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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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“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.
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.”