In describing the spiritual condition of the people of Quebec, where he has been overseeing church planting since January 2009, North American Mission Board church planter Jacques Avakian calls to mind the boat crew in the story of Jonah.
"People in Quebec are spiritual and they're seeking something, but they're not seeking the right spirit," he says. "The people Jonah met on the boat were spiritual but they didn't know the right God because no one was sharing the truth with them."
Avakian's desire to share God's truth with others developed early in his life. An Armenian born in Lebanon, he was a teenager when his family fled to Cyprus in 1978 because of war. Avakian grew up in the Armenian Orthodox faith but had attended Catholic and Maronite schools in Lebanon and at the age of seven, he received Christ as his Savior after attending a Child Evangelism Fellowship class.
In Cyprus, he attended a Brethren school and remembers the day he promised God to serve Him if He let him live through the war. "I fully surrendered my life to Him when I was 15," says Avakian, who moved to Montreal in 1986.
Avakian is married to Martine Arbour, a French Canadian, and has two children (Sabrina, 14, and Sebastien, 12). He speaks fluent English, French, Armenian, Arabic, Turkish, and Greek — an asset for anyone serving in such a multi-cultural area. He is the pastor of Eglise Renaissance de Long Sault in Grenville, Quebec, about an hour west of Montreal.
"When I came to Quebec, God put it on my heart to start a new church," he says.
In 2005, Avakian was introduced to Gary Smith, National Catalyst for Church Starting in Ontario, Quebec, and the Atlantic Provinces (Canadian National Baptist Convention).
"He and I clicked and he asked me if I'd be part of their leadership, so I joined as the Quebec church planter." In 2007, Avakian became the regional church starting strategist for Montreal and since Smith's move to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Avakian has been serving as the advocate for Quebec.
"I'm a starter, a visionary," said Avakian, who has played a part in the start-up of nine Quebec churches and is currently working with a tenth church in the process of officially affiliating with the CNBC. "Every morning, I get up to spend time with someone who is excited about starting a church and to help them be creative about the possibilities. My personal ministry is to see as many people as possible come to the Lord through any means and to see Christians grow and go through the maturity that God wants them to reach."
Avakian points out that many people in Quebec are bitter because of past experiences with organized religion. "They're not letting the walls be broken," he says. "I want to challenge everyone to look forward and remember that God heals the past. It's my personal mission that every soul who lives in the province of Quebec be reached. ... to pray that God would remove the strongholds in Quebec so that when people hear the Gospel, they respond to it instead of react to it."
Another of Avakian's goals is to start a church planting center that will train and send out church planters, so he's developing a network of people who can provide help and resources.
"I want to see churches with a vision to plant other churches. ... I don't want church to be a place where we go on Sundays to take a breath before holding it again for the rest of the week. Sunday should be a celebration of what we do during the rest of the week."
The main challenge of working in Quebec is the shortage of laborers.
"We're really short on people and resources," says Avakian. "If people outside of Quebec invested in ministry here, we would see great things happen." Still, Avakian believes evangelicals in Quebec need to live by faith and trust that God will provide the resources. "We need workers who are willing to give up everything to serve God.
"People say Quebec is one of the toughest mission fields and I agree, but what mission field is easy? I don't believe anyone is beyond hope, no matter how tough they are. I haven't met one person in Quebec who didn't want to listen to what I was saying. If every believer in Montreal committed himself or herself to reaching one person a year, we would double ourselves in one year!"
Ann-Margret Hovsepian, an Armenian, is a member of Temple Baptist Church in Montreal, Canada, and is an author and freelance writer.