When the Nouvel Observateur 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.
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.
Just two weeks ago, Mohamed Merah was shot and killed by French police after a 32-hour standoff complete with assault rifles, bullet-proof vests, and barricaded neighbors. This radical French Islamic terrorist went to a Jewish school and gunned down Rabbi Jonathan Sandler, his two young sons Gabriel and Arieh, and a seven-year-old pupil named Myriam Monsonego. Prior to that, he had shot and killed three French paratroopers and was ready and waiting for police to come to his Toulouse apartment, armed to the hilt. The effect was so massive that even people in Paris stayed home, as a shop-owner lamented on the RTL radio station’s morning talk show just days after the shooting. It was the worst terror attack in France in over 15 years and inflamed the already complex debate around Islam.
But let’s not be fooled by over-simplified and inflammatory comments by radical right-wing groups. For Christians in France, Islam is no more or less “dangerous” spiritually than atheism or free-masonry. And atheists outnumber Muslims 3:1. The weapons of our warfare are spiritual – not carnal. That means we can’t legislate morality or force Muslims to adopt Christian behaviors and think we’ve won the battle. We can’t afford to get sucked into a cultural debate that has little spiritual impact in the lives of the French. Yes, there is a real struggle going on for the future of the nation – but it’s not in fighting cultural Islam or getting a specific presidential candidate elected. It’s in praying for the hearts of the French to turn to Jesus and have a real and tangible experience with Him – Muslim or not.
While believers may be tempted to support one or more solutions to these cultural problems, the more important aspect within these issues is that spiritual questions are being asked. More discussion about religion, spirituality, and how that affects the daily life of French people is a huge step forward for opening doors to dialogue and relationship. It shows us that the enemy is flustered and retreating. And, while events like these shootings are tragic, they are a manifestation of the spiritual shift taking place today and the futile resistance by the enemy to subvert the plans of God. Could it even be that God is preparing his church to provide the comfort, answers, and love that the French will need as they sort through these questions?
On April 7, we begin the 12th year of the international prayer campaign for France led by Objectif France and accessible to English-speakers at PrayforFrance.org. The theme “His Kingdom and His Righteousness” is a declaration of Christ’s victory in France. He has already won the battle for this nation and the time for discouragement is quickly coming to an end. So, as the surface battles rage, be encouraged to know that revival is waiting at the door. Perhaps the next article in the Nouvel Observateur will read “Christ: the hope of France”?
David Broussard is president of Impact France – a ministry of the Christian Community Foundation of France. Impact France mobilizes prayer and financial resources for indigenous French ministries and leads the English-language efforts of Pray for France in conjunction with the French organization Objectif France.
Publication date: April 9, 2012