, they most often involve people. Sometimes we’ve had people come our way who thought they knew how to lead the church better than us. Sometimes we’ve had people make judgments about us that we felt were unfair. And sometimes we have struggled in the face of a legalistic mindset regarding the practice of faith.
Our biggest head-on struggle that didn’t involve “friendly fire” came when, again and again, people would see the value of our message (simple New Testament Christianity, practiced with the Bible as the guide) and would agree it was “right,” but they would turn again to their old ways due to the pressures and demands of family and culture.
• Don’t let anyone (who doesn’t know) tell you it’s impossible to prepare, to go, to raise support, to actually teach and reach someone.
Don’t let anyone (who doesn’t know) tell you it’s impossible to prepare, to go, to raise support, to actually teach and reach someone.
• Take the time and ask advice from someone who does know how to prepare. Spend enough time in your target location to make an informed decision and to raise solid financial support. Spend enough time with potential supporters to develop relationships that will weather storms.
• Work things out before you make the move. If your family at home is behind your choice, great. If they aren’t, figure out if you can manage without their support.
It will be tough all around if you have to choose between the mission field and your family’s preferences. We’ve been blessed in this regard and are thankful.
Please, sponsoring churches, accept your responsibility to your missionaries. And work to find balance. Encourage them with visits and advice. Keep them involved in the development of your church’s missions policy and protocol for responding to various situations.
At the same time, trust their insights about the culture into which you have sent them.
Seek hands-on encouragement and partnership. Avoid micro-managing (or even just plain managing) from your location, be it the U.S. Bible Belt or elsewhere.
Also, talk to those who know. Hold your missionary accountable, but only for that for which they are, in fact, accountable.
Again, we have been very blessed with encouraging and trusting “home churches,” but we hear stories where that’s not the case.
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