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

Charisma Church near Paris gets 6,000 attendees most Sundays. A 'friendlier' style and search for purpose are among reasons people say they're drawn to evangelical worship.

By Staff writer / July 12, 2012



Paris

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. 

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"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.

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.

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