Heavily-secular French embracing evangelical churches in droves
IVRY-SUR-SEINE, France — Decked out in Sunday finery, the chatteringlinestretchesoutthedoor and up a gritty block of warehouses and homes in this working-class Paris suburb. Inside, the congregationatImpactChristianCentersways andchantstogospelmusicasthefirst morningservicerollson,waybehind schedule.
It is hard to believe that this outburst of religious joy is taking place in France, the most staunchly secular nation of an increasingly secular Europe.
Yet even as Christians are fleeing mainstream churches across the region, evangelical Christianity is booming thanks most recently to flourishing migrant churches like Impact Christian.
France alone has witnessed an eightfold increase in evangelical Christiansoverthepasthalf-century, from 50,000 to 400,000 today.
Those numbers are small in absolute terms. Indeed, evangelicals represent less than 2 percent of the European population. But their influence is growing. Perhaps most significantly, the evangelicals attest that spirituality is not dying out in Europe.
“Nonbelief, doubt and secularization continue to progress, but increasingly we’re witnessing a spiritual turning in recent years,” said Christopher Sinclair, a professor at the University of Strasbourg who specializes in evangelical movements. “What’s striking about the evangelical movement is that it’s growing.Youcanseethisthroughout Europe. It’s answering a spiritual need,” Mr. Sinclair said.
As it grows, Europe’s evangelical movement is developing a sharply different face than its American counterpart.
In France and elsewhere in Europe,evangelicalshavelargelystayed on the sidelines of political battles — partly because many believe in the separationofchurchandstate,partly because they remain divided on a number of key issues.
“We evangelicals in France are a minority among a Protestant minority,” said Etienne Lhermenault, general secretary of the Federation of Evangelical Baptist Churches of France. “So we have a minority mentality. Our American evangelical friends have a majority mentality, even if they’re not exactly the majority.”
European churches are embracing Asian, Caribbean and African preacherssuchasFrench-Congolese twin brothers, Yvan and Yves Castanou,whorunanorganizationcalled Impact.
“The church is here to solve all problems — family issues, financial issues, all different kinds of issues, not just spiritual issues. And that’s what really makes a difference,” said 35-year-old Yves Castanou, as he paused from greeting a stream of worshippers one recent Sunday inside Impact’s threadbare community center.
French skepticism of evangelical Christians, if not downright hostility, is fueled by myriad factors, from suspicions that churches are tainted by American influence to fears they provide platforms for bogus pastors. Even evangelical leaders warn that African-style prosperity churches, which emphasize financial success, are flourishing around Paris.
“There’s a huge increase in these large churches in the poorest areas,” saidMajagiraBulangalire,president of the Community of Churches of AfricanExpressioninFrance,anetwork partly created to fight against scam churches.
“They’re the biggest swindlers. They can cause a lot of harm to the poor population that flocks to them.”