It’s Sunday morning in Paris. While many are still in bed recovering from a hangover and thinking about how a tasty croissant and cheese could help to cure it, by 9 a.m. others are already busy dedicating their time to God. Next to an Indian restaurant, at this small evangelical church in the fifteenth district, a young team of musicians tuning their instruments are gathering. Just like every week, dozens of believers all dressed-up are following the sermon with their worn out Bible or on their iPhone. Some have ridden a seven-hour-bus from the Alps to join the worship service. The austerity of the place dampens the warm social atmosphere, however the music soon creates a birthday-like mood. Drums beat, guitars electrify, people raise their hands singing as the pastor behind the piano sets the tempo of the homily. In the outside world, people are walking by looking at the excited crowd in astonishment.
A new evangelical church is built every 10 days in France, thanks to the efforts of highly motivated believers like these. Once a fringe religious movement, evangelicalism is gaining ground and now counts 2,400 churches and 460,000 followers across France.
“The rise of Evangelism is slow but real,” comments Daniel Liechti, the man in charge of establishing new churches for the National Council of French Evangelicals (CNEF).
In Paris’ outskirts, the trend is even more spectacular, with almost 500 churches in the Île-de-France region. This success has roots in the Afro-Caribbean immigration that came with its customs, traditions and spirituality. But these features also lost some ground over the past decades as the younger generation that has always lived in France is taking over. In the north of Paris, the Seine-Saint-Denis department has the highest number of followers. Out of sight and behind a series of multi-lane highways leading to the suburbs, you’ll find a movement that is silently becoming the third-largest religion in France behind Catholicism and Islam.
Finding a Place in a Secular Nation
To understand this phenomenon, one must take a dive into the past. Evangelicalism is a worldwide religious movement within Protestant Christianity that is committed to the Gospel message that Jesus Christ is the savior of humanity and relies on a sola scriptura message of the Bible being the unerring Word of God. In France, its origins are usually traced to 1800, with various theological streams contributing to its foundation. The disparate and diverse nature of evangelicalism and its congregations makes its members difficult to define.
“You need to be very careful. Is it Pentecostalism, Methodism, Baptists, Assemblies of Brethren that you want to talk about?” warns Olivier Comtesse, Pastor of the church “La Pépinière” in Seine-Saint-Denis. The movement doesn’t have a single authority like the Roman Catholic Pope or a Chief Rabbi, so you cannot expect to easily find an official definition. Since they span a wide range of denominations, churches and organizations, there is no single membership statement to delineate identity, either. The rise of evangelicalism is especially notable in a country that has been widely de-Christianized and secularized; France is a country where religious movements have been increasingly seen as potentially suspicious since the 1905 law on the separation of the churches and state.
“French people are scared about evangelicalism because they don’t know what it is, there are a lot of clichés and assumptions about us. Some pastors are good some are not, just like journalists”, says Pastor Comtesse, who’s very anxious about my journalistic work and intentions in this report.
In France, where we are used to a pyramidal and monolithic structure in terms of religions, the lack of hierarchy, of a clergy or of at least a unique organization may be disturbing to some. It was to overcome this specificity that the CNEF was created ten years ago. “Our main mission is to spiritually unite churches and followers”, explains Liechti, “it’s good for a church to be part of the CNEF because they then have a structure and this is reassuring for local authorities.” The organization represents 70% of all evangelical churches across France.
But what about the 30% left? Here comes the taboo topic. Coming back to the Seine-Saint-Denis, one of France’s poorest areas, there are more than a hundred churches registered by the CNEF and just as many who are unregistered. Among the latter you will find a range from self-proclaimed pastors, mystical belief, exorcism, sometimes scams and often religious groups engaging in misconduct that can be highly dangerous for individuals. “You can’t judge a belief but you can identify its criteria of danger, such as mental destabilization, antisocial rhetoric, removal from your social environment”, explains Daniel Sisco, President of the Association to protect the victims of cults (ADFI). In 2019, 214 warnings were issued in the Île-de-France region including 41 about evangelical movements, “they have been on the top of the list for years,” says Sisco. Worship in the more questionable sects can take the shape of occult meetings in apartments, garage and cellars but can also become a giant, overwhelming spectacle.
Inside Charisma Megachurch
Located in Le Blanc-Mesnil in the northeastern suburbs of Paris, Charisma Church is a unique phenomenon. Every Sunday, the biggest evangelical church in France brings in more than 4,000 followers to the church which is located in the middle of an industrial estate right next to social housing. The megachurch even has its own bus service that brings people from the train station straight to its kingdom: a warehouse — the giant kind. Inside, the experience is like no other.
Fifty musicians onstage are spreading the holy vibe and encouraging the crowd to sing, dance and praise the Lord. The music is so deafening that some people are wearing earplugs. It’s so crowded, you don’t just come and watch, one of Charisma’s soldiers of Jesus spots and seats you as if you were at a live entertainment show. Indeed, the show lacks nothing compared to Paris’ biggest concert venues, featuring twenty loudspeakers, ten massive flat screen televisions and three cameramen with high-tech equipment broadcasting the show. Thousands of overexcited worshipers are singing – sometimes to the point of tears – and following the lyrics on screen like a huge version of karaoke. It’s surreal.
After an hour of the larger-than-life show, it’s time to pay up. Charisma’s soldiers are moving around the crowd with big boxes to fill with cash. The church follows the prosperity theology, a religious belief that financial blessing and donations will increase one’s material wealth. Among other things, followers have to give 10% of their income and that’s not counting voluntary donations.
“This theology is a capitalist downward slide of Evangelicalism. We are fighting it,” claims Daniel Liechti. Once the money is collected, the preaching can start. Pastor Nuno Pedro walks onstage like a rockstar.
Very little is known about the 40-something man who emigrated from Portugal and founded Charisma in 1989, except that he gives no interviews and that he flies solo. Mic in hand, the charismatic small white man is galvanizing a crowd that is at least 85% composed of black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Charisma claims 12,000 followers across France, thanks to a meticulous network of “family groups” meeting every week to pray, and of highly motivated missionaries. The church also boasts a full range of services: schools, bookstore, fitness center, judicial assistance, job office and more. Charisma takes care of everything to appeal to followers – and their wallets.
For an hour, Pedro energetically preaches esoteric sermons intertwined with jokes, Bible verses and personal stories: it’s a one-man show. Using illustrative dichotomies and simplistic concepts, the pastor urges followers to break their usual judgments and to think differently.
The leader is targeting the “evil, wealthy and greedy Parisians,” and globally rejecting a society that pretends to be utterly devoted to the well-being of others but that is hypocritical. In Le Blanc-Mesnil, where unemployment reaches 22%, the antisocial discourse is particularly effective.
“Using a misanthropic rhetoric is a common tool to create an external enemy that will not only reinforce a belief but also the dependence to a community and its leader. It is appealing to disadvantaged people but really to anyone with a bit of sensitivity. This is why dangerous cults are a threat not only for the individual but for all of society” details Sisco.
During the worship the atmosphere reaches a crescendo. Followers are reacting to Pedro’s statements with “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” and some are speaking in tongues while whistle blows are ringing off the church walls like they would in a stadium during a Paris-Saint-Germain match.
Jesus 2.0 and the Strength of the Youth
Charisma remains an exception in the evangelical landscape of France. “In this church, followers are misled. The spirituality is superficial and close to a scam. In terms of belief, they are borderline,” says Liechti. Charisma, to the CNEF, is unregistered and awareness has been raised to associations several times for suspicious misconduct on its part.
This kind of self-isolated church led by a venerated pastor is one of the reasons that drove so many other churches and followers to raise their voice to fight against negative assumptions and distorted clichés. Missionaries have made a great effort to share their belief and religion with local communities and local governance, using the digital revolution to their benefit. Today, pastors are spreading the Good News online, answering people’s existential questions on Youtube, sharing worship services on Facebook Live, uploading sermons on SoundCloud and posting inspirational moments on Instagram to influence their huge communities of followers. Designer websites are drawing from the modern aesthetic of fashion and culture trends. Evangelicals are trying to catch more followers by any means necessary.
The modern recipe is undoubtedly working, especially on the younger generation – a very important group for religious communities. Evangelicalism is probably one of the most appealing religions for youth and fully 50% of followers are under 35 years old. The music is good, the atmosphere is fortifying and warm just like the free coffee. Evangelicalism goes hand in hand with today’s social culture and emphasizes total fulfillment. The church is a place where you can have fun, meet friends and also invite friends.
“The worship has to be a good time. They are welcoming, the prayers are understandable, there is no decorum, everything is available straight without bible study or any previous religious knowledge,” explains Linda Caille, journalist and author of Soldiers of Jesus.
In other words, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Evangelicals believe in the centrality of the conversion or “born again” experience in receiving salvation, and in the authority of the Bible as a perfect revelation to humanity. It’s all about personal experience. It’s close to people’s daily reality, the opposite of a doctrinal approach; more cerebral and rigorous, although evangelicals are mostly conservatives in substance. Sermons and prayers are relevant to contemporary issues: from exams to disease and unemployment. It is attractive to the youth and to people who feel lost, but really to anyone who’s looking for answers in the here and now.
The Battle for Souls
The success of evangelicalism doesn’t leave a good taste in the mouths of everyone in France. Among the most suspicious of observers, France’s Catholic population remains very critical.
“They are jealous of the boom because while they are struggling to charm new followers, evangelicals are invested daily to share the Gospel message and make themselves more visible”, says Caille.
Believers are counted up in France, the competition is fierce and nothing would stop missionaries from chasing on other’s ground.
“Because they are deeply convinced that their faith is the best, they have absolutely zero hesitation to argue, debate and convert. They want to fight to the finish.”
The Seine-Saint-Denis neighborhood has around 130 Muslims prayer rooms and mosques, 117 Catholic churches and chapels and more than 100 Evangelical churches. Visibility is key to making the difference in this spiritual mega-store battle. Evangelical growth is obvious in big cities like Paris because churches are using public transport and town planning to their benefit. While some would find a train station, a parking lot or a supermarket a repulsive place to set up their outpost of God’s Kingdom, evangelicals choose to establish their churches close to precisely these places.
The French Evangelical Strategy
Setting up places for worship is not enough though to win the faith competition, as nothing would replace physical contact and spreading the Good News on the ground. “They are everywhere, you can’t miss them” argues M’hammed Henniche, General Secretary of the Muslim Associations of the Seine-Saint-Denis. “You’ll find them giving flyers on Sunday food market, screaming slogans at the subway exit, next to superstores, promoting their worship and their pastors. They are rushing headlong, calling out to the people to join them, especially to Muslims.” According to Henniche, evangelicals are hitting people emigrated from North Africa and Sub-Saharan insistently, “they are targeting Black and Arabic people, highlighting the previous conversion of one of them to convince others to do the same,” which is a rhetorical tactic that particularly irritates Henniche. Muslims account for 10 to 20% of the new conversions according to the CNEF.
It’s one of the levers of evangelicalism’s success stories. Some pastors would not consider themselves as missionaries but as evangelists: their mission is to convert others to their faith especially by public preaching. Among these ultra-active individuals, Pastor Saïd Oujibou, described by his friend as “furious and crazy in terms of evangelization” is deeply involved on the social ground and in suburbs.
“The more dodgy is the area, the more receptive people are to the Gospel,” he declares.
This Franco-Moroccan ex-Muslim doesn’t hesitate to preach door-to-door in sink estates where Christianity is the minority. His association is also teaching followers how to proselytize efficiently in public places during barbecues, sporting events or weddings. Considered as an apostate in Islam, Oujibou has also received various death threats.
This proselytism is not welcomed from Muslims, nor by the local population who often mistake evangelists with Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also annoys some evangelicals themselves, who then suffer from negative perceptions. Most of them think that it is more effective to spread the Gospel message individually than collectively, like you would share your passion for cycling with your pal at work, not with everyone in an open, public space. Missionaries think in terms of productivity, quality before quantity, they target individual needs: “I need to smell the sheep” as one pastor told me. In Paris’ outskirts, the evangelical church is also attracting a lot of migrants, as the belief has its roots in the notions of hope and new birth. The driving idea that tomorrow will be better than yesterday is a positive message in which many migrants can identify themselves and their life struggles.
Just like political parties that look to change citizens’ votes or commercial companies that look forward to change consumers’ habits, religious movements are involved in a soul race where conversion is a key element of victory.
Evangelicalism is dreaming big in France. The goal is to establish one church for every 10,000 inhabitants, instead of the one per 29,000 residents that exists today. Although it remains a minority religious community, evangelical followers, missionaries and evangelists are actively working to catch up with the main religious movements in France and eventually overtake them. On the outskirts of Paris, they have already demonstrated the power of their advance strike force. It’s an ascent that also leans on the followers’ generosity who give offerings to the church. “God loves a cheerful giver”, says the Bible in II Corinthians 9:7. Evangelicals have heard him well.