Christianity's coming back...in France!
The search for God in the most secular country of Europe is so universally felt that even a business journal—the equivalent of Forbes or Fortune—was compelled to publish a special issue in July and August of 2003 whose cover exclaimed, "God, the Stocks Are Rising!" Its 72 pages describe the surge of interest in religion and its effect on the business world, says Paris-based International Teams missionary Steve Thrall. The contents page announces that "after a materialistic 20th century, religions are coming back in force. In France, this rise in spirituality is pushing out secularism in both schools and business."
The accelerated growth of Islam in France, to nearly 5 million adherents now, has rightly received much attention from the American media. But few people realize that French evangelicals have experienced healthy—sevenfold!—growth since 1950, and that evangelistic influences such as the Alpha course are revitalizing faith in the nominally Catholic and practically secular nation.
While walking in a park near the Eiffel Tower, I am reminded of the context for this growth as I stumble upon a small Temple of Human Rights. Covered with Egyptian hieroglyphs and Freemasonry symbols, it stands for France's only politically correct religion—the belief in human rights. France's reputation as brazenly secularist, oversexed, and mostly oblivious to the gospel is deserved. It wasn't in vain that Jules Ferry, an active Freemason, founded the public school system in 1881 "in such a way as to inoculate the minds of kids against Christianity," Farmer says. (When the French public found out that a Ferry descendant, the recent minister of education Luc Ferry, sent his daughters to a Catholic school, it caused quite a stir.) As papal biographer George Weigel shows in The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God (to be published by Basic Books this April), the conspicuous omission in the E.U. constitution of the continent's Christian roots is yet another denial of the faith that made its democracies possible. Many missionaries have returned from France in dismay, after seeing few or no converts.
And yet, an evangelical congregation has been born here every 11 days in the last 35 years, according to the conservative estimates of Daniel Liechti, a respected tracker of evangelical growth in France who heads development at France Mission. This statistic is based on the net total, one that takes into account the churches that die out. The number of evangelicals has increased from 50,000 to at least 350,000 since 1950. Turns out all these missionaries who returned from France in dismay did accomplish something besides learning how to pick a wine that goes with duck à l'orange! "A good slice of this growth should be credited to American and European missionary help," says Nogent Bible Institute's lecturer in practical theology André Pownall. But "the stereotype some secular observers of religion in France are too happy to spread"—that evangelicals are a U.S. import—is wrong, says Sebastien Fath, researcher of evangelicalism at the National Center for Scientific Research at the Sorbonne. That would leave out the great contribution of the French Pentecostals, who are effective evangelists. "There were none of them before 1930," he says. "There are 200,000 now."
Religious conversions still befuddle the French. David Brown, the head of the French equivalent of InterVarsity, University Bible Groups, told me about one girl's experience. Her father is a militant left-wing activist; he and his wife are separated. When he found out that his daughter joined Brown's church and left with the youth group for a weekend in Normandy, he became enraged and came to see Brown. These were his words: "Here I thought that she was just going off for a weekend with a new boyfriend! But then I find out it was to read the Bible!"
"To go off with a new boyfriend is no problem," Brown says, "but to read the Bible is unacceptable." The father was also concerned that his daughter had become too religious. "I'll prove it to you," he told Brown. "She's got a Bible by her bedside!"
Brown says, "A lot of French people think like him."
I laughed out loud at the angry father. Every 11 days, 1 new evangelical congregation in France? That doesn't sound like a dying religion to me at all. The article also talks about muslims converting to Christianity, there's apparently a whole lot of it, and 17 support groups for former muslims. Read the whole article, it's brilliant: The French Reconnection
-Christianity Today Magazine