On a hot Sunday morning Pastor Didier Santana preaches to 200 members of his congregation. Waving his arms in the air, he implores them to join him in worship. Moments later, Santana solemnly bows his head in prayer as the churchgoers of Église Évangélique de Perpignan, or his “sheep” as Santana prefers to call them, bow with him.
“We must remember it’s not God that lit the fire, it’s man,” Santana tells the worshippers.
Perpignan, which is located in the southernmost region of France near the border of Spain, is a Catholic town. But Evangelical churches hold a strong presence in the city.
Église Évangélique de Perpignanis one of 11 Evangelical churches in the city. According to the Evangelical Federation of France, the number of Evangelical churches in the country has risen from 800 in 1970 to more than 2,200 today.
Catholicism began to decline in France in 1905 when the government instituted the separation of church and state. Religious buildings were declared state property and all religious funding was abolished.
Even with the magnitude of Evangelical religious growth in the region, some French are still skeptical of the Evangelical movement, fearful that churches may provide a platform for dishonest pastors.
When Pastor Santana was first approached for an interview, he himself questioned whether the report would make fun of his church.
“Is she going to call us weird?” Santana questioned the interpreter about the journalist’s intentions.
In a recent Thursday evening sermon, Santana encouraged his congregation not to feel down about their religious beliefs.
“There are people who think we are crazy or part of a sect in the mountains, but we are not. We are followers of Christ,” Santana assured the churchgoers.
While the traditional Catholic Church service is usually a solemn affair steeped in tradition, the Evangelical service tends to be lively and includes a more vocal outpouring of emotion. Église Évangélique de Perpignan’sM.O. is strikingly similar to the Evangelical churches in America.
The church is a plain white building, devoid of the elaborate ornamentation that marks most Catholic churches. “Église Évangélique” is written in bold letters on the side of the building.
Inside the sanctuary, there is little decoration, only the words “Dieu est amour” (God is love) in gold lettering on the wall behind the stage. During worship, Pastor Santana shares the stage with a band and vocalists. A projection screen hangs from the ceiling, showcasing the words to the worship songs.
On a typical Sunday morning, the church is filled with people – old and young, mothers and children, couples and singles alike.
Since Santana became pastor of the church four years ago, the congregation has continued to grow. Every Thursday evening, the church holds a special service that caters to those who are contemplating coming to Christ.
Throughout France, the Evangelical church is attempting to make itself known with national groups like “Objectif France.”
Objectif France is a group that exists in order to help mobilize Evangelical Christianity in France. In an effort to attain a project advocate from the United States, Objectif France has teamed up with the Christian Community Foundation of France for the distribution of a prayer and awareness guide to 25,000 American churches and missionary agencies.
France has about 430,000 Evangelical Christians, about.7 percent of the population of 62 million, according to Objectif France.
With these numbers, Objectif France hopes to create movement by connecting the “American Christian community with Evangelical French ministries” in order to spur growth in France.
Back at Église Évangélique de Perpignan, Pastor Santana diddles his thumbs on his desk piled with papers.
“We are definitely growing,” Santana said with assurance. Santana noted there are 11 other Evangelical churches in Perpignan, including three registered Evangelical churches and eight “brother gypsy churches” that serve the gypsy community.
“Our goals for our churches are to preach the good word of Christ, do social work, help the sick and help the old,” Didier explained with compassion in his eyes.
When asked the most difficult part of being an Evangelical pastor in Perpignan, his answer was one only a man who felt the grace of God could give.
“My job is not easy, I am the shepherd and they are my sheep. But there is always more joy than difficulty.”
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