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In a France suspicious of religion, evangelicalism’s message strikes a chord

In a large former factory warehouse outside Paris on a Friday night, some 4,000 people assemble in prayer and praise to a God who loves all equally, they are told. It’s mostly a minority crowd: young, African, from mixed heritage, and white. Hands are raised; a choir moves from jazzy to solemn gospel tones. Faces mark a wide range of emotions at week’s end.

“His love goes past all borders, forgives everything, has no limits,” the pastor cries out to a great many “amens.”

This working-class area is one of France’s official “urban sensitive zones.” The Charisma Church, as it is called, abuts the back of a trucking center. But the mood is welcoming. People actually smile. Many worshipers travel an hour or more to get here, and press into dozens of church buses that ramble between local tram and train stations. It is a “megachurch” in a country where faith is officially relegated to the private sphere and unofficially frowned upon.

But the church is growing. Sunday services top 6,000 attendees on a regular basis. In fact, French scholars say, evangelicalism is likely the fastest-growing religion in France – defying all stereotypes about Europe’s most secular nation.

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The reasons are manifold: growing minority populations in France from Africa and Asia are less strictly secular and more religious. Evangelicals offer a “friendlier” and less hierarchical model of worship, with more community warmth and room for emotive expression. Leaders say they “speak to the heart” in a Europe preoccupied with wealth and worldliness, and provide a haven in times of harsh economic setbacks.

“France itself is changing, and this is a reflection of this transition,” says Sebastian Fath, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and an expert on evangelicalism.

RELIGION IS BACK

For years, intellectuals proclaimed the end of Christianity in France, swallowed by the tides of modernity, science, and reason. Protestants were mostly evicted or “invited to leave” during the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century. The use of religious language and symbols was outlawed in public in the years after the French Revolution against the Catholic nobility. “Having faith” or “being spiritual” is often seen as odd, or a form of ignorance, or superstition.

Yet studies show a different story on the ground. Daniel Liechti, vice-president of the French National Evangelical Council, found that since 1970, a new evangelical church has opened in France every 10 days. The number of churches increased from 769 to 2,068 last year.

Evangelicalism has been growing quietly since the 1950s. The number of practitioners has risen from 55,000 to 460,000 today, with another 140,000 believers who identify as faithful. Gypsy Protestants account for roughly 70,000 of evangelicals in France. Half of the country’s Protestants are evangelicals, according to CNRS figures.

OFF THE RADAR

Most of this activity takes place far off the French cultural radar, although the phenomenon stretches beyond smaller suburbs and towns.

Just off the Bastille in downtown Paris, amid a scattering of homeless people, the Roquette Church hosts three services on Sunday. It reminds visitors of the Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, an urban congregation sporting a rock band.

Worshipers at an afternoon service were half black and half white. “We have doubled our audience in four years,” says the pastor Franck Lefillatre, who looks a bit like Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, featuring white hair and black-rimmed glasses.

“I feel more at home here, there is a message and a free feeling,” says a woman from Bourdeau who has been attending Roquette for six months.

Blandine Pont, a scholar of religious minorities in Marseilles, says that the Protestant picture is changing very fast. “In Provence, in the 1990s, there were three or four pastors. Now there are a few dozen. Evangelicals are more attractive, less traditional, [and] more expressive,” she says. “For 20 years, they have been quietly successful. Now we begin to see it. Their ways still seem strange; their habits aren’t ours. But many things are changing.”

FED UP WITH HIERARCHY

“French society has gotten more horizontal and associational,” says Mr. Fath, author of a 2011 study titled “A New Protestant France.”

“That’s a contrast with the Catholic vertical and hierarchical model,” he adds. “French society is more decentralized. There’s greater emphasis on consumer and citizen power, shaping local policy, and a growing impatience with approval or dictates from the top. The French want to be Christian, but are fed up with authority in churches.”

Many official French “voluntary associations” designed for social outreach are in fact state-funded institutions and often seen by youths as “inauthentic,” Fath argues. “Church groups help with getting papers, jobs, and apartments. Their volunteers are knowledgeable. They have worship and Bible study, and they also help you find a lawyer or a teacher.”

RECONCILIATION

An important element of change was the “reconciliation” between evangelicalism’s two main wings of worship last January – the “scriptural” or “pietistic” school, and the “Holy Spirit” or Pentecostal wing.

A conciliatory meeting brought together 1,100 pastors, many from Baptist and Assembly of God groups, who were long at odds over doctrine, scriptural interpretation, the role of women, and the workings of the Spirit. The agreement, the result of 10 years of patient preparation, is said to remove the old, bitter, interdenominational warfare that often turned ordinary French off.

“We decided we had more in common than there were differences,” says Mr. Liechti, while conceding that not all theological points had been ironed out.

CULTURAL DIFFERENCES IN AMERICA

French evangelicals face far tougher cultural hurdles than their American counterparts. Faith in France is viewed with skepticism if not hostility. French enlightenment philosophy contained an “animus against Christianity,” as the late US historian Page Smith noted. French discourse is Marxist, atheist, and secular. Religion is mostly Catholic or Islamic. There are no French Tim Tebows, the New York Jets quarterback who often prays in the end zone, no ubiquitous radio and TV sermons, or religious-political figures like Sarah Palin. French evangelicals proselytize far less openly. Sharing is often discreet and relies more on deeds than words.

“There is absolutely no pressure to go to church in France,” smiles Matthieu Sanders, an associate pastor at the Evangelical Baptist Church in downtown Paris.

“It is the hardest place for faith I have been,” says Stephen, born in Texas and married to a French woman, speaking at a Calvary Chapel church in Paris, part of a US movement.

“I have less trouble with my Muslim friends, because they understand what a faith tradition is,” says Allison, 19, of mixed Portuguese and African heritage, who has attended the Charisma Church for five years after first going with her mother. “It is harder with friends who don’t care.”

The French church model is more modest than the American megachurch. When William Ayers, pastor of the Willow Creek Church and innovator of the megachurch concept, suggested that France build “100 churches of 10,000,” Liechti replied, “I would rather have 10,000 churches of 100.”

Nor are French evangelicals as politically conservative as their American kin. The French perception of American evangelicals as super-patriots of the political right is a cross French evangelicals have to bear.

“We don’t want the American style, we are French,” says an Assembly of God pastor, Thomas Okampo, whose church is just off a side street in the 15th district of Paris. Mr. Okampo was born in Kinshasa but studied religion in Brussels.

SUNDAY MORNING

On Sunday at his church, three tall African women belt out a glad sound at the front of the sanctuary. The women are framed by images of a misty hill with a cross; song lyrics are projected on the wall. The congregation of 80 is two thirds black. They stand, sway, sit, it doesn’t seem to matter. Kids play quietly on plastic chairs. Parents hold babies in one arm, while raising their arms to the ceiling with the other. Prayers emerge out of the congregation. The music rarely stops. A peppery-haired African at the back plays the harmonica and later calls out praise of “Dieu,” or God, describing the creator as “omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent.”

At a quieter Baptist church in Paris’s 7th
district, learning about God’s greatness and goodness is what matters, says Mr. Sanders.

Evening prayers emerge individually, not hurriedly, in a sanctuary basement anchored by a piano, and are spoken one by one in a room of 40 people, directly to God: “God is with me every day and in every hour. Every hour I try to listen to Him and feel His hand.” “Your mercies are present … make me more humble, make me more aware of You. Make me honest in your sight.” “I need you every minute. Transform me, show me my errors.”

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