Most missionaries can look back at their former lives and see what God used to prepare them for the field. For Steve Niles, it was his father’s cows and life on the farm that prepared him for a life of discipling others and leading by example.
“I’m not an intellectual teaching in the Bible school,” Niles said. “I grew up on a farm, and I learned everything hands-on. I just like to do that with other people.”
Steve’s first mentees were his own sons. As he and his wife, Donna, raised four boys, the couple focused on teaching them to follow God in a practical way, eventually seeing all four become missionaries and disciple others. From there, the Nileses have made it their mission to train and raise up young leaders in the church.
As Steve and Donna recount their 37 years in France, stories of current and former mentees spill out naturally:
The young couple from Greater Europe Mission (GEM), helping in their current church plant; one of the first couples the Nileses discipled in Lyon, now leading a church that started in their home; the couple that took over their church plant in Annecy, which now helps fund the Nileses’ current work. For the Nileses, it’s all about making themselves unnecessary.
“I’ll be real honest,” Steve said. “I would like to see France not need missionaries anymore, and my thing is training this French younger generation. I think we should be on our way out.”
The co-leader of the Nileses current project in Aix-les-Bains perfectly reflects this philosophy. They met Thierry Mirone in the 1990s, when he came to work at the Christian ski camp they ran at the time. A recent convert, Mirone came fresh from a life of gangs, drugs and theft, but he was eager to let Christ change him.
“He was raw,” Steve said. “I mean this is a guy who in the morning, he would say, ‘You know, I was just reading my Bible, and I’m going to quit smoking.’ He’d wad up the cigarettes, throw them in the garbage. About four in the afternoon, I’d see him in the garbage, trying to put these things back together to smoke these broken cigarettes.”
But the Nileses worked with Mirone for two years, watching as he matured in his faith and married a Christian woman. The newlyweds became colleagues in camp ministry, then the national youth directors for France Mission and now are working with the Nileses to plant a church.
As the oldest members of the church-planting team, Steve and Donna are excited to hand down what they’ve learned. Yet, they maintain a posture of equality with even their youngest teammates.
GEM teammate Jordan Egli said Steve often illustrates his leadership style by talking about the farm. When Steve’s uncle would move the family’s cows, he’d twist their tails and yell at them. When Steve’s turn came, he went among the cows and walked with them. “It’s not ‘I’m going to tell you how to do this,’” Egli said. “It’s ‘We’re going to do this together. We’re going to learn together. We’re going to serve together.’”
At the Aix-les-Bains church plant, everyone — from the oldest believer to the newborn saint — learns together, due to the team’s vision that everyone should be discipling someone and be in the process of being discipled.
The country’s strict focus on secularism means new believers come to Christ after years of deep spiritual deprivation. To make up for it, church members meet for worship services, house groups (8-10 people), growth groups (2-3 people) and one-on-one discipleship. And the discipleship doesn’t always begin after salvation.
One new believer, Guillaume, realized through the discipleship process that it was wrong to live with his girlfriend, but he also believed that leaving her, after living as a married couple, would be the same as getting a divorce. So the team invited Guillaume’s girlfriend to join a growth group. At first reluctant, she gradually realized her need for a Savior, and in August, the church held a Christian wedding.
“Some people say the discipleship process is from when you become a Christian,” Steve said. “I personally, with the French setting, believe it begins even before that.”
As the Aix-les-Bains team members look to buy a building in the near future, they see many opportunities to continue discipling those who do not yet know Christ: tutoring kids after school, using their English language club to share Christ and simply spending time with people as God opens doors.
“I think that’s what real discipleship is,” Steve says. “It’s not necessarily following any particular [method] … but letting the word of God work on a person’s life through the Holy Spirit to show them where they need to grow and seeing the fruit, then, from that.”
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