The Door Opens in Québec
Bernard Westerveld, Jr.
Welcome to Québec City, home of the Summit of the Americasand home of the Reformed Church of St. Mark (l'Eglise réformée St-Marc)!
On March 31, I became the pastor-evangelist of this church. My work is a joint undertaking of the Committee on Foreign Missions of the OPC and the Reformed Church of Québec (l'Église réformée du Québec [ERQ]), in order that the gospel might be more widely proclaimed to the French-speaking Quebecers.
Let me take you through some of the history of this "Québec Project," as it has become known. There is a real mission field here on North American soil.
Bienvenue au Québec!
Québec is one of the ten Canadian provinces, located in the eastern part of Canada, along the St. Lawrence River. Most of the seven million plus Quebecers live on the banks of this river, with half of the population living in the greater metropolitan area of Montreal. Farther downstream (northeast) is Québec City, the capital of the province.
For the most part, Quebecers are French speaking. They are proud of their language and of their Québec culture, which has a European flavor, yet is unique because of its development in North America. They desire to preserve their French language and culture. They seek to stay afloat in the midst of an English sea that threatens to engulf them.
The distinctiveness of the French language and culture has created tension throughout Canadian history. Before the 1960s, Québec guarded its identity by identifying itself with the Roman Catholic Church. If you were a true Quebecer, you were a French-speaking Roman Catholic. The speakers of English were Protestants. You can well imagine the difficulty Protestants faced as they tried to plant churches in Québec.
But since the 1960s, things have changed dramatically. The sixties were restless years throughout North America, and especially in Québec. Because of the increasing abuse of power by the Roman Catholic hierarchy and because of a rising class of intellectual, liberal thinkers, Québec became secularized. This secularization had already been taking place throughout North America. What was unique about Québec was the speed with which the changes came. Within one or maybe two generations, the people turned their backs on the Church of Rome and embraced a political identity of language and nationalism. As one sociologist has noted, "The state replaced the hierarchy [of the Roman Church], language replaced faith, and nationalism replaced religion." This radical shift has come to be known as "the Quiet Revolution."
If you have heard of Québec before, it is probably because of its separatist movement. Quebecers want more sovereignty within the Canadian federation. To use an American analogy, Québec trumpets "states' rights" as opposed to centralized decision-making in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. In October 1995, the people of Québec nearly voted in favor of pursuing independence from Canada (49.6% voted yes). The separatists promised not to give up the cause. This political tension continues to mark the popular perception of Québec.
The Kingdom of God in Québec
Québec, however, is much more than a hotbed of political foment. It is also a battleground for the kingdom of God! Despite the fact that French-speaking Quebecers have been predominantly Roman Catholic, the Lord has preserved for numerous generations a faithful remnant testifying to the sovereign grace of God.
The early witness of the gospel came through the Huguenots, the French Calvinists. When France first began to colonize New France in the sixteenth centurya colony that at one time included the watersheds of the St. Lawrence River, the Mississippi River, and Hudson Bay!the Huguenots came in significant numbers. (One of our ERQ pastors is a twelfth-generation descendant of a Huguenot immigrant!)
Urged on by Roman Catholic cardinals and Jesuit monks, the king of France eventually banned the Huguenots from the colony. Some historians have asserted that if France had allowed a greater number of Reformed Christians to immigrate to New France, in all probability they would have resisted the British conquest of their territories. Just imagine the majority of North America being French-speaking Reformed!
The Lord, in his wisdom, had other plans. While the Church of Rome dominated New France, a Huguenot presence remained. In fact, after the British conquest of 1759, a British soldier wrote in his diary that a number of French Protestants attended a Protestant worship service with the English soldiers!
In the Quebec Act of 1774, the British granted significant power to the Roman Catholic Church in what was then called Upper Canada. The Roman Catholic clergy became the primary preserver of French language, culture, and religion in its parishes, and exercised considerable political power and social influence. This dominance continued for nearly two hundred years. Although Protestants had freedom to worship, they suffered the persecution of exclusion by the Catholic majority.
In 1835 the first significant Protestant missionary effort was undertaken in Québec. The Lord sent missionary workers from the Swiss Missionary Society. They aimed to establish a French-speaking indigenous church, rather than French-speaking congregations in a predominantly English denomination.
Although the work was difficult and the converts were few, several churches were planted. In 1875 these churches were taken under the wing of the Presbyterian Church of Canada (PCC), and eventually as many as twenty-five churches were established. By the end of the nineteenth century, as much as one percent of the population had became Protestant.
This growth continued until 1912. But then the PCC devoted more of its energy and resources to western Canadian immigrants. Liberalism also began to infiltrate the church. The mission to Québec was neglected. Many French-speaking Protestants joined the larger English-speaking congregations, which in turn diminished their witness to the French-speaking Roman Catholics.
By 1975, only three French-speaking PCC congregations remained. Amongst these three was the Reformed Church of St. Mark in Québec City.
L'Église réformée du Québec
The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s not only gave rise to new political parties, but also fed a Protestant revival in Québec. People left the Church of Rome in search of something else. Many embraced the self-religions of hedonism and postmodernism. Others joined various cults. But the Lord also called many to faith in Christ!
The renewed mission effort of the 1970s to the French-speaking Quebecers came largely through evangelical churchesBaptist, Brethren, and Pentecostaland parachurch groups such as the Navigators. Their efforts showed slow, yet steady, growth throughout the seventies and into the early eighties. For the first time in their life, people opened the Word of God and read for themselves the truths of God's grace. One member of the church recounted to me that when she first opened her Bible, she feared that she would be burned or struck by lightning! Such fear had been instilled in her by the Roman Catholic clergy, who had refused the Bread of Life to their parishioners.
In the midst of this Protestant revival, a desire was growing for faithful biblical teaching according to the Reformed confessions. Many new believers realized that they needed a more solid grounding in the totality of biblical teaching. They sought out Presbyterian and Reformed pastors to instruct them.
As a result, to the existing work of the PCC in Québec were added the mission efforts of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). In the late 1970s, these missions worked together to establish a single French-speaking Reformed church. Much work needed to be done. Eventually the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism were adopted as confessional standards. A church order was written up.
The CRC and the PCA supported the formation of a separate French-speaking denomination, and they continued their Québec missionary projects. The PCC, however, did not extend its blessing. Because of their own doctrinal pluralism and their desire for a nationwide Presbyterian church, they did not agree with the formation of a separate French-speaking denomination that was biblical and confessional. The congregation of St. Mark, at that time a part of the PCC, voted to leave the PCC and join the new French-speaking Reformed church. That cost them their church building, to which the PCC laid claim.
Finally, on November 6, 1988, all the work culminated in a glorious celebration of God's faithfulness in the historic Château Frontenac in Québec City! L'Église réformée du Québec was officially inaugurated for the glory of God in Québec!
The ERQ Today
The years following the inauguration were difficult for the ERQ, as they were for all Protestants in Québec. The numerical growth of the seventies and early eighties nearly ceased. Few new converts came to the churches. A time of testing and maturing was granted by the Lord. Two local congregations closed. Another rejoined the CRC. One new church plant was started. Several elders were ordained. Differing visions of a Presbyterian and Reformed church produced tension. The difficulties facing small churches discouraged many. But couples married, babies were baptized, and the Lord remained faithful.
Presently the ERQ is composed of six local congregations, with a total membership of about 300. Again, they are a very small number who seek to submit faithfully to the Word of God.
The ERQ remains a mission work supported by the prayers and financial gifts of other Presbyterian and Reformed denominations, which even send preachers of the Word. Support continues to come from the PCA, the Canadian Reformed Churches, the United Reformed Churches, and the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. Our pastors come from English Canada, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, and we praise God for three French-speaking Québec pastors.
The challenge before the Protestant churches in Québec is huge. After nearly thirty years of evangelism, less than 0.5% of the Québec population is Protestant. The Roman Catholic Church can claim around 86% of the population, but the vast majority are nonpracticing. Organized religion is out. The spiritualism of the New Age movement is sweeping into the void.
Quebecers are very resistant to the gospel of grace. One of our pastors has described Montreal, the most influential center of Québec thinking and practice, as a mixture of the postmodernism of Paris and the materialism of New York. That translates into very hard soil in which to plant the gospel.
At the same time, Québec is also suffering many social ills. Divorce, remarriage, and marital infidelity are all too common. Abortion, common-law marriage, and homosexuality are socially acceptablemore so than elsewhere in Canada. Drunkenness, pornography, and gambling are increasing. Suicide, especially among young people, has increased dramatically. When the Roman Catholic Church was in the ascendancy, its moral chains at least restrained many sins. Now, having thrown off the yoke of Rome, most Quebecers have turned to the self-centered life of hedonism.
One of the paramount challenges facing the ERQ is to pass the faith on to the next generation. Many of our members were converted as young people during the seventies. Now their children are growing up and need to profess their own faith. They need to learn the truths of Scripture and our Reformed confessions. They need to embrace Christ as their covenant Lord and to follow him obediently by faith.
As always, the gospel must be proclaimed in this mission field. Is Québec a more needy mission field than any other? Not likely. But without a doubt, too few Quebecers have heard the truth of the Word of God. Too few have heard of the hope of redemption through grace by faith alone. Many live with the deceptions of the Church of Rome or with popular media misconceptions and caricatures. We need ambassadors of Jesus Christ sent to proclaim the gospel in the French language.
Called to Québec
So where does Ben Westerveld come into all this?
Well, let me keep my story short. As a Canadian, I had always viewed Québec in light of its political problems. The Lord changed all that.
During the referendum of 1995, when Québec nearly voted to separate from Canada, the Lord opened my eyes to see that it did not really matter if Québec stayed a part of Canada or separated. What mattered was not the kingdoms of men, but the kingdom of God. Will the people of Québec be a part of God's kingdom?
I prayed that night. I told the Lord that if he wanted me to preach the gospel of grace in Québec, I was ready to go.
Five and a half years later, after theological studies and French-language studies, the Lord has brought me to Québec City to preach the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. He has given me a call to be the pastor-evangelist of the congregation of St. Mark in Québec City.
The Lord has not sent me alone. I knew that the work in Québec would require significant support. Yes, financial support would be needed. But more importantly, I understood that I would need wise guidance to plant churches, strong encouragement to persevere, and above all the constant prayers of many brothers and sisters, so that the kingdom may come in Québec.
I approached the Committee on Foreign Missions of the OPC to support this cause. They agreed to establish a Québec Project. In the providence of God, the OPC is now extending her hand to a sister church in Québec, so that here, too, the lost may be called to repentance.
Ben Westerveld was ordained and installed by the ERQ on March 31, 2001. Ben and Melanie have three children, Nadine, Asher, and Micah, and are expecting a fourth child in October. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2001.