When French journalists report on evangelicalism, they often get it wrong

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As a college sophomore, I studied in France; one of the better decisions I made in my life. Visiting religious services helped me grow my vocabulary, so I haunted Assemblies of God, an InterVarsity group and a Sephardic synagogue in Strasbourg; Baptist congregations in Toulouse and Catholic charismatic groups in Paris.

Which is why I was interested in a piece on French evangelicals, written by veteran religion reporter Tom Heneghan — who has been based overseas for as long as I can remember. Back in the ‘70s when I was in college, evangelical Protestants were a tiny minority in France, as basically everyone was Roman Catholic. But the latter was facing lots of empty churches, whereas the former was taking the long view in terms of growing their presence in Europe.

Forty years later, evangelical flocks are much stronger. And, thanks to African immigrants (who have bolstered Protestant churches all over Europe), they’re more black than white. The photo that runs with this piece shows a crowd of mainly African-origin folks.

PARIS (RNS) — When evangelical voters cheer on President Trump in the United States or newly elected leader Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, probably the last thing on their minds is that they might be creating problems for fellow evangelicals elsewhere in the world.

It’s one of the first things that evangelicals in France think about, however, because many other French people instinctively link the small but growing evangelical presence here with large political movements abroad that they don’t like…

Hostile local officials can refuse permission to rent a hall, sponsor a gospel concert or distribute Bibles at a farmers market. Strictly secularist politicians can propose tighter controls on religion in public.

France has a radically different religious history than the United States. The French Revolution was all about freedom from religion; the American experiment was about freedom of religion. So there’s an undercurrent of animosity against religion in France that one doesn’t pick up here across the pond. For many, the true faith is a blend of national pride and secularism.

Plus, their view of evangelicals is tainted by politics. In 2004, Le Nouvel Observateur, a French magazine, called them “the sect that wants to conquer the world.” Its article ran alongside a photo of President George W. Bush standing next to a cross.

There are about half a million evangelicals in traditionally Catholic but highly secularized France. Protestants make up around 2 percent of the population, with the older Lutheran and Reformed communities stagnating while the evangelicals — a mix of French-born members, African immigrants and others — steadily gain ground.

I wish I had the statistics for how many French evangelicals existed back in my college student days but I think I’d be safe in saying it was under 100,000. This piece, published last spring in France24.com, says there were 50,000 in the 1950s. A piece in the Catholic daily La Croix a year ago said evangelicals comprise 3 percent of France’s 65.2 million residents (or 1.95 million); way higher estimate than what Heneghan said.

To be honest, it’s very tough to really know how many there are.

“People are afraid of this media echo, so they avoid saying they’re evangelical and just say vaguely that they’re Protestant,” said Mathieu Sanders, pastor of the Evangelical Baptist Church of Central Paris in the city’s well-off 7th District. Gabriel Oleko, whose Celebration Church is in the nearby 15th District, said hostility toward evangelicals in France rose during George W. Bush’s presidency and then cooled off once Barack Obama won the White House.

“It grew again as Trump’s election approached,” Oleko said. “When Bolsonaro was elected, it was like when Trump won. Since then, they’re saying those evangelicals are trying to take over power.”

Oleko, whose congregation is associated with the Assemblies of God, blamed this confusion on a widespread ignorance about religion in France. Since the country’s history was intertwined with Catholicism, even atheists today assume all faiths have strict hierarchies and they cannot understand the multitude of independent Protestant churches.

Oleko, by the way, is black and Sanders is white.

While in France during my teens, I made friends with some Baptists who proselytized me on a street corner. We’ve stayed in contact.

I asked them what they thought of the RNS piece and they said they hadn’t had problems with renting buildings or encountering anti-religious discrimination. Then again, they’re indigenous French. Black immigrants, they said, definitely have more of a problem. They agreed with how the article faulted French journalists for getting the nomenclature wrong by using the word évangélistes instead of évangéliques to describe this group. In other words:

Sanders said French journalists often referred to “evangelists” rather than “evangelicals.” He suspects the word “evangelist” sounds more ominous.

“It’s like Islamist, terrorist, etc.,” he explained. “Christians in France, especially minority Christians, suffer collateral damage from the fear of Islam.”

When the reporters are sloppy, misunderstandings are hard to overcome. The Religion Newswriters Association only lists two members living in France. Clearly, a branch office of some kind is needed in Paris, right? More seriously, what reportage is done on French religion is usually undertaken by the local Catholic press. Does Le Monde even have a religion reporter?

Heneghan’s piece referred to an article on Slate’s French website that connected U.S. evangelicals with far right politicians. It did, however, add some interesting information such as the presence of lots of Chinese evangelicals in France and that evangelicals are doing well in France partly due to the “quality of reception” that newcomers to such churches receive.

There’s obviously a lot going on in religion in France and this report in the UK-based Evangelical Times explains that France has all the typical problems of a mission field country: Too few seminaries and not enough Bible-centered preaching. Also, France doesn’t have the evangelical culture of multiple publishing houses, Christian musicians and talk radio that the United States has. It takes awhile to grow these things.

But look what happened in what was once overwhelmingly Catholic Latin America. Evangelicals are grabbing larger and larger chunks of the religion marketshare as we speak. Thanks to a great popular dislike of Catholic influence on France over the centuries, the French largely view religion as a negative influence and certainly not something talked about in public life.

According to this report, the typical evangelical French congregation has fewer than 100 people. The idea of a megachurch is almost foreign to the populace.

But, as has been reported on this blog before, media have been pouncing for some time on the idea of an increasing number of French evangelicals plus stereotypes about them being more liberal than their American compatriots. I’m hoping for some nuanced stories in the future. With nearly 2 million evangelicals out there, there’s got to be plenty to choose from.

Top photo courtesy of OM International

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