The year was 1964 and the dilemma was clear. A variety of impersonal methods to share the Gospel were yielding little fruit among spiritual resistance in eastern France. Tom and Doris Julien were discouraged by the response.
In God’s providence, however, an opportunity arose regarding an old castle in a quaint village – the Château de Saint Albain. Could this be the long sought after means for effective Gospel witness and spiritual breakthrough? Tom and Doris prayed, and concluded that this might indeed be of God.
Soon thereafter, the Château was purchase by the Julien’s mission agency, then known as the Foreign Missionary Society of the Brethren Church and later as Encompass World Partners. The vision was to see it become a place of encounter, a relational bridge, a setting where the spiritual skeptic and curious alike could wrestle with the claims of the Bible. Moreover, it would become a place where the Gospel was proclaimed within the context of true Christian community. The love of Christ was experienced as the truth of Christ was being heard.
The young Julien family was soon joined by Larry DeArmey and Dan Hammers, seminarians who elected to spend extended time in mission work in Europe, connecting with European young adults, who were full of questions and seeking hope. The Château and its surroundings provided an attractive environment for seeking truth in the context of relationship. Those present were in due time joined by friends, acquaintances, relatives. Meals and music complemented the investigation of Christian faith. Seekers tasted something satisfying, heard something intriguing, saw something compelling.
In due time, the vision began to bear fruit, just as it was doing at L’Abri and other places of refuge and reflection in Europe. The message of Jesus became not only an offer to spiritually hungry hearts, but the delight of an increasing number of lives. French and European lives were being changed by the Gospel. People observed community and commitments previously unknown to them. A movement had begun.
By the 1970s, the influence and impact of these believers was expanding. Not only did the ministry of the Château continue its local influence, but those whose lives had been changed began to fan out across the whole region and with a vision for starting spiritual communities. Churches were planted in places like Macon, Montceau, Le Creusot, Chalon, Dijon, and Lyon.
In addition, the ministry of the Château and the resulting churches attracted more missionary staff from the United States and beyond. Euro-Missions Institute (EMI) was launched as a way to promote vision and prayer for the Gospel in France and Europe. It also became a clarion call for more workers. By the 1980s, Europe was receiving increasing numbers of missionaries from the Foreign Missionary Society of the Brethren Church. The Château and its principles were central to this movement.
In addition to being a place of Gospel encounter and a training ground for new workers, the Château itself also become a relational reference point for those French churches. Moreover, other evangelicals from across France took advantage of the idyllic location and welcoming environment of the Château for retreats, conferences, and special gatherings. The days may have passed quickly, but the effects lingered for months and years.
For decades now, the Château has represented a landmark of Gospel witness and a setting of Christian community. Thousands of people – believers, seekers, and skeptics, Europeans, Americans, and beyond – have experienced the physical and spiritual blessings of the Château. As a result of this, the Château became a point of identity for evangelical missions in France and Europe and a place of retreat, refreshment, challenge, growth, and hope for individuals and churches.
But like many transformative experiences in life, what happened at the Château can’t simply be described. The Château can’t be limited by pictures or schedules. That wouldn’t do it justice. The Château had to be experienced. Only then could someone adequately understand how God had used a modest old castle to cultivate such lasting fruit. The “Château experience” fueled hope because it was rooted in Scripture, centered on Christ, filled with the grace and truth of the Gospel, and surrounded in loving community.
In the end, the Château is the story of changed lives. For almost sixty years, the vision of a relational bridge for the Gospel was realized and celebrated. Difficulties emerged, to be sure. Improvements were needed. Maintenance and caretaking was required. Adequate staffing and finances were a challenge. The effectiveness of events and approaches waxed and waned.
But the Château de Saint Albain left lasting fruit. No one who had been there, who knew the history, who met the people, could conclude otherwise. It has been a marvelous ministry tool used by God to change lives…eternally. We celebrate the goodness of God to us in the ministry life of the Château. Thanks be to God.
Written by Mike Yoder, Encompass World Partners Executive Director-Elect