The AEDH’s FILES
EUROPE… the expansion of evangelical churches
The question of the installation and expansion of churches with some important dogmatic features seems to have been somewhat forgotten lately.
When an increasing amount of those jeopardize some fundamental human rights, the AEDH (re)opens the file.
The evangelic church in France, a doctrine with impressive expansion means and which presents important risks.
Representing scarcely 50.000 followers in 1950 in France, the Christian evangelic church brings together almost 700.000 members nowdays, according to most of the sources (1). In Europe alone, the CNRS Researcher S. Fath census counted more than 23 million people which claim to belong to this doctrine (2). This religious movement has known an exponential growth in Europe and in the world. Nowadays, almost half a billion individuals in the world belong to an evangelic church (3).
This article was redacted based on four documentaries, French and Belgium, in order to better understand this phenomenon; the nature of this movement, the reasons for its success, but also the risks that it can sometimes imply in terms of fundamental rights violations and sectarian aberrations.
Understanding who are the evangelists
To avoid any confusions, it seems appropriate to first understand what characterizes this movement, and to distinguish it from the “historical” Protestantism. Protestantism is a branch of Christianity, just like Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Inside Protestantism, many doctrines exist, such as Lutheran, Calvinist or Evangelic. At last, inside evangelist, there are many under-doctrines, with their own specificities and distinctions.
In the words of F. Renneboog, President of the Federal Syndicate of evangelic churches, what distinguishes evangelists from the rest is “the trust in the scriptures, the trust in the Bible” (4). On the other hand, Guy Liagre, President of the Belgium United Protestant Church, also adds that the “historic” protestant movement values independent thinking and critical positions on the Bible. Evangelists are what we can call “literalist Biblicists”, meaning that they interpret literally what’s written in the Bible. The main difference is, therefore, the absence of “critical glasses” for evangelists, quoting F. Renneboog in the Laic Action Center’s documentary, God is my GPS. The Evangelic Churches in Belgium.
This distinctive reading is reflected in the societal rhetoric and the practice of each doctrine. The evangelists in particular see in the sacred scripting and especially the gospels, some kind of “practical guide”,for their daily life, quoting in this case Serge Moati in the documentary focused on the “Pentecostal-Charismatic” influence (5). Thus concerning the latter, numerous normalized practices in the contemporary Western societies are morally reprehensible: homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, etc…
If those perceptions of individual’s rights and equality already seem contrary to some fundamental liberties, they should be illustrated by an example that we can find in Alice Cohen’s and Serge Moati’s documentary. We can see a woman pleading in favor of … inequality between man and woman. On a “Christian women meeting” organized by the CRC (Centre for the Christian Renewal), she explains that being a submissive woman is one of her duties (5). This speech could almost appear as a caricature, but it isn’t. In an extract, we can see the same person defend the idea that only women have to do the household chores, because a woman must “keep her home”.
However, this discourse isn’t especially new. This type of speech is seen in many different interpretations of some religions; the most reactionary catholic people, such as the “Manif pour tous” members, are still fresh in our memories.
The communication strategies
Another major feature of evangelists is their will to expand the message they are carrying, to extend the doctrine by leaning in different moderns or more traditional methods.
With the help of communication, marketing technics or even institutional relations strategies that reminds us more of a transnational company than a religious movement, evangelism manages to extend constantly, reaching nowadays an average of one church implemented every ten days. In order to persuade Church has to modernize, something evangelists have understood very well.
The best example to illustrate this idea is the extremely effective use that is made of NTICs. In the area, the leader is Eric Célérier, pastor and founder of many websites translated into numerous languages. Those allowed more than 12 million people to be converted online. In the documentary, Evangelists, the followers’ race, of Cyrill Vauzelle, we can see a place of work that almost reminds us of the Silicon Valley’s start-ups: giant screen providing real-time information about new converts, a room filled with volunteers and employees working on computers, a studio specifically dedicated to internet broadcasts for courses, live broadcasts, receiving guests, mass retransmission, etc.…
Yet, E. Célérier isn’t alone and, like other pastors, he takes care of training those destined to create new churches; the “planters”. Again, we can notice the “start-up” spirit. “Planters” are trained to search for financing, they are given tips to collect donations and calculate how many donors they need to raise enough money to pay the rent and the maintenance costs, but for many other things as well. Thus, we can observe in C. Vauzelle’s documentary, the pastor’s knowledge of communication on social networks when he explains for instance that in order for a message to be well assimilated on Facebook, it has to appear three times, have a good cover, etc.
But it doesn’t stop here. We can see some impressive strategies among evangelists, that sometimes reminds us of certain political parties.
Moreover, and as claimed by David Goma, pastor member of the CRC and graduate from the National School of Administration and Magistracy of Brazzaville, “the objective is to strengthen the influence of Christian values in the political debate”. To this end, different means are employed; invitation of political figures such as Christine Boutin, but also a very strict control over the implementation of new churches that if not conform to certain standards could harm the image of the CRC. The invitation of some important personalities for the opening of new churches is also controlled, such as deputies, mayors, and other institutional figures. All of this aiming to ensure the support of authorities.
Lastly, the idea is to target some populations, adaptating the strategies employed to those. In that sense peri-urban zones and especially “sensitive suburbs” appear to be ideal for street proselytism and other practices of the same type.
About street proselytism, we can observe different persuasion strategies: offer some victuals, be very friendly of course, but also sometimes play on national pride, or even adapt the language to the targeted public. In the documentary, we witness one of these moments when J. Niel, a 23 years old evangelist young man, manages to completely change his vocabulary, the lexical field of words he uses, and even his tone, in order to adapt to his audience. He knows who he is talking to, he knows their codes and he adapts to upgrade his persuasion skills.
Other strategies sometimes less straight-forward, exist. Saïd Oujibou for instance uses humor and gives some kind of a one man show with a religious background. Once more, it works. He is very efficient and often finishes his shows with a religious word, such as the one we hear him pronounce in the documentary: “only God makes us capable of loving all Man of every race and condition”. On the other hand, some apps are created to send verses to your friends. Rap is another way to communicate these ideas to younger people; if the content is the same, the style is more adapted. We can even find a French-Canadian rock group, “Impact”, that gives concerts in La Cigale in Paris, and whose musicians are almost all pastors. The means are very diverse and effective to extend the evangelic doctrine.
Some dangerous drifts
There are also important drifts in the evangelic movements.
The first concerns the question of authority figures. Unlike the “historic” protestant movement, where reflection, the questioning of sacred writings are placed in the center of the teachings, the literal reading implies that some persons know the scripting better than others, and therefore possess a higher authority based on this knowledge.
In those four documentaries, many examples highlight the risks that entail the undue reliance on those figures, one of the sectarian aberrations of some religious movements. For instance we meet Thiébault Geyer, the youth pastor, who urges a young girl to break with her boyfriend on the pretext that he is not a believer and could cause her to distance herself from God’s path. Claiming having had a divine revelation, he will confirm that he told her: “but be careful, this young man is going to influence you, to bring you back in sinfulness, to make you go back in a life you don’t want to live!”.
It’s a pattern that has been mentioned earlier, with the testimony of the woman claiming having been pushed by the CRC to adopt a submitted women status and to embrace inequality in household chores as some kind of divine will. In these situations, we are not in the presence of some writings defending the benefit of some behavior or another, but in a situation where some individuals, taking advantage of their authority over followers, give them indications often opposed to individual rights and freedom.
In the same abstract, we find ourselves in the presence of another form of persuasion, or rather of self-persuasion, when the group of women who watched the testimony have to repeat after Jocelyne Coma, founding pastor of the CRC and other authority figure, the following sentence: “We are coming to you Lord, in order to be restored in our women identity. Lord, today I renounce to all rebellion that came into my life, whatever the form rebellion against my parents took. I also renounce to all act that came into my life, whatever the reasons, wherever I committed the sin of abortion. I ask you forgiveness pour the blood shed. Sorry for the thought itself. Sorry Lord for having followed the course of the century.”
It requires no comment, apart from the fact that such methods are abundantly used in sectarian organizations.
It is sometimes summed to other shifts of the same kind, the abuse of persons in a state of weakness. Hence, we can see in the same documentary how a young girl, former suicidal and having benefited from the CRC’s “therapies”, is being put under an important pressure concerning her relationship with her boyfriend. J. Coma, again, tells her that if she doesn’t follow the CRC teachings, her relationship with this man will end. And yet, the young girl was explaining that it was thanks to her boyfriend that she had managed to stop her suicide attempts.
Besides, and on the same issue, the CNC created a website “jeveuxmourir.com” (“Iwanttodie.com”), to target the people on the internet looking for ways of killing themselves or wandering about it. If it could be perceived as a genuine form of altruism, the French government offers the same service and a phone number for people doing this kind of research, with personal specially trained to deal with this kind of situations. Maybe the CNC thinks it is more competent? Or does it hide other intentions? The example of the young girl seems to be suggesting that it is about creating relation of dependence.
This doctrine being a day-to-day one, it is sometimes presented as capable of solving most if not all problems of the daily life. Diseases, unemployment, financial and judicial issues, and many others are at times portrayed as being solvable in many ways related to the divine. Those social evils would be the result of demonic entities trying to torment their victims; some pastors believe, or make believe, that there is a battle to fight against those entities… often for a certain fee. This asks, therefore, another question, about fraud.
Fraud is the last aspect of sectarian aberrations highlighted by theses documentaries.
It exists today, in some churches, what is called the “tithe”. This tax must be payed, especially when we are trying to solve monetary issues. Thus, followers can bring their résumé, credit cards, cellphones, etc. so those can be blessed to bring them good fortune and prosperity. Therefore, people that find themselves in difficult financial situations must regularly pay a certain amount of money for promises that can safely be qualified as abusive.
This often results in a vicious circle of indebtedness, that resemble some of the worst sectarian aberrations of some movements. Besides, we hear in C. Vauzelle’s documentary the testimony of an unemployed woman during a donation campaign, who explains that she sold her clothes, and of another one who spent her savings because she believed in those promises.
This type of situations are very dangerous and can also exist concerning health issues, given that some pastors pretend to be able to cure some untreatable illness or to complete some medical cares. In the same documentary, a young woman claims having been cured from cystic fibrosis thanks to imposition of hands, what can potentially present risks if she doesn’t go to a medical professional to confirm what she believes is a recovery.
Anne-Sophie Lecomte, member of the Information Center on Harmful Sectarian Organisms in Belgium, warns against this type of practice and explains how all these promises can bring victims into vicious circles; worsen their health issues, increase their precarity, etc. She even explains that some churches target the migrant population (that represents a very important part of the French-speakers followers) and promise them advances in their regularization, better situations, and other fantasies.
The progression of the evangelic doctrine in France and in Europe highlights many questions about the possible sectarian aberration it can cause.
First, the shift from the direct relation to God defended by “historical” protestants seems obvious given the different observations implying authority figures having important power over the followers. It is crucial to stress out the risk that this phenomenon can create for some individual freedoms. If it can be explained by the absence of a critic reading of the sacred writings, we must also question the role of the different institutions that represent this doctrine, such as the CRC in France, but also of the authority figures that compose them.
Then, we ask ourselves about the abuse of people in a state of weakness, in response to the numerous cases noted above. If the services offered by the evangelic churches allow some advantages for vulnerable people, actions of this nature seem to sometimes give birth to an important control exercised on the followers in this situation.
At last, the donation collect seems in some cases to be very similar to fraud. The “tithe” traded for unrealistic and deceptive promises is the most significant example.
- Delombre, B., et al. Les évangéliques recrutent. 2019.
- Evangeliques.info. Evangéliques. Point info. http://www.evangeliques.info. [En ligne] 24 Janvier 2018. http://www.evangeliques.info/articles/2018/01/24/international-640-millions-d-evangeliques-dans-le-monde-17658.html.
- Vauzelle, Cyril. Evangéliques, la course aux adeptes. France Ô, 2017.
- Feyt, Benoît. Dieu est mon GPS. Les Eglises évangéliques en Belgique. Centre d’Action Laïque., 2013.
- Moati, Serge et Cohen, Alice. Mes questions sur : Les nouvelles Eglises Evangéliques. France 5, 2013.