Our vision is consistent with that of the National Council of Evangelicals in France (CNEF), who are ambitiously praying for one evangelical church for every 10,000 inhabitants. Beyond our Reformed distinctives as a Presbyterian church, we too desire above all to see the person and work of Jesus Christ be proclaimed to as many people as possible in France.
I was born in France to a Scottish mother and a French father, and grew up in Lyon attending an English-speaking, Bible-believing Anglican Church. From kindergarten to high school, I only ever attended public schools, and to the best of my knowledge, I never met another Protestant there.
Now I am an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and I am leading a French-speaking confessional Presbyterian church-plant near the center of Lyon, which we hope, by God’s grace, will give birth to other churches in the area, and participate in a church-planting movement across the country.
Our vision is consistent with that of the National Council of Evangelicals in France (CNEF), who are ambitiously praying for one evangelical church for every 10,000 inhabitants. Beyond our Reformed distinctives as a Presbyterian church, we too desire above all to see the person and work of Jesus Christ be proclaimed to as many people as possible in France. It is a country where more than half of the population now say that they do not believe there is a God; where religious seekers are about ten times more likely to meet a Muslim than a Bible-believing Christian (who make up less than 1% of the population).
Indeed, secularism and prejudice against the Bible and Christianity continue to grow, and the spiritual vacuum that has resulted, with all of its moral relativism and existential nihilism, has created a space that is gently—or not so gently—being filled by Islam.
There is a historic “Protestant” denomination which is a recent merger (2013) of the historic Reformed Church with the Lutheran Church, together representing about 450 parishes. In 2015, by a crushing majority, the national synod of the newly formed denomination approved religious ceremonies for same-sex unions. There are still pockets of evangelical-leaning believers in the denomination, but theological liberalism is rampant.
As for the Roman Catholic Church, it is declining in France, with fewer and fewer people identifying as “Catholic” even in a nominal or cultural sense. Practicing Catholics, who actually believe the Apostles’ Creed in its entirety, are quickly becoming a religious minority in France—which, in a strange twist of history, is producing a sense of camaraderie between them and the evangelical Protestants.
In that context, conservative, evangelical Presbyterians are a minority within a minority, and experience several extra layers of isolation. We tend to be perceived as extremists and bigots by the liberal Protestants. But Evangelicals also look at us with great suspicion because we baptize babies and do not practice immersion. Not only that, but because most evangelical churches have now become egalitarian, we who hold to a complementarian view also tend to be seen as slightly backward and misogynistic.
In addition, confessionalism is by and large a completely unknown concept. In general, Protestants (both evangelical and liberal) are rather ignorant of the rich history and heritage of the Reformation, not to mention Church history in general, with its cloud of witnesses throughout the centuries. When visitors to our church discover that our confession of faith has 33 chapters—enough to be published in the form of a booklet—they are astonished.
There is an evangelical Reformed denomination in France, UNEPREF (National Union of Reformed and Evangelical Churches in France), which is much smaller than the liberal denomination. It has about 40 churches that are located for the most part in the Southern part of France. It is an egalitarian denomination and tends to be more progressive than the PCA, but it confesses the true Gospel. Its confessional standard is the French Confession (or Gallic Confession). Our church-plant in Lyon, which holds to the Westminster Confession, is an associate member of this denomination with whom we have obvious theological affinities.
It is interesting to note that in the last couple of decades, Calvinism and Reformed theology in general have resurfaced in French evangelical Protestantism, under the influence of the “new Calvinism” movement in the USA, and of ministries such as The Gospel Coalition, Acts 29, or Ligonier, whose platforms have extended to Europe through the internet (Ligonier, for example, now has a French language website). This has led to many books by Reformed authors being translated into French. The topics addressed are not necessarily distinctively Reformed, but in a roundabout way, the names of Tim Keller, Kevin DeYoung and R.C. Sproul for example, have been lending credibility to the whole of the Reformed system of doctrine. Interest was sparked, and now we are seeing a small but steady stream of younger generations examine the claims of historic Calvinism and become convinced that Reformed theology is the most biblical system of doctrine.
Many of these men and women and their children do not have access to solid Reformed churches where they live, or within a reasonable distance. They often attend congregational churches where the Gospel is preached but where the sacraments are not administered according to the historic, Reformed understanding.
Geographically, our Presbyterian church plant in Lyon is so distinct in its theology and practice, that people drive up to an hour to attend our church services, from all sides of the city. This goes to show how great the need is for more and more conservative Presbyterian churches to be planted in our area as well as in all of France.
This is what we hope to see in our lifetime: a multiplication of healthy, confessional Presbyterian churches that are heralding the Gospel to the lost and incorporating individuals and families into their fellowship and “teaching them to obey” all that Christ has commanded.
As we seek, by God’s grace, to establish our church in Lyon, with the hope that it will eventually reach self-sufficiency and multiply, we find that the Gospel is truly sufficient and powerful (Rom 1:16), as it is displayed in the means of grace, namely the prayers and worship of the Church, the teaching of the Scriptures, the fellowship of the saints, and the faithful administration of the sacraments. Nothing new here, but in a context where one could be tempted to try to “win” people to Christ through highly sophisticated projects or strategies, we have found that simply bringing people into contact with the ordinary life of the Body, letting them “taste the heavenly gift” (Heb 6:4), opening up the Scriptures with them, has been enough, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to dispel the prejudice of unbelievers and draw their hearts to Christ. This, of course, does not preclude being creative in our outreach efforts to establish connections with unbelievers.
In the last six years, our congregation has almost tripled in size, going from an average of 40 to almost 120 on most Sundays. For a Reformed church in France, this is a rather spectacular work of God’s providence. Atheists, agnostics and nominal Catholics have become Christians, while others have joined who were already believers: some having recently moved to the area, and a few having left their former church for a more distinctly reformed and conservative congregation. We are praying for a building where we will be able to settle permanently in the neighborhood.
In my opinion, the robust, evangelical preaching of the Word of God, in a way that is expository and redemptive (i.e., centered on the person and work of Christ), but also kind and forbearing, is the strongest token of plausibility for Reformed doctrine. I believe that as we are founded and focused on the Gospel which Christ has given us to preach to all of creation, it is possible to be both strong in truth and strong in love. In my experience, joyful Bible-centeredness goes a long way in drawing people into the household of faith and then into the comprehensive beauty of the Reformed world-and-life view.
The challenge that faces confessional Presbyterians in France will be to keep that perspective and to remain winsome in that sense. In a context where we face hostility not only from secular culture, but also to a certain extent from liberal and evangelical Christianity, it is tempting to respond in a contentious or antagonistic manner. It is tempting to become frustrated and impatient, and eventually arrogant and condescending.
I believe it would be a disaster if the Presbyterians in France, who are so often isolated and misunderstood, became radicals because of their situation. Sadly indeed, social minorities tend to adopt more and more extreme views and become more and more belligerent with time. I plead with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in France not to fall into that trap. Not to become Reformed zealots by reaction—where we start holding too strongly to certain things by virtue of the fact that most Evangelicals snub them and that they annoy the secular culture. For example: high church liturgy and musical forms, classical Christian education, patriarchy and head coverings, exclusive psalmody, natural theology, right-wing activism, etc. These things—though worthy of study and discussion—are not the touchstone of our theology and are not worth fighting for, or over. We cannot afford that luxury.
Let us not hold any banner higher than the banner of Christ crucified and risen. Therein lie the hope of France and the future of our churches.
Alex Sarran is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is the lead pastor of a church-plant in Lyon, France.