Slowly, it’s happening — I’m falling in love with Paris. Though it’s taken a while to feel familiar with this city, I’m finding my way around and enjoying what I see.
I must be the only person here who walks at a normal pace. Most women trot — heels click-clacking on setts is a common sound in Paris — which is what I’d do if I were not so riveted by everything around me. I love strolling along the Seine every morning wrapped in a thick scarf and long coat. Though not a working river — there are no fishermen or electrical substations, only joggers and walkers — the Seine endlessly flows through old, stone walls that guide it’s way through the city. Like so much in Paris, it’s a feast for the eyes.
I’ve met very few French people, sadly. English-speaking people, on the other hand, seem magnetically drawn to me. I was afraid this would happen — those fears have been proven true! I have met English speaking Italians, Scots, South Africans, Londoners, Aussies and even Americans, many of whom are here because they’re married to someone French, but no “pure blooded” locals.
I’m far too shy to do well in this city. Or any city. Cities are for the brazen, not the observant.
I’ve been mapping “physical” Christianity in Paris, looking for places where Christians meet, eat, school their kids, pray and work. There are many.
Most churches here are either huge or small. I have seen very few mid-sized churches, that is, those smaller than a cathedral and bigger than a store-front. There are plenty of mid-size churches in urban United States, so there’s no reason why churches can’t grow in Paris unless the government or culture restricts them in some manner. By mid-size, I’m referring to the size of the congregation not the building, though obviously the two correlate. For now, note that the size of a congregation dictates the sort of outreach and impact it will have on the surrounding community — we’ll talk about this later.
Most big churches, here, do not have big congregations. They’re only physically big, grandfathered into the physical space, relics of a denominational past, a time when one’s life wrapped around the activities and calendar of faith.
The old Catholic-Protestant divide is quite alive here. Catholic churches, huge and beautiful, tend to stick to themselves: Protestant churches are more “outgoing,” but, they, too, stick close to their overseas denominational headquarters. There does not seem to be much interplay between these two great branches of Christianity.
Here, too, there are a few cathedral-like Protestant churches. For example, there are three Anglican churches in Paris: an English-speaking church that caters to the English; an American Anglican (Episcopalian) church; and a french-speaking Anglican church that seems to attract people who have married into the French culture at the same time they retained their old ways of worshipping. There’s also a conservative Anglican church that’s far more evangelical in worship and outlook than the English-speaking English-Anglican church.
I’m mostly interested in the Protestant churches because I haven’t been able to crack the nut of historic Catholicism. I don’t “feel” the Roman Catholic cultural hold on believers, here, and until I do, I’m going to be quiet. In contrast, I have a gut-level understanding of the Protestants who are worshipping and working in a culture that’s both profoundly secular as well as historically Catholic — they’re the quintessential outsiders. It is far more easy for me to understand the role of an uninvited outsider than a deeply rooted insider … that’s all.
Too, there are little churches all over Paris which I’ll discuss in more detail in another post. Just yesterday, an acquaintance in Atlanta told me about two new churches in Paris — one of them is less than two blocks from my new apartment in the 3e — which both actively serve Christians as well as reach out to non-believers. These two churches do not show up on any map I’ve consulted so I assume other small, home-based churches scattered throughout Paris will have to be unearthed, but I have no idea how to locate them. Yet.
Now, remember, I’m only observing the church life of the central city of Paris, not the suburbs (where there are a handful of megachurches) or the smaller towns and hamlets.
One thing I’ve observed is this — most big, cathedral-like churches in Paris were built and funded decades if not centuries ago at a time when the population of central Paris was much larger than it is today. Paris has shrunk, not in physical size but in population. Below is a graph of the population of Paris from 1989 to 2022. The high point of population was around 2011 — Paris lost more than 100,000 residents in the last decade. Why? Partly it’s due to the conversion of apartments into BnBs by real estate speculators and investors — today’s rentiers –which cater to tourists, not residents. I’m ashamed to admit that I’m living in one now!
The longer-stretch story of Paris’ population decline, however, is far more dramatic. The city’s population peaked in the 1920s at about three million people — today, it’s a just above two million. So, this city has lost a third of it’s population in the last century, long before speculative real estate transactions.
This is important because the population of any city strongly influences both the number and placement of churches, particularly Catholic churches in Catholic countries. Since many of these churches were built at a time when the population was higher, they had served intact neighborhoods. Today, those neighborhoods are gone. There are few children in Paris … few Catholic schools. So, it’s not ONLY that Christian faith has waned, but the raw number of Christians, in total, has also declined.
To sum: Paris has many cathedrals and huge churches that function in historica memory more than as viable congregations. They’re architectural vestiges to an era that is nothing like today.
This includes many of the historical Protestant churches, too. This is not just a Catholic phenomenon. But Parisian Protestants, unlike Catholics, have always had an outsiderish approach to the French. As their denominations waned — Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. — like Catholics, they left behind churches that were built for expat populations that no longer exist. Huge, well-placed churches live on architecturally, like bones without flesh. They do not have vibrant congregations. They’re beautiful … and mostly empty, though not as empty as the old Catholic churches that descended into secularism alongside the culture they once permeated.
I’ll talk about this more later, but let me just say that very large churches often have a mission focus. There’s a point where a church is large enough to “professionalize” their outreach toward secularists with have no faith and no connection to the church. Generally, this happens around 2000 active members. Big and mega-churches attract outsiders … they struggle to maintain the needs of Christians, not non-Christians. Most multi-cultural churches, outreach-based churches are large, for example.
In Paris, however, almost all “outreach” is done by very small churches, often with less than 50 congregants.
In later posts, I want to think through this.
I want to know if this a pattern in the West, in particular in highly secularized cities, that the growing edge of Christianity is found in small, culturally invisible churches? If this is the case, what does this portend if the growing churches in cities are moving from, say, 20 to 50 members, or even 50 to 200 members, and the physically huge churches are subsidized by their home denominations with declining membership?