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.”
There 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.”
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. 
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.”
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. 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.” 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. 
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.
 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.
 David William Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, Repr (London [u.a.]: Routledge, 1995). 149.
 Sébastien Fath, “Evangelical Protestantism in France: An Example of Denominational Recomposition?,” Sociology of Religion 66/4 (2005): 399–418.
 Mahaut Hermann, “France, (de nouveua) terre de mission ?,” La Vie, March 31, 2016.
 Fath, “Evangelical Protestantism in France: An Example of Denominational Recomposition?” 412.
 Fath. 413.