Protestantism is a very marginal minority in France, numerically less than 2% of the total population. France Mission estimates there are 1.700.000 protestants in France and 600.000 evangelicals. The first figure seems generous as people can say they are protestant when they are not catholic.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic church “lost” France, with religious practice and christenings plummeting. In spite of that, it is still a cultural heavyweight in society, and if you say you are “christian” that will be understood as Roman catholic.
The mainline Protestant churches suffered a comparable decline, undermined by secularism and ecumenism. In this sense the Protestant minority in France adapted too well to the majority, both social and religious, and in so doing lost its soul through compromise with humanism or catholicism.
Loss of doctrinal identity and the absence of a clear message constitute a menace to the survival of traditional churches both Lutheran or Reformed. Conformity to social pressures has recently led the major historic protestant church (United Protestant Church, formerly the Reformed Church of France, ERF) to adopt “mariage for all”, including for the ministry.
In the last half century, by contrast, evangelical churches have been growing in an encouraging way. Forty years ago I attended the annual convention of evangelical churches (Centre Evangélique) at Nogent, near Paris. About sixty attended. This year at the meeting in November up to two thousand are expected. The theme is “Taking the Scripture at its word”. Another instance: last spring the Bible Institute in Geneva (IBG) organised a meeting of the French Gospel Coalition with headline speakers from the USA. Seven or eight hundred attended, most of them young people who enjoyed singing Townend and Getty in French.
The National Council of French Evangelicals (CNEF) founded in 2003, reckons that of the 2068 evangelical churches it lists in France, about half were planted in the last thirty years. I have heard that there is about one new church a week, but have no way of verifying this information. So what are the reasons for these surprising developments?
One reason is the existence of the CNEF itself, which in 2016 is composed of thirty different evangelical denominations, plus a number of para-ecclesiastical works. It includes pentecostal and charismatic churches, as well as more traditional evangelical groups. Obviously there can be tensions on the local level, but the CNEF exists to protect the interests of the evangelical minority in the public square. It has various departments including commissions for legal affairs, ethics, church planting and work in prisons.
Today there are more people attending churches associated with the CNEF than attending the pluralistic churches belonging to the French Protestant Federation (FPF). The latter organisation has historical pedigree, intellectual clout, influence in high places, but the churches it represents have little interest in biblical faith, and their reference to the Reformation is sadly one of historical ancestry rather than theological conviction. Evidently the FPF has a rather jaundiced view of the rise of evangelical Christianity in France which can be considered as “fundamentalistic”.
Another reason for the growth of evangelicalism has been the influx of migrants, largely unchecked in France over the last few decades, and this of course is seen also in the rise of Islam in housing zones. Many of the new communities have strong ethnic ties and their own way of worship. Recently I preached in Angers in the Loire valley, at a baptist church to a congregation of about thirty, which was something like the united nations, with a minority of indigenous French. This is a common experience. Another reason contributing to this growth has been the appreciable impact of foreign missionaries, not only from the EU and America, but more recently from Africa, the Caribbean and even Korea, sometimes working alongside French pastors. France remains a mission field.
Fifty years ago, in the francophone world, there was relatively little in the way of biblical literature. Evangelical publications, with a few exceptions (Packer and Stott), were of the personal testimony kind. Today there is an abundance of worthwhile books, both theological and practical, and those who want to grow spiritually can find what they need. Europresse and Excelsis have made valuable contributions, the latter producing fine commentaries and theological dictionaries. Often the material is translated and there is no difficulty finding Ferguson, Keller, Olyott or Piper in French, as well as some you would not wish to find, but there is also a new generation of French writers. Calvin’s Institutes were published in modern translation for the first time in 2009 (as the old French is unreadable for most) and a compendium was spun off it a couple of years later. It sold well to Roman catholics, I believe, but some evangelicals are strangely wary of Calvin. However, in spite of numerous publications, French publishers complain of poor sales for their products. This probably results from suspicions about “theology”, which some evangelicals associate with liberalism, and also from the fact that they find it convenient to cultivate a dichotomy between faith and life, as in a highly secular society it is comfortable to do so.
Finally, recent years have seen the impact of francophone Bible colleges and seminaries, with an increasing numbers of students. The latter are the Evangelical Faculty (FLTE) at Vaux-sur-Seine near Paris, and the Jean Calvin Faculty (FJC) in Aix-en-Provence, near Marseilles. At Nogent-sur-Marne, near Paris, there is a Bible college, in Geneva there is the Institut biblique, as also in Brussels, the Belgian Bible Institute, which has renewed vigour. There is also talk of a new seminary being launched at Vevey in Switzerland on the site of the Emmaus Bible Institute, but some doubt the need for it, considered the choice available.
What are the great needs of the churches today? In spite of many encouragements, the great need is Bible-rooted churches with preaching that is solid exposition and practical application. Models of what biblical ministry could be, or of what a Reformed church might be, are in short supply. Too many sermons are homilies or performances—entertainments short or long. Anyone can see that by looking on the no.1 French “evangelical” website, TopChrétien.
Two dangers lurk. The rise of neo-evangelicalism, often from transatlantic influences, with a low view of Scripture, challenges to biblical atonement and the popularity of theistic evolution. The other danger is that of extreme charismatic influences, also from abroad, with practices that are strangely animistic. Internet promotes such fads.
Fifty years on there is much to enthuse about, but more to pray for.
Paul Wells, Professor Emeritus