It's a whole new world and honestly I don't mind a bit. The "sell" is never unpleasant or pushy and most of them are delighted to stand around and chat for a bit. If they are local, the gossip is loads of fun and I've managed to glean from it a lot of information about my house and the surrounding neighborhood.
But the other day one of these chats turned into something else. This fellow was a bit pushier than usual and I pushed back by explaining that I was unemployed and had some serious health problems and that I was in no position to pay for a complete redo of the exterior of my little maison ouvrière.
His face changed completely and he began to preach. "You know who can help you, Madame? Jesus." Took me a few seconds but I finally realized that I was standing in the presence of a French evangelical - a creature I had heard existed but thought was a myth or an over-reaction of the French to the idea of religious diversity. And I have to say that he was eloquent and passionate and had his spiel down pat. Clearly, this was not the first time he had witnessed to a complete stranger. The only sour note came when he saw the statue of Mary in the niche on my porch and informed me, "She can't help you, Madame, only Jesus can." (Note to other evangelicals - If you can't say something respectful about Santa Maria to a woman with a statue of her, don't go there).
I thanked him for his words and he left saying, "I will pray for you, Madame, and so will our church." I liked that very much. The past couple of years have taught me to be very grateful to have people pulling for me and prayers are always deeply appreciated.
That encounter sparked a latent curiosity in my mind. Protestant Christians are definitely a minority here. The few I have met were luthérien (Lutherans) and that was only because there is a Lutheran church near the Eiffel Tower in Paris that collaborates with a Catholic church in the same area for the annual Stations of the Cross on the Champ de Mars. From what I could tell these folks were mainstream Protestants (or at least I think that's what they would be in the American context).
The evangelical movement is actually something separate from denomination (established Christian churches). Though it is usually associated with Protestant Christians - in fact it originated in England in the 18th century - nothing in theory stops Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christians from being evangelicals in spirit as well - spreading the Good News being something ALL Christians are called to do and it says so right there in the Bible. The latest word from Pope Francis is all about evangelization - Evangelii Gaudium - the Joy of the Gospel. (And to the American conservatives who think the whole thing was an attack on capitalism, well, they might try actually reading it. It's NOT the economy, idiots.)
However, in most people's minds the evangelical movement is associated with a particular strand of Protestant Christianity and churches and refers to people who have a particular set of beliefs about spreading the Gospel (among others). Some evangelicals find a home within established churches, others belong to independant Christian churches - ones that are not affiliated with a particular denomination. In France my sense is that there is great discomfort with this lack of structure and hierarchy. When the French government wants to talk to, or has an issue with, the Catholic church, they know who to call. But who do they talk to (or fight with) when they want to communicate with this loose network of evangelical churches?
Well, I did find this organization called the Conseil National des Evangéliques de France (CNEF) which was established in 2003 and became an official legal entity in 2007. Their site is a goldmine of information about Evangelical churches in the Hexagon: numbers, beliefs, mission and so on.
I find it very interesting that they define the core beliefs of evangelicals as:
"Un profond attachement à la Bible. Elle est la Parole de Dieu. Elle représente l'autorité pour toutes les questions relatives à la vie." (Bible-centered)All of the above can be found to a greater or lesser degree in many Christian denominations.
"C'est par une conversion personnelle et délibérée à Jésus-Christ que l'on devient véritablement chrétien. C'est l'idée d'une « nouvelle naissance » par un acte de foi libre." (Personal conversion)
"Chaque évangélique entend répandre l'Évangile autour de lui." (Spreading the Gospel)
But in the very next paragraph they place themselves firmly within the Protestant tradition:
"Oui, les évangéliques adhèrent pleinement aux principes théologiques de la Réforme protestante du 16e siècle. Aujourd'hui ils restent fidèles à ses principes : la foi seule, la grâce seule, la Bible seule."
(Yes, the evangelists adhere fully to the theological principles of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Today they remain faithful to these principles: Only faith, grace and the Bible.)
And take exception to churches that call themselves "evangelist" but really aren't in their eyes:
"Cette fidélité aux principes du protestantisme permet de distinguer les Églises évangéliques d'églises qui se nomment abusivement « évangélique » sans appartenir au protestantisme évangélique. Lorsque dans un groupe la parole du « pasteur-gourou » compte plus que la Bible, que le marketing remplace la simplicité évangélique et que le credo s'éloigne de l'exemple de Christ et promet à tous richesse et santé... il ne s'agit certainement pas d'une église protestante évangélique."
(This fidelity to Protestant principles allows us to distinguish evangelical churches from those who wrongly call themselves "evangelical" without belonging to Protestant evangelicalism. When in a group the word of the "pastor-guru" counts more than the Bible, when marketing replaces evangelical simplicity, and the credo distances itself from Christ's example and promises riches and health...this is surely not a Protestant evangelical church.)
CNEF lists about 2300 churches in France that they consider to be authentically evangelical. (To put that in perspective there are over 40,000 Roman Catholic churches in the Hexagon.) Still, that is enough to raise eyebrows. This article in Le Monde is a good example of the general reaction. The title alone - How the Evangelical Church is Conquering the French - says volumes. It's not one church, folks, it's many and the use of the verb "conquerir" in this context is a bit ticklish since it can mean "to win by force of arms" or "to pursuade or seduce". In a country where freedom of conscience is the rule it is clearly the latter - no one is forcing anyone to convert here. If there are French in those churches (and there are) then it is because they want to be there.
I would like to find a local French evangelical church so I can learn more. Religious pluralism was my "normal" when I lived in the U.S. and I miss it. It's not about shopping for another belief system, it's about being around something that is rather rare these days: "the person (of whatever faith) who takes religion seriously." (Grace Davie, 2000)