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.
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
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.
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
"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
Religion is back
For years, intellectuals proclaimed the end of Christianity in
France, swallowed by the tides of modernity, science, and reason.
Protestants were mostly evicted or "invited to leave" during the
Counter-Reformation in the 17th century. The use of religious
language and symbols was outlawed in public in the years after the
French Revolution against the Catholic nobility. "Having faith" or
"being spiritual" is often seen as odd, or a form of ignorance, or
Yet studies show a different story on the ground. Daniel Liechti,
vice-president of the French National Evangelical Council, found
that since 1970, a new evangelical church has opened in France every
10 days. The number of churches increased from 769 to 2,068 last
Evangelicalism has been growing quietly since the 1950s. The
number of practitioners has risen from 55,000 to 460,000 today, with
another 140,000 believers who identify as faithful. Gypsy
Protestants account for roughly 70,000 of evangelicals in France.
Half of the country's Protestants are evangelicals, according to
Off the radar
Most of this activity takes place far off the French cultural
radar, although the phenomenon stretches beyond smaller suburbs and
Just off the Bastille in downtown Paris, amid a scattering of
homeless people, the Roquette Church hosts three services on Sunday.
It reminds visitors of the Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco,
an urban congregation sporting a rock band.
Worshipers at an afternoon service were half black and half
white. "We have doubled our audience in four years," says the pastor
Franck Lefillatre, who looks a bit like Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe
Maddon, featuring white hair and black-rimmed glasses.
"I feel more at home here, there is a message and a free
feeling," says a woman from Bourdeau who has been attending Roquette
for six months. …