French embracing evangelical church

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IVRY-SUR-SEINE, France — Decked out in Sunday finery, the chattering line stretches out the door and up a gritty block of warehouses and homes in this working-class Paris suburb. Inside, the congregation at Impact Christian Center sways and chants to gospel music as the first morning service rolls on, way behind 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 Christians over the past half-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, as Roman Catholic and traditional Protestant churches increasingly borrow from their hands-on and inclusive doctrine.

Perhaps most significantly, the evangelicals attest that spirituality is not dying out in Europe.

“Non-belief, 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. You can see this throughout 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, evangelicals have largely stayed on the sidelines of political battles — partly because many believe in the separation of church and state, 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 preachers such as French-Congolese twin brothers, Yvan and Yves Castanou, who run an organization called 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.

For Ivorian Blaise Ezoua, the Sunday services are worth a 30-mile roundtrip drive each week to the suburban Paris church.

“What touches me is the warmth and fraternal community among brothers and sisters here,” said the stocky computer technician. “We have brothers from Central Africa. We have brothers from China. We get people from everywhere. Brothers from France are also joining.”

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