“We’re here because the church in Paris is dead,” shared the pastor’s wife as we strolled towards the Eiffel Tower. “Not dying—dead.”
Church structures still speckle the historic streets, she explained, but the vitality within them has faded from a brilliant flame to a dim flicker, like the final sputters of a struggling candle. So, the need in Paris isn’t so much church planting as church resuscitation.
As I considered this later, the words of Christ’s letter to the Church in Sardis—the dead church—sprung to mind:
“Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die.” (Revelation 3:2a, NIV.)
When the church’s influence has grown so irrelevant that many people take Atheism for granted, where does that leave Christian university students? As I gazed up at the iconic tower above me, its elegant metalwork tiering skyward to dizzying heights, I couldn’t be sure. But when we circled back to the church to meet a local Christian arts student over tea, I knew the answer waited—quite literally—just around the corner.
The arts student’s story:
“When I started studying art in another part of France,” the dark-haired girl began, “the main focus in my program was perversion, vulgarity, and all things sexual—it was very weird. Some people were very shocking and violent in their approach to art. I didn’t really know how to be in this environment and not be affected by it. It was really hard spiritually to be in a place so dark and so far away from God. I was getting good grades, but it was always a challenge to put a better spin on the topics they wanted us to work on.”
Remarkably, the challenges of following Christ in this environment began from the very first day of this student’s association with her arts school.
“On the day of the exam to get in,” she told me, “the school authorities saw on my portfolio that I’d done two years of theology. So, they straightaway asked, ‘Why are you a Christian?’ They were shocked that a Christian would want to go into art school! I showed them my art, and the teacher called it spiritist—he thought I was invoking spirits. From that exam throughout the first semester, it was very tense. Even the student body president was always talking about occult stuff in his newsletters, which we got from the school and had to read. That whole year was just crazy, because I didn’t know how I could find my place and fit in.”
I nodded, remembering how often other Christian students confided they felt alone in their programs. (See also Three Things Christian Students Need to Know: Conversations in Belgium.)
“At the end of the first semester,” she continued, “the school jury was in front of me talking about what I’d done. The one teacher still called my work spiritual. I answered, ‘Yeah, I believe in God. I think my art is a way of worshiping him.’ The teacher beside him said, ‘No; it’s just pretty—there’s no link to God.’ Then, after the semester, I went to the head teacher and said, ‘I don’t want to be a part of everything you’re asking me to do.’ In answer, he started talking about how he’d left the Catholic church when he was younger, because of its rules. ‘I can’t do anything for you,’ he told me. ‘You can either stay or leave.’”
Still wanting to serve God as a professional artist, the student then faced a major decision.
“Healthwise,” she confided, “university was really anxiety-provoking, because I would go into the school and never know what to expect. I decided, ‘I can’t do this,’ and took a break. But later I came back, thinking I could change my mindset or rationalize it a bit. From the day I went in, the classes got worse and worse. They talked about raping and pornography. I hadn’t been in school for three weeks, so going back into that was so heavy, hard and disgusting. I got out of the classroom—just left. I went to my dad and said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. I love art and creating, but this environment is not good.´ It was frustrating because I was good at what I was doing—I loved creating—but just not the pressure!”
In that dark world, however, the light of Christ’s presence in her created a contrast her classmates couldn’t help but notice.
“The other students said, ‘Your art is really peaceful.’ They saw there was a difference between the violent part of it and me. But for a year I took a break, and then last year I chose to study art here in Paris. I didn’t know if the same things were going to happen in Paris too, because the level is so high. But I applied, and they accepted me. The difference here is that I have Christian friends at the campus, which I didn’t have at my first art school. Also, it’s a little more academic here—it’s not the same mindset and kind of people.”
She paused, reflecting on the first art school.
“They want the students in a mold,” she voiced. “If students don’t follow the ideas they give them, they’re out.”
Sometimes, my science classes could feel the same way, I remembered.
“Everybody was trying to be different,” continued the student, “so no one was different at all. They think art needs to be shocking or vulgar to be good. They don’t have anything else to be inspired by. They’re so lost without God; vulgarity is the only thing they have to think about. I think that artists reflect the time they’re in.”
“This is a country without God—without hope,” the pastor’s wife spoke up, “so it’s not surprising.” (See also 5 Consequences of Societies that Forget God.)
“Were there any positives?” I asked the student, “Anything that you found encouraging about being a Christian in the art school environment?
“I think it’s amazing how even in places where you feel like it’s hostile,” she replied, “there’s always someone there for you. At that school where it was really hard, there was a Christian secretary I’d go to see. It’s not all dark. And people around me were searching, too. They were really receptive. They would all sit outside the building and smoke and take drugs; I wasn’t there for that, but I was still there with them.”
“So, what advice would you give another Christian student in the kind of setting you encountered?” I asked.
“Have Christian friends around you,” she emphasized. “Don’t do it alone. Even if in the school you’re alone, have a balance. Make sure that you have enough influence from the church as well as from the school. You need to be fed by people who can influence you, encourage you, edify you, and validate you, agreeing with you that what you’re having to study is wrong. And if another student is in my position, I’d remind them it’s okay to accept that maybe that’s not the right school for them right now. It’s all in God’s timing, so if it really doesn’t make sense to stay, see if there’s a way out. No one should feel forced to be the little warrior, all by themselves. It isn’t always healthy to be submerged in that environment. Like when I saw so much vulgar art, I’d always say, ‘It hurt my eyes.’ There’s this print in my mind of all the stuff I saw. It goes away, but still it hurts. So I’d tell another student, ‘If don’t need to do that, don’t. There are other schools that do art too, and don’t value the same things.’”
“How can the church support students in a situation like yours?” I wanted to know.
“By having a solid foundation on the Bible,” she answered. “Churches should really teach students what the gospel is. If students are not really sure what they believe in, any time a question comes up, they’ll be less able to defend themselves. Churches also need to know the culture—what the people think—so they can counteract what is unbiblical. And maybe, churches should embrace students’ giftings.”
Here, she pointed to several paintings adorning the church foyer walls. “These are my pictures—see? Art brings something out that you can’t say with words—beauty and the glory of God. So, I’d say to church leaders, ‘Let students use their talents in the church—music, or anything creative. If it’s looked down on in the church, it’s really hard for students, because that’s what they’re good at.”
Looking at the pictures, I had to agree. And, I noticed, between emphasizing the importance of Christian friends, solid Bible teaching and apologetics training, this student covered the need for interpersonal, spiritual and intellectual foundations—just like so many other students I’ve talked to around the world.
What other stories and insights would Christian students in Paris have to offer about following Christ in their secular culture? As the church door opened and a graduate student walked in, I knew I was about to find out.