Is there a future for evangelicals in France?

February 22, 2021

“Really, wasn’t he Swiss?” More often than not, that’s the reaction I get when, traveling abroad, I mention that John Calvin was a Frenchman born in France. If people are often confused, it’s because he had to emigrate to Geneva due to strong persecution in his home country.

It is true that since Calvin, the relationship in France between State and religion has been, at-best, complicated. After Calvin came the Huguenots, French Protestants who were persecuted by the state and fled to various countries across the world. Shortly after the French Revolution in 1801, Napoleon created a State concordat recognizing State-funded religions. Some evangelical groups, such as Baptists, were not recognized, and pastors & preachers found themselves sometimes imprisoned. So, when the discussions started in the late nineteenth century about a law that would separate churches and State, most Evangelicals were not only very keen but actively encouraged it.


In 1902, the well-known French preacher Ruben Saillens publicly hoped for the “most beautiful day in the history of France.” And indeed, on December 9th, 1905 the day had come. “Laïcité” was born, mainly with a view of separating the majority-Roman Catholic Church from the State, but it resulted in giving freedom to all other religions. The small, evangelical community was delighted. At last, they had a means of legally organizing themselves. Gone was the fear of State-organized persecution!

One hundred years later, the French sociological and religious landscape has changed. In 2021, the proportion of Roman Catholics who regularly attend mass is down to a mere 7% of the population – less than 4 million people. At the current rate of decline, there will be no French priests left in the Roman Catholic church in less than 30 years. By contrast, evangelicals have seen significant growth from the 1950s to the present day, going from less than 50,000 people to close to 1 million today.


But the main story is not about Christianity. Since the 1950s, Islam has grown tremendously in the nation. There are now over 5 million people of Muslim culture in France, and close to 2,500 mosques have opened. Mostly, the development is the result of immigration from North Africa – former French colonies mainly – to meet employment needs in France. Today, according to the French sociologist Jérôme Fourquet, one male baby born out of five in France has an Arab-Muslim name (note: ethnic statistics are forbidden by law in France, hence the approximations and studies done on names).

With the expansion of Islam, France has also seen the rise of radical Islam. I spoke to my friend Olivier Pfingstag a 38-year-old pastor and evangelist with Youth for Christ France. Olivier was brought up in Colmar, a town in eastern France where many Muslims have lived for years. “When I was a teenager in Colmar, there was very little radicalism even though the first-generation immigrants had a tough time landing here. Today, I see a real change on how second and third generation Muslims are speaking and behaving. They often feel like they don’t belong here. I feel that the different governments have not done a good job at ensuring they integrate well.”

It goes without saying that the vast majority of Muslims in France condemn and want nothing to do with terrorism perpetrated in the name of Islam. But since 2012, France has seen an increasing number of terrorist attacks resulting in more than 250 deaths — including Muslims. Politicians have been pressured to signal that they are now dealing with this form of terrorism.

Radicalism and Religious Freedom

While relationships have been mostly positive between the main religious groups in France (Christianity, Islam, Judaism) and President Macron since his 2017 election, things have changed over the last few months. To demonstrate that the government is fighting terrorism, President Macron considered that opening a new debate on “Laïcité” would help show the French population that he is taking the right measures. His answer was the “Separatism law.” While clearly aimed at managing Islam in France, which previous governments have struggled to do, the law will apply to all religious groups, including evangelicals.

For Evangelicals and other faiths, the proposed “Separatism law” mainly includes asking churches to re-register themselves again with the government every 5 years, forcing churches to declare all finances coming from abroad and giving more power to the police to intervene on religious matters. Effectively, with the “Separatism Law,” French “Laïcité” risks becoming more about controlling religions and less about freedom.

While the primary issue is the law itself, the journey to getting it through Parliament has been filled with landmines for evangelicals. They have become a frequent target of the French government, which has come as a surprise to most.

Targeting Christianity?

In early January, Marlène Schiappa a State minister declared that the “Separatism law” would deal with “more and more Evangelicals, influenced by the United States, demanding a certificate of virginity before getting married.” French Evangelicals were flabbergasted as they had never heard of anything of the sort. Olivier Pfingstag told me he initially felt a profound sense of injustice: “it scares me for the future when a State minister can’t even get their facts right and doesn’t then take time to correct their statements. She said this on a show watched by millions of people. What will this mean for us as we seek to engage positively with French culture?”

And when a few weeks later, Gérald Darmanin the Interior State minister, came out saying that “Evangelicals were a very important problem” speaking about foreign funding, more alarm bells started ringing (foreign funding does indeed happen for Islam). 

Emmanuelle Poli is a student worker and leader for the Groupes Bibliques Universitaires (equivalent to InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in the US): “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I heard this. I knew it was not based on facts. Most of the money needed for the mission I work for is funded by French Christians. My only donor in the United States is a French friend living out there!” 

It is my experience also. I personally serve on the boards of a few French missions and all of them are financed at nearly 100% by French Christians. Limited foreign funding does exist and will still be allowed to exist, but it will be more tightly controlled. What Darmanin said publicly was clearly intended to demonstrate to the large Muslim-community that the future law was about more than Islam.

Laïcité and the Future

The future is often what came up in my conversations with pastors & evangelical leaders. Alain Stamp is a veteran Evangelical leader who was instrumental in setting up the “Conseil National des Évangéliques de France (CNEF)”, the national organization representing most Evangelicals in France. He is hopeful: “Yes, the law has just been approved by Parliament, but there are still a number of legislative steps required for the law to be fully enacted in 2022. It gives us time to act but most importantly to pray for the situation.” 

Philippe Fauveau, a pastor of a multicultural church in central Paris agrees but remains concerned: “if the proposed law does pass, we are all worried what a future government could do with it and what it would mean for religious freedom”.

But while the “Separatism law” continues to cause concern in evangelical circles in France, every single person I spoke to was optimistic for the gospel. “Just this month, we are having 3 baptisms in our church, all have come from a non-Christian background. Through the work I do for Youth for Christ, 4 young people have come to faith recently,” said Olivier Pfingstag. Emmanuelle Poli agrees, “I have recently seen a number of people become Christians and join churches in Marseille just by reading the Bible on their own! The law will make it more difficult for churches, but it will not stop us from meeting and proclaiming the gospel of Christ.” Alain Stamp added: “Today, we are on a trend of one new evangelical church being planted every 10 days. It’s encouraging.” 

The laws may be changing, but the French population is showing a renewed interest in spiritual matters. A huge opportunity for the gospel.

In 1549, John Calvin wrote to his fellow French Christians facing hardship: “I pray that you would hold fast. Do not be fearful, even if the dangers were to become more pressing.” While we are reluctant to speak of this as persecution, as French Christians, we know that we could make Calvin’s 500-year-old prayer our very own today.

Tim Kyle

Tim Kyle is the president of BLF Editions, a not-for-profit French-speaking Christian ministry that publishes Christian literature. He tweets (mostly in French) at @timkyle Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24