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

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

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.

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Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

Pope worries about Europe 'hemorrhaging' priests, nuns: Spot big hole in short AP story? (updated)

I apologize for going on and on about this subject, but when it comes to the religion beat this is only one of the most important Catholic news stories in the world.

Come to think of it, questions about changing birth rates and demographics are important when covering Judaism, Islam, Pentecostal Christianity, Mormons, liberal Protestantism and other major faith groups, as well.

So let's connect some dots here, starting with another one of those formal Pope Francis statements that receives little mainstream news coverage, as opposed to the off-the-cuff or maybe even misquoted Francis statements (click for the latest) that leap into the headlines.

So here is the top of a short Associated Press report that probably didn't appear in your local newspaper. Yes, this is a summary of some very familiar trends:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis voiced alarm Monday at the “hemorrhaging” of nuns and priests in Italy and Europe, saying God only knows how many seminaries, monasteries, convents and churches will close because fewer people are being called to lives of religious service.

Francis told Italy’s bishops he was concerned about the “crisis of vocations” in a region of the world that once was one of the biggest sources of Catholic missionaries. He said Italy and Europe were entering a period of “vocational sterility” to which he wasn’t sure a solution exists.

The number of Catholic priests worldwide declined by 136 to 415,656 in 2015, the last year for which data is available. But according to Vatican statistics, the decrease was greatest in Europe, where there were 2,502 fewer priests compared to 2014. The number was offset by increases in priestly vocations in Africa and Asia, where the church as a whole is growing.

Let's pause for a moment and ask: Why are the statistics for vocations so much higher among Catholics in Africa and Asia? Might this have something to do with that familiar duo of doctrine and demographics?

So what did Pope Francis have to say, this time around, in terms of the cause of the current crisis in Europe?

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