French Evangelicals through an American lens

A mixed review is the best I can give to an article in the Christian Science Monitor on the rise of Evangelical Christianity in France. The 1400-word article entitled "In a France suspicious of religion, evangelicalism's message strikes a chord" tells a fascinating story about the changing religious landscape in France, but for every two steps forward it makes in its narrative, it takes a step back with its assumptions. It's a "yes, but ..." article. A stronger editorial pencil would have made it great. Let's walk through this piece and I will show you what I mean.

The author structures the story by opening with an illustration of the phenomena he is describing -- a French mega-church.

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.

This opening sets the scene rather well and is an effective way of using imagery to make the point that the Charisma Church is not stereotypically "French". Yet, I am also uneasy about the sentence structure and the tone. There is an undercurrent of anthropology here -- we are watching strange (maybe better to say 'different') people performing rituals akin to practices found in a substratum of another culture. What is the purpose of the "But" in "But the mood is welcoming"? While popular culture may tell Americans the French are an unfriendly crowd, that is not what is being said here. The "But" signals that because the church is in a poor part of town and abuts a "trucking center" the worshipers should not be happy. The joy the author found comes as a surprise. Poor people being happy?

And, as an aside, France is not the most secular nation in Europe. That honor belongs to the Czech Republic followed by Germany.

The article then offers reasons for the growth of Evangelical Christianity in France.

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.

Again, this strikes me as being more of a scientist peering through the branches sort of response to the growth rather than an explanation of religious conversion or the awakening of faith. We have speculation on how, but little on why. Perhaps French evangelicals with whom the Christian Science Monitor spoke were shy about giving a faith testimony, mentioning Jesus, sin, redemption and so forth -- but their absence from this story about the growth of Evangelical Christianity I find odd.

The story continues with a statistical section followed by comments from some members of these churches. I was struck by the use of first names only in this section -- as if these were members of an underground church -- but that may be more a matter of taste on my part. Comments about the friendly form worship takes in these churches follows and the story then moves to a facile comparison to American Evangelicalism.

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.

It may well be true that French evangelicals are not as politically conservative as their American brethren, but the quote offered to support this assertion does not say this. Is it the author's opinion that American evangelicals are "super-patriots of the political right" and a "cross French evangelicals have to bear", or is it the view of those interviewed for the story? And, given the recent French presidential campaign and the stories about the strong link between religious attendance and voting patterns, what data is there to support the contention made by the author? And, is it possible to compare French politics and voting patterns to American patterns? Is the author expressing his opinions and assumptions here?

There have been a number of French newspaper articles covering the immigrant and conversion fueled growth of Evangelical Christianity in France. This story has legs and I expect to see it again and again in the years to come. The bottom line with this article, however, is that it gives a nice narrative but appears not to comprehend what it is reporting. There is no there there.

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