The atmosphere is like a pop concert: in a darkened theater in the lively Montparnasse area of Paris, hundreds of young people sing catchy songs and wave their arms in the air, while a group plays booming music on stage.
But this isn’t a pop gig. Welcome to Hillsong Church. The Australian-born Pentecostal church set up a branch in Paris in 2005 and has seen its congregation grow from a few dozen people at its first meetings to around 900 now at each of its two weekend services, conducted in French and English.
Hillsong’s pastor, Brendan White, won’t disclose membership figures. But on a recent Sunday, the 1,000-seat Theatre Bobino ― where the church holds its main services ― was nearly full.
This youthful, enthusiastic, multi-ethnic crowd is in sharp contrast to the diminishing gatherings in French Catholic churches, and it represents the rise not only of Hillsong, but of the evangelical movement as a whole in a country that is officially secular, observers say.
French evangelical worshippers said they like the upbeat, more contemporary services; the preachers ― who are usually casually dressed ― seem closer to their concerns and they are attracted by the emphasis on a personal relationship with Christ.
“It’s been the same message for centuries, that Jesus transforms lives, that he’s our saviour but I just think that maybe we’re being contemporary and presenting it in a relevant way,” White told ENInews.
Several worshippers echoed the pastor’s assessment. “I think young people come to evangelical churches because here we focus on the personal relationship with God,” 18-year-old student Jessica A. said, as she helped to usher worshippers to their seats at a service.
“This is a church for nowadays, not like the traditional churches. It really recognizes our way of loving Jesus,” she added, requesting that her surname not be used.
According to census figures, some 600,000 French residents are members of evangelical churches, with around 460,000 regularly practicing their faith ― a ten-fold increase from 1950.
Over the same period, the number of people who identify themselves as Catholic has declined from more than 80 percent to about 64 percent, with less than 10 percent of Catholics saying they attend mass or participate in other church rituals. (France has a population of 63 million.)
The National Council of Evangelicals in France (CNEF) represents around 75 percent of the evangelical churches in the country, said Thierry Le Gall, director of communications.
Formed in 2010, the CNEF held its first national convention in late January this year near Paris. Among the topics discussed were ways to triple the number of places of worship, so there would be a church for every 10,000 inhabitants.
The CNEF says there are currently 2,068 evangelical churches in France, and that at least half of them have been created in the last 30 years. But places of worship can range from concert halls to theaters like the Bobino, which is located in a neighborhood of low-price restaurants and massage parlors. During the week, the Bobino carries productions such as “Peter Pan” and has been known to feature more risque fare.
The CNEF “wishes to highlight the presence of evangelicals, develop their action in society and be the voice of evangelical Protestants,” Le Gall told ENInews.
French media recently turned a spotlight on the evangelical movement, with television stations doing special reports on the rise of this conservative branch of Protestantism. One newspaper headline claimed that an evangelical church opened “every ten days,” as it profiled converts.
This year, too, a book by religion chronicler Linda Caille is being published about the movement, with the provocative title Soldiers of Jesus: Evangelicals at the Conquest of France.
Caille told Le Parisien newspaper that the talent of evangelical preachers was to “make everyone feel immediately at ease, even those lacking in religious culture.”