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An Example of Denominational Restructuration?

A paper was presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Atlanta, Georgia, August 15, 2003. 

by Sébastien Fath
Direct correspondance: Groupe de Sociologie des Religions et de la Laïcité (CNRS/EPHE), Iresco, 59-61, rue Pouchet, 75017 Paris, FRANCE. 
E-mail : fath@iresco.fr

This synthesis has been possible because of our research program “Evangelical Protestantism and Pentecostals”. I am very grateful for all the positive inputs received in this group.

In describing Christianity in France, History and Sociology have had lasting difficulties  escaping from the “sect-church” opposition. The heavy dominance of Catholicism is a probable  reason. Contrarily to the American situation, characterized by a competitive religious market in which religions are structured in various “denominations”, the French landscape seems to be defined as religiously “dry”, in a very secularized context. Today, with declining churches, the dominant trend would be the “decomposition” of religion, instead of its restructuration. This process takes two forms : “religious bricolage”, or narrow sectarian belonging. The field of Evangelical Protestantism invites us to question this interpretative scheme.  

Starting with a historical overview, we will address the hypothesis of understanding Evangelical Protestantism in its French context as a sign of religious decomposition. In the last part, we will ask : between “sect” and “church”, does the study of French Evangelicals  not also suggest (at least in the margin) that a restructuration of French religion  is at work on a denominational basis? If this hypothesis was confirmed, it would invite us to relativize the gap, which has been quite considerable in the past, between both French and American religious cultures.

“The White House taken hostage by a fundamentalist sect” 1 This kind of comment, found in the columns of a major weekly magazine (catholic friendly) is quite revealing of the French perception of religion. The president of the United States is not portrayed as a Church member, because the word “Church” is too positive a term for what the journalist wishes to say about the American President. Thus, he is shown as being under the influence of a “sect” (or a “cult”), synonymous of bad religion. The “Church-sect” dichotomy is a durable trait of the French way of seeing religion. In France, history and sociology have long had difficulties escaping from the “Church-Sect” grid in their description of Christianity. The dominant weight of Catholicism (the quintessence of the Church type) is probably not foreign to this phenomenon. On the contrary to the American situation characterized by a competitive market with various offers organized in denominations, the French landscape is characterized by a relative “aridity” of religious offer (Hervieu-Léger, 1999), in a very secularized context. With churches fast loosing ground, today’s dominant trend would not be “restructuration” but “decomposition” of religion under two main shapes : religious “bricolage” or sectarian withdrawal (Champion & Cohen, 1999).

The field of French Evangelical Protestantism2, studied with its’ history in mind, leads us to question this interpretation. This religious actor has developed its strategies and networks since the Nineteenth Century and in 2003 totales about 350 000 members (I). Does this evolution, which did not hinder a general movement toward secularization, merely constitute a symptom of religious decomposition ? Examining the strengths and the limits of this hypothesis (II), we can ask if the growing visibility of Evangelical Protestantism in France does not also reveal important religious restructuration dynamics (III) which tend to relativize the long standing gap between American and French religious cultures.

A new religious actor in France? Historical survey

Evangelical implantation in France took place in the span of two centuries. It was set in the transition context from a closed and hostile religious market to a much more open spiritual marketplace with plural offers. This scenario does not differ much from a quite similar but much earlier process of pluralization of the “religious Economy” described in America by Fink & Stark (1992) or Nathan Hatch (1989).

From 1802 to First World War: the Dawning of a New Culture

The Nineteenth Century in France covers a period which goes from the Concordat (1801-1802) to First World War (1914-1918). In religious terms, it is characterized by the slow learning process of religious pluralism, in a controlled religious market where the State plays a pivotal role. Up until 1905, the State financed Catholicism, Lutheran and Reformed Protestantism and Judaism, to the exclusion of all others confessions. It is in this context and period that Evangelical Protestantism developed, characterized by a notable feature: it is an ultra-minority group. It nonetheless succeeded in establishing plausibility structures that enabled it to express, in French society, a new religious culture based on individual choice, voluntary militancy and refusal of the State Church system.

At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the European context is still one of “religious confessions” where identities are linked to territories, and the State, with many nuances, regulates the special relationships it intends to nurture with the main “recognized” religious confessions. In France, the “concordatary game” (Basdevant-Gaudemet, 1988) regulates the “controlled pluralism” of the recognized religious confessions. This system which points to the “first stage of laicization” according to Jean Baubérot (1990) allowed Protestantism to be officially “reintegrated” after over a century of persecution (Encrevé, 1985). This also established a lasting separation border between the established (concordatary religion) and the outsiders (often described as “non recognized”, or “dissenters”3). Just as the “established” and the “outsiders” studied by Norbert Elias and John L.Scotson (1965) in the Winston Parva community, the concordatary Christians (rejoined by the Jews in 1808) and the non concordatary or non recognized religious groups rapidly became sharply distinct poles, affirming their distinctives on each side of a line of separation born by the “concordatary game”. It is among the “non concordatary” and the “non recognized” Protestants that the proto French Evangelical movement appears. At the beginning of the Nineteenth Century this tendency gathers a few Quakers (Van Etten 1947), Moravians, Anabaptists (Séguy 1977). After the Geneva Revival, it is reinforced as was the whole of French Protestantism by reinstating conversion and the inspiration of the Bible (Wémys, 1977). The growth of international Protestant mission work also encouraged the development of new Churches such as Methodist and Baptist churches in France (Fath, 2001, 2002) during the first third of the Nineteenth Century. In spite of discrimination linked to their non concordatary status (Baubérot, 1966, Fath, 2001/2), Evangelical “dissenters” focused on conversion and biblicism grew up gradually until the onset of the Twentieth Century. A this point, this movement enjoyed full religious freedom thanks to the establishment of the Third Republic (since 1875) and the separation of Church and State (1905) which granted the same status to all religions and confessions.

In spite of the long Catholic resistance, which cultivated an “obsession for unity” (Sacquin, 1997) up until the 1870’s, along with a certain reticence in “established”4 Protestant circles, the religious market had notably diversified at the opening of the Twentieth Century. The rare French Evangelical Protestants, mostly Baptists, Methodists, Brethren Assemblies and Free Churches, reinforced also by a large reformed current, succeeded during this period in affirming the traits of a new religious culture based on choice rather than tradition, on the community of believers (Professing Churches) rather than on a mass institution, on local democracy rather than on vertical authority. The success of the Salvation Army’s implantation from 1881 on (Allner, 1994, Kirchleger, 2003), something unimaginable fifty years before, confirms this turning point. Even an area like Brittany (Bretagne) characterized by an age old catholic monopoly counted a dozen Evangelical communities at the onset of the Twentieth Century (Carluer, 1991, 1993).

Networks consolidated (1921-1965)

After First World War, Evangelical Protestants can be estimated at over 25 000 against about 5000 (stricto sensu Professing Churches) in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. This growth takes place in a dispersed fashion. The deficit of institution, proper to “Protestant precarity” as shown by Jean Paul Willaime (1992) is particularly characteristic of these circles. Isolation and dispersion dominate in spite of different interdenominational works such as the Mc All Mission (Morley 1993). The founding of an Evangelical Protestant interdenominational Bible Institute in 1921 at Nogent-Sur-Marne, is a direct reaction to the network deficit. This creation marks a new turning point due to Jeanne and Ruben Saillens5, a couple who played a considerable role in Protestant evangelism between the end of the Nineteenth Century and Second World War. With this institute, French Evangelical Protestants were equipped for the first time with a durable inter-Evangelical institution. Tens of students each year received training there in order to enter pastoral, evangelistic or missionary ministry, and the Evangelical theology and professing Ecclesiology acquired at Nogent’s Bible Institute had a considerable impact on further development of Churches. From 1921 to 1965, the Nogent Institute was the main “hub” of the French Evangelical movement. It is not surprising that most of the Evangelical parachurch works created later on established their headquarters and offices there.

Whereas the first decades of the Twentieth Century are marked by the “end of parish civilization” (Hervieu Léger & Champion, 1986), as Yves Lambert (1985) has shown in the parish of Limerzel in Brittany, networks of converted Evangelicals structured in “elective fraternities” (Hervieu-Léger, 2000), begin to branch out. In the span of forty years, the Evangelical landscape becomes diversified all the while developing its networks. Pentecostals begin implanting in the 1930’s (Stotts, 1981, Jeter, 1993, Pfister, 1995), independent Evangelical Reformed Churches come out from the unified Reformed Church of France in 1938 (Longeiret, 2003), and American Evangelical mission boards initiate works in France after 1945. A European Bible Institute is founded in Chatou in 1952 and then later situated in the Lamorlaye Castle purchased by the Greater Europe Mission. During forty years, over a thousand students studied Bible and music there6. In a different setting, the “Groupes Bibliques Universitaires” (University Bible Groups) founded in 1943 in France by the Swiss René Pache (1904-1979) give a voice to Evangelical identity in student circles, along side the existing Christian student outreach works. Many other networks are built during this period, weaving a net that connects the Evangelical archipelago more and more. This networking goes along with  numerical growth which adds up at the beginning of the Sixties to a total of about 100 000 Evangelicals in France. This attracts new attention from observers (Chéry, 1954, Séguy, 1956).

The last forty years: a new visibility

From the Sixties to the years 2000, the French religious market has continued to diversify in the context of globalization and consumer society deployment. Religion in France is now lived out on the pilgrim and convert mode (Hervieu Léger, 1999) : the consumer of religious goods intends to choose between different spiritual offers and his appropriation of religion is related to a personal decision (conversion) and no longer to the passive acceptation of a tradition. This period is marked by accelerated secularization but Evangelicals seem to escape (at least partially) this trend7. Between the Sixties and the years 2000, their number grow from 100 000 to about 350 000 with 200 000 Pentecostals, 40 000 Baptists but also Charismatics (Veldhuizen, 1995), members of Brethren Assemblies, independent Evangelicals, Mennonites, Methodists and many others. Whereas the Catholic Church has had to close seminaries, Evangelical Protestants on their part had to answer increased demand for training. The creation of the Free Faculty of Evangelical Theology in Vaux-sur-Seine (Faculté Libre de Théologie Evangélique), inaugurated in 1965, then later the opening of the Free Reformed Theology Seminary at Aix-en-Provence in 1974, (Faculté Libre de Théologie Réformée) are the result of this increased demand. This period is still poorly documented. One of its characteristic is a new visibility. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, French society has taken much more notice of  Evangelical networks and activity. Many had thought of this new culture as a something proper to the United States but they are surprised to discover that for instance in a city like Montpellier, there are four times more Evangelical assemblies than Reformed ones. And in dozens of French cities, the only French Protestant churches are Evangelical.

Billy Graham’s French campaign in 1986 (Baubérot, 1988, Fath, 2002/2), strongly supported by the French historian and Sorbonne Professor Pierre Chaunu, was one of the large media events meant to publicize Evangelical presence in France. The Evangelical Alliance has multiplied such spectacular events in the last 25 years : Charles Colson’s visit in Paris in 19808, the “Fête de l’Evangile” (Gospel Celebration) in the arena of Nimes in 1980, the astronaut James Irwin’s visit in 1984 (Paris and province), the “Fête de la Jeunesse” (Youth Festival, in 1985 at the Parc Floral in Vincennes), “Mission France” with Billy Graham (1986, Paris and province), “Fêtons l’Evangile” (Celebrate the Gospel) (1996, Nimes arena, with 10 000 participants), a seminar on prayer with Pablo Martinez (1997 province), “Mondial sport et foi” (A World Sports and Faith meeting, in Paris and province), “Pentecost 2000” a interconfessional youth rally in Valence). At the same time, Evangelical representatives are taking a more active and prominent part in the French Protestant Federation (whose role is also increasing among French Protestant Churches). We can name in particular André Thobois and Louis Schweitzer who were respectively vice-president and secretary general of the FPF and more recently the Pentecostal leader Christian Seytre, still secretary general of the FPF in 2003. The “Legion of Honor” (Légion d’Honneur), a State honorary distinction granted to André Thobois9, a leading figure of Evangelicalism in France after 1945 is another sign, on a symbolic level, that the Protestant Federation of France and the French society at large are taking into account Evangelical Protestant presence and input. At a more general level, several publications, such as two special issues of L’unité des Chrétiens  (1984, 1994) or a generalist work by the dominican Father Philippe Larère (1991) point out that the Evangelical movement is being taken seriously at the end of the Twentieth Century. This visibility, this “actuality” of French speaking Evangelical Protestantism ( Sinclair 2002) has been translated into an exponential growth of academic studies on this field : three social sciences conferences were devoted to this subject during 2001and 2002 in Lausanne, Paris and Strasbourg (see Campiche, 2002, Fath, 2004, Bastian, 2004).

A result of religious decomposition?

Development of Evangelical Protestantism in France remains marginal. With a total of 350 000 persons at the beginning of the Twenty First Century, it represents about 0,5 % of the French population. However its’ new visibility fuels certain questions which touch the entire French religious field. One strong interpretation tends to understand this development as the result of the decomposition of traditional religious forms which come under three different modes: the sect, the unadapted graft (transplant) or the communitarian niche.

First Hypothesis: sects locked up in refusal of modernity

As a voluntary association of religiously qualified individuals, the sect constitutes a type of religious socialization as old as religion. In itself it does not imply  decomposition of religion. Nonetheless in a specific context of secularized modernity,  reflexion on sects, cults and new religious movements has been led to examine the sect or cult hypothesis as an alteration of social forms inherited from the major Churches. This is notably a perspective examined by Danièle Hervieu Léger who associated in her thought on “religion in shreds” the “issue of sects” (1999). Without specifically mentioning Evangelicals, Danièle Hervieu-Léger rightly underlines that the “proliferation” of religious offers can induce “drift trends” (even inside the major religious traditions) in which individuals loose their autonomy (Hervieu-Léger, 1999, 173-178). This case in point can be observed in voluntary groups where the degree of involvement becomes too intense, or where the leader’s charismatic authority is too strong for the adherent to maintain “the sense of ordinary realities” (Hervieu-Léger, 1999, 176).

With its emphasis on militant involvement, its defiance of institutional regulations and the favorable welcome it offers to charismatic leaders, Evangelical Protestantism is not exempt from certain sectarian drifts. As a matter of fact, the French social debate has sometimes singled out such or such Evangelical community. Even though public actors have never identified Evangelical Protestantism as a whole as a sectarian movement, the actors of the anti-sect movement have sometimes qualified as “sectarian” certain Evangelical assemblies. This is actually the case of the Pentecostal Church of Besançon (Eglise de Pentecôte de Besançon) (Amiotte-Suchet, 1999). It has been listed in a government “sect list” made up of 173 groups indexed by a parliamentary committee (Assemblée Nationale, 1996) which in turn has led the church to carry out  complex legitimation strategies (Fath, 2001/3). In a general way, French Pentecostalism holds certain specificities (among them the importance of pastoral charismatic authority) which sometimes seem favorable to certain sectarian drifts (Fath, 2001/4). To the possible authoritarian excesses of the pastor can be added the classically counter-cultural aspects of Pentecostalism (social strike thesis, cf. Lalive d’Epinay, 1970, 1975, Corten, 1995), thus feeding the anti-modern sect hypothesis. But the Charismatic and Pentecostal circles are not the only ones suspected. A fundamentalist type group, very isolated from other actors in the French Evangelical world10 has also been singled out : the “Theological Institute” in the city of Nîmes. It was also mentioned in the 1996 parliamentary report and took the opportunity to transform this very local affair into an accusation campaign against religious politics in France, considered against all evidence as intolerant. Strongly echoed in the United States, the loud complaints of pastor DeMeo11 have not kept the large majority of French Evangelical Protestants, even the most fundamentalist and isolated, from enjoying total freedom in their country, in spite of a French cultural difficulty to welcome religious diversity12. The very specific case of Demeo’s church, which could be correlated with some other cases, leads to the conclusion that the hypothesis interpreting certain aspects of Evangelical growth as a form of sectarian refuge remains valid in part.

Second Hypothesis: culturally unadapted transplants?

Another hypothesis identifies Evangelical growth as a culturally unadapted transplant. The evangelical religious offer is seen as an exogenous disruption of the traditional French religious field. If this train of thought does not seem prevalent among sociologists and anthropologists, it does however seem to be found more frequently among historians. Some of them consider problematic the link between the history of Lutheran and French Reformed Protestantism and that of the Evangelical current. Patrick Cabanel considers Evangelical history as being disconnected from Lutheran and Reformed history: “These last, who come into Pentecostal Churches through conversion and re-birth (sometimes celebrated by a new baptism), have perhaps nothing more in common with “historical” Protestants than a label or a fluctuating Federation: the two groups share neither the same faith, nor the same history.” (Cabanel, 2000, 29). In a more nuanced manner, André Encrevé rightly underlines that the “majority of their publications in the areas of doctrine, church matters or spirituality find their origin in Anglo-Saxon publications. They naturally carry their mark and are not always adapted to the French situation of a minority Protestantism.” (Encrevé, 2001, 219-220).

It is a fact that French Evangelical Protestantism owes a great deal to the Anglo-Saxon world and especially the American world after 1945. The affirming of an Evangelical via media on the American scene ( Noll, 2001) had as corollary an expansion of missionary enterprises towards Europe, and France was directly influenced by this outreach. At the onset of the Seventies, Robert Vajko offers the following statistics: forty-eight American missions (or societies) have established themselves in France with a work force of 378 missionaries (Vajko, 1970, 233). The proportion becomes even stronger in the thirty following years. Never has the American Evangelical imprint been as visible as since the Sixties. Dozens of American missions started to implant in France or took on a work previously accomplished by European missions13.

Among the missions to receive the best welcome, Allen V.Koop mentions the Gospel Missionary Union (welcomed by the Free Churches), the Alpine Mission (welcomed by the Brethren Assemblies), the Mennonite Alliance (welcomed by the French Mennonite assemblies) and the Southern Baptist Convention14 (welcomed by the Federation of French Baptist Churches). In all these implantation situations, efficient cooperation seems to have been established, satisfying both “the American and the French” (Koop, 1986, 176). But in other implantation situations, relationships between American missions and their “welcoming society” (including Evangelical fields) were sometimes relatively problematic. In some instances, dependency habits developed and these were not seen positively by some specialists of local “autonomous” church evangelism (Liechti, 1997). Moreover, the considerable impact of parachurch organizations in France, to name a few : Youth for Christ, Operation Mobilization (OM), Youth with a Mission or Campus for Christ15 as well as the financial support of American Evangelical publishers whose products are massively translated into French, leads to the hypothesis of a silent cultural crisis for French Evangelical Protestantism at the beginning of the Sixties. This crisis can be seen in the fact that many Evangelicals at the end of the Twentieth Century do not choose to use the term “protestant” when defining themselves. This has been shown in a sociological survey led by Solange Wydmush (1995). At the end of the Nineteenth Century, very rare would have been the Baptists, Methodists, Free Church members or Brethren to refuse the name “Protestant”. They are much less rare three generations later. This is an unmistakable sign of a hiatus between the Evangelical experience of the second half of the Twentieth Century (which puts forth immediacy, “American style” references sometimes disconnected from the French context) and the objective historical and cultural insertion of the Evangelical movement in French Protestantism.

Third Hypothesis: communitarian niches for marginalized populations 

A last hypothesis that can lead to interpreting Evangelical growth in France as a symptom of religious deregulation would be to stress the function of transitory community refuge played by Evangelical assemblies. This hypothesis is close to the first one but it lessens the sectarian dimension by insisting on community dynamics. In this outlook, close to theories found in the American field, Evangelical Churches appear as places of community for transitional populations, on the margins of a society in which they intend (or not) to fit in. The strong growth, still yet undocumented, of ethnic type churches invites  support for this hypothesis. The multiplication of Caribbean Churches in the Paris area (Girondin, 2003), African Churches and even Korean Churches (Kim, 2002) indicate that religion on an Evangelical mode works as an efficient communitarian factor for populations in immigration situation or in diaspora.

These communities cover Evangelical militancy with ethnic cement. Ethnic and cultural homogeneity often seem to win out over mixity, much like what takes place in the United States (Dougherty, 2003). Certain churches do entertain institutional links with other Christian actors. This is the case of the Mission Evangelique Tzigane (Evangelical Mission among Gypsies), which regroups 70 000 believers. The MET is affiliated to the Fédération Protestante de France (French Protestant Federation). The Communauté des Eglises Africaines en France (CEAF, a Fellowship of African Churches in France) also answers this need. The CEAF intends to homogenize the procedures that regulate different member Churches and seeks to stimulate a training dynamic (at the Faculté de Vaux-sur-Seine) with an insertion in the Protestant global reality (Bulangalire, 2000). However many ethnic communities, especially those founded after 1970, have little or no formal contacts with the rest of French Protestantism. This “community niche” phenomenon is classic in the United States (Emerson & Smith, 2000) but it is seen with suspicion in France because of France’s republican tradition hostile to intermediary communities. These “niches” are considered as religious vectors of social control, but also as a potential threat to what is expected today of “religious correctness” : mixity, tolerance and openness. Many observers are perplexed. “ The Afro-Christian Churches consider France as an Evangelistic field” underlines Xavier Ternissien in the daily Le Monde. While attending a service at a religious complex in La Plaine Saint Denis where thousands of African believers meet together, he speaks of a real “Harlem-sur-Seine”  (Harlem by the Seine).(Ternissien, 2001).

A Denominational Restructuration

Whether it is in sectarian form, exogenous transplants or communitarian niches, some aspects of Evangelical Protestantism do indeed appear as a symptom of decomposition of the French traditional religious framework. However does this imply we should limit ourselves to the decomposition hypothesis ? The answer is no. Several broad traits of French Evangelical culture compel us to underline important dynamics of religious restructuration at work in Evangelicalism in France.

Structured networks

If it is an evidence that Max Weber’s and Ernst Troeltsch’s “sect” type does describe quite well the religious framework of Evangelical assemblies, it is no less evident that most French Evangelical groups are far from religious autarchy. The network dynamics that have strongly developed since the 1920’s account for a major dimension of their identity. The French section of the Evangelical Alliance (AEF) plays an important coordinating role. It was relaunched in 1953 under the leadership of the pastor Jean-Paul Benoît. The creation of the Fédération Evangélique de France (FEF-French Evangelical Federation) on March 22, 1969, also participated in the networking dynamic16. Its starting position was clearly fundamentalist, counter-cultural, eager to build a rampart against “bad” influences. However the federative logic (necessarily integrating a certain amount of internal diversity) brought more flexibility to the official discourse. By evolving gradually toward more dialog and more multilateral orientation, the FEF has strengthened its ties with the French Evangelical Alliance (AEF). Today these two main Evangelical networks have defined a common “platform”17. This has led to the creation on January 7, 2002 of the “Conseil National des Evangéliques en France” -National Council of French Evangelicals- ( a temporary name).

Another important network that brings together Evangelicals of all tendencies (fundamentalists, open pietists, charismatics, pentecostals) is the CEIA. The Centre Evangélique d’Information et d’Action (CEIA-Evangelical Center for Information and Action) was founded after a meeting of 21 personalities of Evangelical Protestantism - among them was Jacques Blocher (1909-1986) and Jules-Marcel Nicole (1907-1997)- in July 1948. Since its inception, this effort has aimed at making known, through a regular publication and annual meetings, the Evangelical nebula to Evangelicals themselves and to outsiders. After a timid start, the CEIA gradually revealed itself as the indispensable  place of meeting for Evangelicals. It also served a few years later as a matrix for the creation of an Association des Eglises de Professants (Association of Professing Churches) in Orthez, on March 19-20, 1957. For a sociologist, the annual CEIA meetings at Lognes (near Paris) are much like a fascinating “Evangelical supermarket” where all the Churches, organizations, associations set up their stands, covering several thousand square meters in large exhibition halls. Evangelical network activism (which can be observed internally to each denomination) underlines an essential trait : refusal of an institutional structure of “Church” type does not imply that religious socialization is barred into the narrow horizon of one association or autarchic community, as Nancy Ammerman, among others, has outlined (Ammerman, 1997). The number and efficiency of supra-local networks is proof enough. Networks of lay people or associations may appear as a structuration by default in other religious cultures (such as Catholicism) where religious decomposition has affected the central institution but in the case of Evangelical Protestants, networking is a valid organizational mode in operation since the beginning of their development.

Militant interaction with French society

Another obvious dimension of Evangelical socialization is that it develops “groups and conviction networks of militant persons in interaction with global society” (Willaime, 2001, 76). If certain isolated groups, and other culturally disconnected groups can be observed, most French Evangelicals seem to be in very strong interaction with their society and their own national culture. French Evangelicals massively educate their children in the public school system contrarily to American Evangelicals who often choose to educate their children in private institutions or at home. Their public positions are indeed not always aligned with those of the Protestant mainstream Churches (Lutheran and Reformed) but this gap comes less from an isolated disconnectness than from the choice of affirming values other than those socially acceptable (on the issue of abortion or homosexuality for instance). It is certain that for French Evangelicals, the post-1945 American  missionary impact has created certain adjustment difficulties in dealing with their French Evangelical heritage. But for a balanced view, it is important not to forget that many Evangelical groups, such as Baptists and Methodists were implanted in France way before the American missions wave and they had maintained cultural boundaries quite distinct from their colleagues across the Atlantic18. Refusal of normative tradition does not totally keep their religious identity from the support of a “chain of memory” (Hervieu-Léger, 2000). Besides, American influence is far from being the only one : German, Swedish, Swiss, Dutch, British, Korean and African missionaries are also at work in France, creating a cultural circulation in which European dynamics are more and more present (Campiche, 2002).

Far from being “bubbles” impermeable to cultural exchange, French Evangelical Churches are for the most part engaged in multiple interactions with their environment, at least  because of their strong willingness to witness. In the French Baptist case (Fath, 2001 & 2002), it is not insignificant to note that in spite of their ultra minority status, several  Baptists got involved in politics (whether it be on the right or left) as soon as the Third Republic was born. There were town mayors in their ranks in different French regions like Picardie, Bretagne, Nord (Frizon, Goulet, Collobert) and one Baptist even became a member of the French Parliament between 1907 and 1914 (Jean-Philéma Lemaire). More recently, the example of the American war in Iraq is quite revealing. French Evangelicals did not stay silent, nor did they adopt the dominant American position. They are not attracted to the idea of America as the “New Israel” waging war and doing justice, as are a majority of their American coreligionaries. Among the first to sign a petition calling for a peaceful settlement in Iraq led by the Protestant weekly Réforme (February 2003) were the Presidents of the Baptist Federation, the Union of Independent Evangelical Reformed Churches and the Union of Free Evangelical Churches (Michel Charles, Claude Baty, Antoine Schlutchter). Besides, the French Evangelical Alliance issued a statement on February 13, 2003 which began by a quotation from the Gospel19 and then went on to criticize “ force (...) blinded by power” and expressed the hope that “ peace, in accord with Evangelical priorities may be substituted to preventive war and disastrous consequences for populations.”

A diverse, plural and competitive religious offer 

Finally, Evangelical networks involved in French society show an acute sense of competitiveness and diversity in their offer. No single group pretends to have the salvation monopoly but each Church, each organization, each confession intends to set forward its assets in the public arena. French Evangelical Protestantism constructs, maintains and markets its subcultural identity. Competition and emulation belong to the mindset of a large majority of French Evangelical groups. All the Doctoral Theses on the subject of French Evangelicals have underlined this orientation to varying degrees.

At the start of their implantation French Evangelicals suffered from an overly uniform religious market. “ The pity in our country is that people think of Catholicism and Christianity as the one and same thing”20 exclaimed for instance the Baptist pastor Samuel Farelly (1864-1939). With the gradual pluralization of the French religious market, Churches and Evangelical organizations have entered with little reserve the religious competition to the point that Evangelicals are not far from having a quasi monopoly among French Protestants in direct evangelistic efforts. The Evangelical type of Church is an ecclesia militans, where “diffuse” and “fluctuating religion” is not frequent but where a structured religion is presented as an alternative model. All the converts interviewed by David Bjork (2003) set forward this dimension. Contrarily to many contemporary European believers (Davie, 1994), French Evangelicals consider that “believing is belonging”.

This positioning induces ad extra consequences (evangelism, publicity) but also ad intra ones. In order to specify the offer, the content must be precisely outlined from one group to the other. Even if internal circulation between Pentecostals, Baptists, Brethren, Methodists, Mennonites and Charismatics is important, the respective options are clearly distinct. Thus it is not surprising to notice how lasting the extraordinary internal diversity in the French Evangelical world is. This variety (far greater at the start of the Twenty First Century than 150 years before) is not perceived by the actors themselves as a problem but as desirable and necessary. Each groups’ plausibility structures (Berger, 1967) are upheld by various frameworks. We can mention the press (There are over a hundred Evangelical Francophone publications), biblical conferences and conventions, training centers, youth rallies but also flexible supra-local institutions (federative structures).


In spite of the strong tendency in Europe to “withdraw from religion” (Willaime, 1996, 312-313), Evangelical development in France leads us to relativize -at least at the margins- the important gap between American and European religious cultures. There is no doubt a European specificity, we could even discribe as an “European exception” (Davie, 2002). It is inherited from a religious history marked by the weight of religious monopolies handed down by the Peace of Augsburg (“Cujus Regio, Ejus Religio”, 1555). However today, this specificity is influenced by a particularly high degree of secularization (Delumeau, 1977) and a twofold dynamic. We can observe on one hand “deregulation”, “decomposition” at work on traditional religious forms. However, even if it fits in part this way of seeing, the French Evangelical field cannot be summed up by this definition. The 350,000 French Evangelicals do not constitute solely a religious “deregulation” symptom. Through their network dynamics, their involvement in social questions and their militant religious offer, they also shed light on the important restructuration dynamics of religion in a “transition society” (Cook & Davie, 1999). This restructuring takes place on a voluntary mode, based on association with a degree of competitive spirit in which militant networks win out over institutions. Because this restructuring is something internal to Protestantism (Willaime, 2001/2) does not mean it is without meaning in a global religious sphere. Bypassed by surveys such as the European Values System Study Group (1981, 1990) which neglect religious minority phenomena, it is however quite revealing.21

Evangelical growth in France suggests that contemporary religious restructuration in Europe does not uniquely lead to a binary alternative between major institutional Churches having to accomplish their aggiornamento and a “religion in shreds” (Hervieu-Léger, 1999), whether it is dispersed because of sectarian logic or the personal religious “bricolage”  logic. As Christian Smith suggests in the American case (1998), religious communities like Evangelicals strengthen themselves when they avoid disappearing into secular mainstream, as Smith believes liberal Protestantism has, or isolating themselves in sheltered communities, as he argues like Protestant fundamentalism has (or “sects”, in the French context). Between the institutional Church polarity and the sectarian polarity, an intermediary model of religious socialization has emerged since the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, “a coalescence of traits taken from both types” (Séguy, 1980, 120). It can be compared to the “Free Church” profile (Troeltsch, 1961) and/or to what we call denominations22 (Mc Guire, 2002).

These Evangelical denominations make up a possible figure -still a bit understudied in France- of current religious restructuration along side other groups which share common traits.23 The Evangelical case feeds the hypothesis of a transition in Europe from a tightly structured religious market dominated by the unbalanced Church-Sect couple, to a more open and competitive market in which several denominations (among other types of religious organizations) coexist.


[1] Jean Mercier, « Sur les terres du Président », La Vie, n°3002, 13th of march 2003, 44.

[2] By Evangelical Protestantism, we mean classically the stress on Conversion, Activism, Biblicism, to which one can add the centrality of the Cross. See Bebbington (1989, 2-17) and Bebbington, Noll & Rawlyck (1994, 6).

[3] For an insight on this vocabulary of dissidence, the public archives on Baptists are particularly revealing (Fath, 2001, 1043-1061).

[4] See a Methodist case study: James C.Deming & Michael S. Hamilton (1993).

[5] For these two figures, see the biography (hagiographical) by Marguerite Wargenau Saillens, Ruben and Jeanne Saillens évangélistes, Paris: Les Bons Semeurs, 1948

[6] Cf. Célébrer 40 années de fidélité de Dieu à Lamorlaye, Lamorlaye : ed. I.B.E., 2000

[7] Today, 46% of the French population has been baptized in the first months of life, against 83% in 1968. According to the Catholic National Service of Catechism (Service national du caéchuménat), 2335 Catholic adults were baptized in 2002. There are no centralized statistics for Evangelicals. But if we take into account the number of Evangelical assemblies in France (around 1800), and the fact that 90% of French Evangelicals practice only adult baptism, a low estimate of Evangelical adult baptisms today is arount 3000. If conversion and adult baptism become mainstream, what will the long term consequences of these figures be on the French religious landscape ?

[8] President of Prison Fellowship International, Chuck Colson is one of the leading figures of the American Evangelical movement since the late 1970s.

[9] This honorary distinction was delivered at Massy (Baptist Pastoral School) by the Reformed pastor Jacques Maury, former FPF president.

[10] This “Institute” did not even establish any relations with the French Fundamentalist networks (like the CEBI) already acculturated in France.

[11] In June, 1999, DeMeo spoke at an OSCE hearing on "Religious Freedom in Western Europe: Religious Minorities And Growing Government Intolerance." DeMeo's church is affiliated with the controversial, US-based Greater Grace World Outreach (GGWO). Another person associated with GGWO, Greg Robertson, is involved with Scientology's 'Cult Awareness Network.'

[12] This aspect of French culture explains partly why the French parliament passed anti-sect legislation in early summer 2001. This controversial law raised many concerns within Evangelical (and other Protestant) circles. Two years after, no localized forms of intolerance can be linked to this law. But more time is needed to evaluate the impact of such a law.

[13] This is the case of the Alpine Mission (Reeves, 2000).

[14] This welcome happened before the SBC’s Fundamentalist turn which started in 1979.

[15] This movement implanted in France in 1972. It has chosen Agape as name.

[16] The FEF was originally called “L’union des Eglises et Assemblées Evangéliques Françaises”. It took its’ new title in November 1969. Source : Notre position face à certains problèmes actuels, Paris : FEF (s.d.).

[17] Stéphane Lauzet as secretary general of the French Evangelical Alliance initiated this idea at the CEIA in Lognes in November 2000. Several meetings have since then led to defining the objectives more precisely.

[18] Two examples : in the whole of French Evangelical Churches there is a time for spontaneous collective prayer during the Sunday worship service, differently to what is seen in the United States. The large majority of French Evangelicals also drink alcohol and wine (considering it as “biblical” but also as a positive French cultural practise, whereas traditionally American Evangelicals refrain from wine and alcohol drinking (with some exceptions obviously).

[19] Matthew, chapter 5, v 9: “Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called sons of God.”

[20] Samuel Farelly, Confusion, La Pioche et la Truelle, n°273, 15th February, 1907, 1.

[21] One Evangelical convert out of ten interviewed by David Bjork (2003) never received any religious instruction in childhood. Besides, 66,7% of Evangelical converts interviewed by David Bjork during his Ph.D research are under thirty which confirms the findings of W.C. Roofs who has observed that conservative Protestant churches have greater success in attracting Baby Boomers than any major religious tradition (Roof, 1999)

[22] A denomination shares an important interaction with society with the Church type but contrarely to the Church, it accepts and claims a diversity of religious offers without pretending to have monopoly on salvation goods.

[23] It seems to us that different orientations of Judaism, Islam and perhaps to a lesser degree Buddhism would fit relatively well into the hypothesis of a religious restructuration in Europe, that is neither centralized or institutional (“Church model”) nor dispersed (sect model or “à la carte”) but rather denominational.


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