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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.

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Off the radar

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

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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

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