Church attendance in Europe has been steadily decreasing in recent decades. Traditional Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have a hard time drawing in new members, particularly young people. But Evangelical churches are booming across the region, particularly those attended by immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
It is late morning on a sweltering Sunday, and the first morning service at Impact Christian Center is finally wrapping up. But the boisterous congregation is still singing and swaying to Gospel music played by the band on the podium.
Outside, a waiting line to get into the second morning services stretches down half a block of this gritty working-class neighborhood. Half of France may be away on summer holiday, but this Evangelical church remains packed. Impact is not the only Evangelical church were attendance is soaring.
Evangelical Christianity is flourishing in Europe. France has witnessed an eight-fold increase in Evangelical Christians during the past half century, from roughly 50,000 to 400,000. Those numbers are small in absolute terms. Evangelicals represent less than two-percent of the European population.
But Christopher Sinclair, an expert on Evangelical movements at the University of Strasbourg in France, say they show that spirituality is not dying out in Europe.
In a country where people are a bit disappointed by traditional religion, Sinclair says, they are impressed by the way these Evangelical churches are alive and welcoming.
The churches underscore the fact that while secularization continues to progress in Europe, there has been what Sinclair calls a spiritual turning in recent years. Roman Catholic and traditional Protestant churches are increasingly borrowing from the Evangelicals' energetic and inclusive doctrine. Sinclair says immigrant Evangelical churches like Impact have are also bringing a renewal to Europe's Evangelical movement.
Impact was founded by French-Congolese twin brothers Yves and Yvan Castanou, who are both pastors at the church. Since it opened four years ago, the church's attendance has jumped from 200 to 600 members today.
Pastor Yves Castanou takes a break from greeting parishioners at the church's small community center to explain Impacts success.
"This is just a church focusing on the needs of people. Spiritual people, spiritual issues as well as social issues, family issues, financial issues, all different kinds of issues," he said. "The church is there to solve all problems, not only spiritual problems. And that is what really makes a difference."
Serge Didikouko, waiting in line to attend morning service, says he joined the church three years ago. A native of Ivory Coast, Didikouko says he likes the multi-ethnic flavor of Impact, where parishioners are from many different countries.
He says there is a better atmosphere here than at the last Evangelical church he attended.
"There was not the friendship, and there was too much communitarism. It is strange because we are all African, but even if we are African they were too communitarian. They were West African, East African, South African. But here we are 26 [different nationalities]," he explained.
Some native French like 26-year-old baker Luc Perrin, have also joined impact. Perrin says he likes Impact because the faith is alive here. He says African churches like impact are warmer and more open to God than European churches. But Perrin admits that not all French feel this way. Evangelicals make them afraid. Many French, including some government officials are wary of Evangelical churches, particularly immigrant congregations.
Some are concerned about the growth of scam "prosperity churches" that prey on poorer people. Credible Evangelical churches like Impact Christian are also worried about them. Some Evangelical churches also complain that it is hard to get permits to construct new worship centers. Others have had run-ins with local officials.
Majagira Bulangalire, the president of Community of Churches of African Expression of France, an umbrella group of immigrant Evangelical churches.
Bulangalire admits there have been a few problems with local authorities. But he says once they see the churches can serve their communities in a positive fashion they are very open. He says the French Interior Ministry has also been welcoming. Some Roman Catholic parishes have adopted Evangelical-style bible study classes. Jean-Arnold de Clermont, head of the Protestant Federation of France, says traditional Protestant churches are realizing they can learn from their Evangelical counterparts.
For many years, Clermont says, the French Protestant movement was a bit scornful of the Evangelical movement. They thought the Evangelical's theology was not solid, and that that traditional Protestants were more scholarly. He says now they realize they were wrong. Today, Clermont says, its important the two movements learn from each other and grow together.