When the French churches wrote a scathing article on evangelical churches in 2004 entitled “Evangelicals - the cult that wants to conquer the world,” many thought it was a death blow to the public image of the evangelical movement in France. Already dubbed a “missionary graveyard,” sending back droves of discouraged American evangelists, France had made its religious preferences clear. “God? No, thank you.” This article seemed to be further proof that France’s media had only increased the potency of its venom when dealing with this marginalized group of radicals and had chosen its path. At only 0.6 percent of the population at the time, evangelicals didn’t have much weight to throw around either. Yet, evangelicals were outraged at the article and despite their numbers, a group of evangelical leaders came together and held a face-to-face meeting with staff from the magazine.
A year later in March 2005, Christianity Today’s cover story was “The French Reconnection” and outlined how far the evangelical world had come in such a short time. Even more surprising was the marked about face that French news outlets experienced in covering evangelicals. It was as if the media had “hit bottom” with that 2004 article and was rebounding to present a fairer and more balanced view of these believers. Disdain and mockery was replaced with acceptance and even a little admiration for this “odd but now-valid” branch of Protestantism. And this change in media coverage was not all that was happening.
Today, the evangelicals are flirting with being 0.8 percent of the population. Protestants account for about 3 percent of the population (a huge feat for a group that was stuck at 2 percent or less since after WWII). The National Council of Evangelicals in France was officially incorporated in 2011 and has united hundreds of thousands of believers in the vision to have one church for every 10,000 inhabitants. The Alpha Course, brought to France by Catholics, is experiencing unprecedented growth and is a model used by Alpha International for other Catholic-background countries. The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has even based its entire internet evangelism strategy on the pioneering work of the French website ConnaitreDieu.com and is using their tools to get the job done. Luis Palau held a wildly successful series of evangelistic meetings on a public beach in Marseille last year and youth ministries such as Jeunesse Pour Christ (Youth for Christ) are experiencing enthusiasm, growth, and are seeing a real harvest Christianity in France.
So, could the golden years of the Gospel be just ahead? Is this the beginning of revival?
Only God knows, but what is certain is that the evangelical church is firing on all cylinders. And, it’s no exaggeration to say that, compared with the activity just 10 years ago, France is becoming a hotbed of ecclesiastic activity. While this “reformation” of public perception is in no way persuading millions of French people to accept Christ (34 percent of the country is still atheist), we see in France today a real shift in the spiritual “tectonic plates” of the country. Something has changed. As a French pastor returning from Jordan told me in an interview last year, “This is not the France that I left five years ago.”
The bottom line? The French are re-thinking how they view Christianity - especially the younger generations. And, for Christians who have been used to knee-jerk reactions of disgust and contempt, this openness is nothing short of a solid and welcome answer to prayer. One roadblock after another is being removed and there are more open doors to have conversations about God, faith, and Jesus than we have seen in a long time.
And more than just Christianity, France is undergoing some real soul-searching in its relationship to all things faith-based. As a secular society, France not only separates church and state but relegates faith to the private sphere. That means any public expression of faith is either frowned upon or outright illegal. In just the past few years, France has led the charge against Islam in Europe by banning the full-body veil (burka) and outlawing street prayers in Paris. Especially in an election year, when France’s citizens are taking inventory of how they view their country, the issue of Islam in France and what it means to be a secular republic have occupied a much larger place in public debate than in years past French church.