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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Evangelicalism in Modern France

Written by: on January 10, 2018

Last summer, as a nod to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, our mission organization offered a workshop series on the Reformation at our Annual Conference. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion representing France—the others on the panel were American missionaries who served in other European countries…Germany, Austria, Greece, Latvia, Romania, etc. One of the initial questions we were asked was “Did the Reformation take root in your country?”

The clear response for France was, “No.”

  The Huguenot CrossThere was no Reformation in France. Sure, France was influenced by some of the Reformers, particularly those in the bordering city of Geneva, but it was never a national movement in its own right. In fact, it was mostly illegal to be a Protestant in France. And the small band of Protestants that did eventually surface, the Huguenots, were slaughtered on August 24, 1572 in what has since become known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. A recent article in Christianity Today explains, “This season of blood—known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre—decisively ended Huguenot hopes to transform France into a Protestant kingdom. It remains one of the most horrifying episodes in the Reformation era.”[1]

In a telling anecdote that reveals how much the French experience of evangelicalism differed from that of other European countries, Bebbington reveals that even as early as 1819, France was considered a mission field by both Swiss and British missionary societies. [2]

French sociologist Sébastien Fath has done an extensive study on the history of evangelicalism in France. Unlike Bebbington’s 500-page tome with 150 pages of notes, the fruit of Fath’s efforts is a 25-page article with 8 pages of notes. He writes, “Evangelical Christianity, which required two centuries to take root in France, germinated as the context transitioned from a closed and hostile religious market to a much more open spiritual marketplace with a plurality of options.”[3]

And though Fath describes evangelicalism as having taken root, “évangélique” (evangelical) is a word that often gets confused with “évangéliste,” (evangelist) in French—a nuance which only adds to the general suspicion of a group that is still broadly misunderstood and regularly perceived as a cult. Evangelicals only make up about 2% of the current French population, and even if you mix together all Protestant denominations (including evangelicals) that number won’t reach 3%. So “taking root” is, well, maybe a stretch.

While most people would describe France as a Roman Catholic country, this, too, may be a stretch. Even though the Reformation never took root, Roman Catholicism has also failed to thrive. As many as 50% of French citizens might call themselves Catholic, but according to an article in La Vie (a French Catholic Magazine), only about 5% of those would be considered “practicing,” ie, regularly attending Mass and confession. Even on High Church days, like Christmas as Easter, only 10% of those who are registered with the Roman Catholic Church will attend Mass.[4] The article in La Vie goes on to declare that given those present statistics, France now qualifies as a mission field. The translated title of this article is “France—once again a mission field?” As if to say that there was a time, at least from the Roman Catholic perspective, when France was not in need of missionaries.

As an evangelical missionary, then, the challenge is to find ways to further the Kingdom of God and the call of Christ in a country whose evangelical identity is still being formed. One of Fath’s concerns, in fact, is that French evangelicalism may be too strongly influenced by American culture, which could be a limiting factor on its ability to demonstrate its relevance to the French people. On the one hand, Fath sees Anglo-influence as having been critical to presence of evangelicalism in France, stating, “It is a fact that French evangelical Protestantism owes a great deal to the Anglo-Saxon world and especially the American world after 1945.”[5] However, there were also problems related to the insurgence of American missionaries in the wake of World War 2. One such problem was the flood of translated American publications into the French market which led to what some have a called “a silent cultural crisis for French evangelical Protestantism” during the 1960s. [6]

Still today, many French believe that evangelicalism is an imported American cult, on par with Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witnesses. They don’t know the historical European roots of our tribe. In fact, when a young adult in our community comes to faith and begins to talk about our church to their family, they come back to us with all sorts of questions and concerns. Their families are convinced that they have joined a cult, and they need reassurances about who we, as evangelicals Christians are, and how we are connected to (but also different from) our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.

As missionaries arrive on the field in France, they must learn to be sensitive to the fact that the evangelical identity and culture in France is still in developmental phases. They must be overly careful NOT to import their own cultural identity into the church in France. This is one of the things that I hope to do with Elan; to help missionaries arrive as students of the French culture. We want to launch missionaries who are all about the Kingdom of God, but willing to submit to and learn from their French counter-parts. To let the French take the lead, trusting that their expression of the Gospel will speak most clearly in this context.

 

[1] Scott M. Manetsch, “The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre,” Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church, accessed January 10, 2018, http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-71/saint-bartholomews-day-massacre.html.

[2] David William Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Repr (London [u.a.]: Routledge, 1995). 149.

[3] Sébastien Fath, “Evangelical Protestantism in France: An Example of Denominational Recomposition?,” Sociology of Religion 66/4 (2005): 399–418.

[4] Mahaut Hermann, “France, (de nouveua) terre de mission ?,” La Vie, March 31, 2016.

[5] Fath, “Evangelical Protestantism in France: An Example of Denominational Recomposition?” 412.

[6] Fath. 413.

About the Author

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Jennifer Williamson

Jenn Williamson is a wife and mother of two adult sons. Before moving to France in 2010, she was the women's pastor at Life Center Foursquare Church in Spokane, WA. As a missionary with Greater Europe Mission, she is involved in church planting and mentoring emerging leaders. Jenn benefitted from French mentors during her transition to the field, and recognizes that cross-cultural ministry success depends on being well integrated into the host culture. Academic research into missionary sustainability and cultural adaptation confirmed her own experience and gave her the vision to create Elan, an organization aimed at helping missionaries transition to the field in France through the participation of French partners.

15 responses to “Evangelicalism in Modern France”

  1. Chris Pritchett says:

    Hey Jennifer – This is very interesting, thank you! I appreciate how you succinctly recapped the the history of non-evangelicalism in France. and the massacre. I’m curious how far you are from where that took place and whether you’ve visited. More related to the content, I’m curious how, practically, you work on not importing your cultural identity where you are. What have been some ways you’ve been able to build bridges?

  2. mm Jennifer Williamson says:

    Hey Chris, I think the first step in not importing culture is in recognizing how much my reading and understanding of the scriptures has been culturally influenced. If I beieve that I have a “pure” understanding of the Gospel, I will not be culturally sensitive. I think we also have to come in a Spirit of submission to nationals with a heart of a learner. We also have to die to some of our personal preferences and embrace local ways of doing things. We build bridges by building trust. And this is a long and slow process.

  3. mm M Webb says:

    Jennifer,

    Bonne Année! Great history lesson on France’s attempt at reformation and the Satanic attack at Saint Bartholomew. You truly are serving in a least reached country in need of salvation. Thanks for the magnifique analysis on evangelical movement, or lack of one, in France.

    We support some missionaries at BLF, Bibles and Literature in French in Marpent. They have really opened our eyes to the need to produce strategic books by French authors for French speakers that break down barriers. Have you seen L’Évangile, tout l’Évangile, rien que l’Évangile (The Explicit Gospel) by Matt Chandler about what the Gospel really is.

    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Yes, we love BLF. But it is too bad that there seems to be more translation of American resources than development of French ones. This tends to be true of worship songs, too. The truth is, with such a small percentage of evangelicals, there isn’t much fo a market. Sadly. But I don’t think there’s a lack of inspiration.

  4. Greg says:

    Thank you Jenn for taking us with you on the journey through the evangelical church in your context. It is interesting that with so many cults around the world, that people immediately think that loved ones are being tricked and taken advantage of when they come to believe. We see that in our area as well. I think Christ’s church has met with suspicion throughout history. I was teaching a 24 hour “leader” class this week and said repeatedly that if something doesn’t sound write or is different than your experience than you need to go to the Word first and find answers. If we ever feel we have the right and pure gospel, we are in lots of trouble 🙂 appreciate your perspective on this.

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Yes, I love your instruction to go to the Word. Sadly, I often find myself wondering if some evangelicals in the States are familiar with the Word! Was your class really 24 hours long? How does that work?

  5. mm Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Jennifer! What an interesting French history lesson! Your content on culture is so important! As a missionary, you must feel that this same issue of ethnocentrism keeps surfacing. When will we (Christians in the US) learn? I guess the big question is how and when will the French become inspired to produce the Biblical literature/teaching needed to impact transformation. Why do you believe they have been so slow to do so? Just sheer numbers?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      Hi Jean, you know I DO think the French are inspired and able. But the numbers game is also real. Few publishers, even Christian publishers, can afford to take a risk on a book that might only impact 2% of the population. Things like blogs and podcasts and webvideos are helping to get the French voice out there. I do what I can to share and promote those among my French networks as much as possible.

  6. Great post Jenn! It was fascinating to read about how different Evangelicals are perceived in France and how you have to re-educate people and also learn from the French culture in order to minister effectively. Another great reason why Elan will be so valuable for missionaries coming to France. I’m curious how you convince people that you guys are not the cult they might think you are?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      We have to be super transparent. In other word, house churches are at greatest risk of being perceived as cults because they are not visible from the street and open to the public. We have a storefront with huge windows so that people can see in. We post our service times. We are proactive when moving into a community, taking the initiative to introduce ourselves to the mayor and th elocal priest, so that they become allies even if they are not are not religious.

  7. mm Dan Kreiss says:

    Excellent post and not boring at all! Awesome to learn about the historical roots of Christianity, both RC and Protestant in that country. I think you have clearly understood the issue with much of the more recent Evangelical movement and that is the enculturation, particularly from the U.S. that has been intertwined with the Gospel. It is for good reason that the French as in other cultures may wonder at the underlying motives for those seeking to ‘evangelize’ in their country. I am glad to know that you are there modeling a different and more culturally sensitive way.

  8. mm Trisha Welstad says:

    Jenn, thanks for sharing your context here in light of Bebbington’s text. It helped me to understand a little better what it’s like for you and the people you encounter. And it made me pray for you, that God would send others and that the people of France would know the truth of the Good News. Thanks for your faithfulness to your calling for the people in your community.

    I wonder if you wrestle with or proudly own the term evangelical within your context? Since most people don’t really know what it is does it even matter? How does the term Christian fare?

    • mm Jennifer Williamson says:

      The term “evangélique” in France is still positive among Christians. But since it is suspect among the general population (for the reasons stated above–it is widely unknown, and what is known is associated with people like Trump), we mostly introduce ourselves a Protestant Evangelicals. This seems to be the best received nomenclature. The term Christian is sort of like the term Mulsim in some Arab countries. It is an historical tradition that French people identify with, but necessarily a statement of faith.

  9. Jenn, merci. Reading your post brought me back to the many conversations we have here about Québec which exhibits all the same traits as France.

    You might be interested to view this brief video submitted for our Spark Initiative as it focuses on church planting in Québec.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aNfzofXDcwY&feature=youtu.be

    Also, have you discovered the work of Direction Chrétienne in Montréal? These folks are friends of mine and have had a terrific influence in La Francophonie in creating indigenous resources. Alas, being from Québec, they may suffer from being considered from the colonies… but check them out, regardless.

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