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French embracing evangelical church
Question of the Day
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."
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," said Majagira Bulangalire, president of the Community of Churches of African Expression in France, a network 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."
Wariness of evangelicals also lingers in the French government, which has a special interministerial committee to fight questionable sects of all types.
In some areas, evangelical preachers say they have a hard time getting permits to build new houses of worship, a complaint shared by their Muslim counterparts.
In the Paris suburb of Montreuil, suspicions flared into a full-blown confrontation two years ago, when the town's Socialist mayor closed services one Sunday at several evangelical immigrant churches.
Relationships between churches and local officials are better elsewhere. In Ivry, the Castanou brothers say Impact is now an accepted town fixture.
Moreover, the churches are increasingly gaining acceptance from another quarter -- mainstream Christian churches, which are adopting some evangelical trappings.
"For many years, the French Protestant movement was a bit scornful of the evangelical movement," said Jean-Arnold de Clermont, head of the French Protestant Federation. "We thought their theology wasn't very solid, that we were more intelligent. Now, we realize these evangelical churches not only have intellectuals, but they're more emotive, more spiritual. It's in our interest to learn from each other."
By Michael P. Orsi
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