Feature

No Candles Needed

Helping couples in France stay connected

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Two feelings flooded over me as I awoke that February morning. The first can best be described in French: creuvé. It means “very tired” or “worn out.” It is also the word for a flat tire, which gives you a good idea of how I felt! The second feeling came quickly on the heels of the first, and I thought my heart would burst with rejoicing as I remembered all that God had done during the past three days.

But the beginning of the story goes back quite a way. For many years my husband, Tom, and I desired to have an outreach that would touch marriages and families. In France, these structures are being tossed aside, resulting in many broken hearts and lives. The National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies notes the following disturbing trends:

  • In the last 30 years the divorce rate in France has more than tripled.
  • It is estimated that one of every three marriages is “doomed to fail.” This statistic is as high as 40 percent in some European countries.
  • According to the most recent demographic surveys, 50 percent of children are born outside of marriage, 25 percent of them live in a one-parent home and one of four children will experience the separation or divorce of their parents.

Cohabitation is no longer simply a prelude to marriage, but a completely acceptable permanent lifestyle. Sexual purity is openly scoffed at, and sometimes even Christian parents have difficulty instilling biblical values in their teenage and young adult children.

The French government has passed laws that “liberate” the family structure. In 1999 a law was passed establishing “PACS,” a civil union providing unmarried couples (both heterosexual and homosexual) the same legal status as married couples. Since then, the number of marriages has been steadily declining while the number of PACS contracts is steadily rising. In 2005, the divorce laws were modified to simplify the process. As we saw families disintegrate, our hearts longed to intervene!

The Marriage Course

In late 2005 we learned that “The Marriage Course” was being translated into French. It is a seven-week study originating from Holy Trinity Brompton in London, the same church that created Alpha, a series of studies on the basics of the Christian faith that is widely used in France.

The Marriage Course is based on Alpha’s meal/lecture/discussion format, although it incorporates some important changes. Each evening begins with a romantic meal that creates a welcoming and intimate ambiance. Following the main course, a host couple speaks on some aspect of marital life. Subjects covered are: building on solid foundations, communication, conflict resolution, forgiveness, relationships with parents and parents-in-law, sexual intimacy and love in action (a look at the five languages of love). Following the lecture, couples are served dessert and coffee while they work privately through exercises designed to help them apply the principles presented in the lecture. In addition, participants are encouraged to schedule “couple time” during the week to pursue their discussions and complete a homework assignment.

After attending a day-long training seminar, Tom and I put together a “pilot course” with three leadership couples from the Viroflay C&MA Church. Their enthusiastic reception was encouraging, and we began to ask God to show us how to take this course to the community. Our prayers were answered immediately: God miraculously made a town-owned room available for us in the fall.

A Dream Come True

We were thrilled but also a bit apprehensive about how fast God was moving. The room we had been granted was spacious enough for 8 to 10 couples but would have to be transformed each week from a childcare room to a romantic café. Also, we learned that we would be preparing and serving the meal each week without kitchen facilities, except a sink. There was no on-site storage, so furniture, equipment, food, dishes and more would have to be brought in each week. One little detail kept nagging at the back of my mind: we were not allowed to burn candles. How would we create a romantic atmosphere without candles?

With the partnership and support of our pastoral couple, François and Muriel Wattier, we began to make plans. Just four days before the start of the course, however, only one couple had registered. Others spoke of their interest but no registrations arrived. Together we begged God to let us know if we were on the right track.

That night, I had a dream (I rarely dream!) in which we were happily welcoming six couples to our first meeting, and Muriel was crying for joy. Was this God speaking to us? Three other registrations trickled in. I shopped for six couples, and by God’s grace, He sent us two more! Only one thing was missing on our opening night—Muriel didn’t cry for joy. We were too busy welcoming and serving our guests to have time for tears!

From the first week through the end of the course, God provided for every detail. The first night’s background music was an American folk singer who is not widely known. It was a last-minute change from the CD we had planned to play. How astonished we were when one man recognized the singer immediately and told us he was a big fan! It was “just a little thing” that God had arranged to help this stranger feel at ease. One couple who struggled immensely through the weeks on conflict and forgiveness told us that the course had saved their 30-year marriage. They recommended the course to friends, who became our first registered participants for the next one.

On the Verge

With the success of the fall program behind us, we began planning for spring. Dates were set with the town, publicity went out and we began to recruit help from church members. Sadly, the registration scenario replayed itself—just three days before the start, only two couples had signed up. We decided to delay the course until February 14. The bright pink signs that went up on stoplights around town said, “Offer your spouse a Marriage Course for Valentine’s Day!” One more couple registered.

Nevertheless, I woke up Valentine’s morning rejoicing. At our staff meeting three days earlier, we felt led to move forward with a strong conviction that God was inviting us to step out in faith. By that evening we had six couples!

Just before 8 p.m. we put the finishing touches on the room and changed to nicer clothes. We truly felt that we were on the verge of a great work by God. We invited our servers to join us in one more prayer for God’s presence.

The six couples trickled in timidly, but juice and hors d’oeuvres helped to break the ice as we fielded questions. We invited the couples to find their places and wished them a bon appetit. During the talk on “Solid Foundations,” we presented the biblical foundation for marriage, God’s desire for oneness and the necessity of commitment. The couples seemed engaged as they worked on their exercises, one of which was a short “test” to help them assess their relationship and identify areas that needed attention. Afterward, the still-shy couples thanked us politely as they hurried out the door. “At the beginning I was quite doubtful about this whole thing,” one man said, “but I’m warming up to the idea!”

As we crashed gratefully into bed, our hearts were so full of rejoicing that, much to our surprise, it took quite a long time to find sleep. Our minds turned, wondering what wonderful surprises God had waiting for us in the road ahead.

The Flame Continues

The Marriage Course that began on Valentine’s Day was successful. We laughed together, but sometimes we were more tempted to cry. In our final prayer on the final evening, we committed the couples to God for the rest of their journey together. We were somewhat reluctant to let them go, not knowing if our paths would cross again. They seemed reluctant, too, lingering to talk and not hurrying away as they did on that first night.

In their end-of-course evaluations they wrote the things they probably would not tell us face-to-face. They spoke of the difference it made in their lives to be able to talk about subjects that were not easy to bring up in everyday conversation. One couple found the material so useful that they intended to review the entire course on their own! Perhaps the greatest sign of appreciation came from couples who told us they planned to invite friends to the next course or even offered to help.

Most importantly, God is showering this new outreach with His blessing—approval has been received from the town for use of their room for a fall course in October 2007. Five couples have already indicated their interest, and we haven’t even begun to publicize it!

Brad and Tina Reynolds, our colleagues in Toulouse, have also run two Marriage Courses. In Poitiers, the church regularly holds Marriage Encounter* weekends. What we are doing sometimes feels like a drop in the bucket considering the glaring need in France. But we remind ourselves that each marriage is important to God. His Word goes forth; we stand on His promise that it will not be in vain! In His own way and time, God will grow our little seeds into fruit for His Kingdom. And He won’t even need candles!

* Marriage Encounter is different from The Marriage Course.

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