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African Christians bring faith back to Europe


September 20, 2004
- by John D. Yoder


A choir from the Assemblée Evangélique Le Rocher (Evangelical Church of the Rock) in Paris sings praise to God.

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A stone cross, marking the entrance to a church in Europe.

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PARIS – The Christian church in Europe is thriving, if you know where to look for it. You won’t find it in most of the cathedrals or established denominations, many of which are withering like un-watered houseplants.

Where you will find growing, vibrant churches in Europe are in African immigrant communities. If you want to find vital Christianity on the south side of Paris, for example, follow the well-dressed African men in western suits and ties and the women in colorful African dresses out of the subway toward the music coming from a building that looks like a warehouse.

The sign on the outside reads Assemblée Evangélique Le Rocher (Evangelical Church of the Rock). Inside is an important part the future of Christianity in Europe. Banners on the wall read, “Jesus is Lord,” “Jesus, King of Kings” and “Hello, Holy Spirit,” proclaiming the loyalties of the believers. At a time when Europeans have become largely secular, (see sidebar), there’s no lack of faith or commitment here.

The 300 worshipers sing joyfully to the beat of a drum set and keyboard, led by four choirs — children, teens, young adults and older women — strung out across a low stage at one end of the building. They sing in French because members of the congregation come from 15 different countries, mostly from French-speaking Africa.

“These churches are creating a kind of French gospel music,” said Neal Blough, a mission worker supported by Mennonite Church Canada Witness and the Mennonite Mission network. Blough works out of the Paris Mennonite Center and teaches at Faculté Libre de Théologic Evangélique, an interdenominational seminary of believers churches in Vaux sur Seine (on the northwest side of Paris).

“It’s a mixture of charismatic praise songs, some translated from English and with different African influences coming together,” Blough said. “It’s a unique style: they have to sing in French, because they have no other common language.”

The sermon by associate pastor F. Mas Miangu compares their immigrant situation to that of the Israelites in Babylon. Just as Jeremiah exhorted the Israelites to establish roots in their new home, Miangu tells his congregation to “build houses, have families and get jobs so you can contribute to the society where you live.”

The current immigration of Africans to Europe results from political unrest and poor economic conditions in some African nations. In a presentation to a consultation held in Paris by Mennonite Mission Network workers and staff May 19-23, Miangu explained some of the cultural and religious dynamics that shape his church.

“Africans find European church too cool,” he said, explaining why most Africans don’t join French Protestant churches. “African churches are warm. We want to celebrate Jesus as we did in Africa.”

Economic and cultural differences also play a part. “Economic dependence of the Africans leads to bad feelings. Africans become disappointed and lose their faith.”

In contrast, in the African church he sees the African village identity reconstituted, marked by hospitality and solidarity. Here Africans can realize their own identity.

“The communities have a village structure,” he said. “Africans of different countries and social classes are meeting each other; a unique process that allows us to go beyond the divisions we saw in Africa. We learn to share our diverse riches. Cultural reconstruction is common to all of us. Here we are all equal and can meet each other, and that’s where we can integrate into French society.”

Miangu is quick to point out that having African churches is not building a new form of apartheid, rather a place “where people can participate in building their own lives. It is a temporary protest that you can’t do without.”

His goal remains to “build a truly multicultural church.” For example, his church belongs to the French Protestant Federation, which brings churches together to work on common issues.

Mennonites have had a modest influence on this church through the education of the pastors, Emmanuel Botolo and Miangu. Blough has taught pastor Miangu four semesters of church history and currently teaches him in a second seminar in radical reformation history. Linda Oyer, another Witness/Mission Network supported worker and professor at the same seminary, has taught him in two New Testament courses.

Yet both are reluctant to take much credit for this energetic church. “We might contribute in a very small way to something that’s happening anyway,” Blough said. “To give some Anabaptist-type influence in a church with this enthusiasm is a real privilege.”

That influence is obviously well received. Inside the front door of the building and on the bulletin board are posters announcing a series of three special meetings in the coming weeks on the subject of eschatology by Claude Baecher, another Mennonite professor at Faculté Libre de Théologic Evangélique.

“A three-day series on eschatology by a Mennonite – I think that’s very significant because discussions of eschatology are all over the place,” notes Blough. “I know what Claude is going to teach them. He’s going to come out of it with a nonviolent social ethic.”

Sunday morning’s three-hour worship service concludes with more singing, the introduction of visitors, an offering and prayer. While the service is designed to connect to the needs of the congregation, the leaders are looking beyond their own needs. Pastor Miangu has made it plain that their vision includes mission outreach to secular Europe.

“These churches need to go beyond their walls to the world because we are the salt of the earth,” he said. “The African church is with all these immigrants so they can be a true witness to the people of Europe. We want to challenge Europeans to come back to the true values of the gospel. We are bread that was thrown to the waters that is coming back (Ecclesiastes 11:1). This might be the unexpected project of God to a Europe that is paralyzed by secularism.”

Sidebar: Europe’s trend towards secularization

While it is somewhat difficult to quantify secularization in Europe, the trend is clear based on evidence drawn from self-definition, practice, rates of church membership and religious participation. According to a survey taken in 2000, “44 percent of the British claim no religious affiliation whatever” and half of young adults “do not even believe that Jesus existed as a historical person.”

Between 1989 and 1998, Sunday church attendance in England declined 22 percent. “Extrapolating these figures would leave English churches literally abandoned within a generation or two.”

Historically Catholic countries show a similar pattern. In France and Italy, only about 8 percent of the population are practicing Catholics. A similar secularization trend exists “in most other western European nations and in the former communist countries of eastern Europe.” (All statistics from The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 94-95.)

Some theologians perceive Canada is moving in a similar direction as Europe. “Canadian society mirrors European trends in many ways. Yet, I would hesitate to call our society ‘secular,’ given that all Canadian social data points to a high level of interest in spirituality, religious belonging, and search for transcendence. It would be more accurate to label our society post-Christian, or alternatively spiritual, but not secular, says Peter Rempel, Mission Partnership Facilitator for Mennonite Church Canada Witness. In his role, Rempel maintains connections with church bodies in Europe and Africa, allowing travel and first hand observations and discussions with church leaders in those countries.

Rempel notes that the impact of migration is also very real in Canada. “Our churches are heavily influenced by the influx of Christians into Canada from other parts of the world,” he said.

“The spiritual shift in Canada is largely a Christian revolt against institutionalized church-life. Canadians want very much to identify themselves as Christian, but don’t want to hook that identity into participation in an established Christian church. This is the Canadian challenge. In some ways it seems to be unique, because it is different than the changes happening in Europe, the USA, and in other continents.”