French for 'to upset, annoy, frustrate or impede'...
Combler: Satisfied or fulfilled in French (and in life)

Culte: How I found out I was in a sect in France (humor)

Today's word: un défi

    : a challenge

lancer un défi = lay down a challenge

A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE by Kristi Espinasse

Note: the following (humorous) story is not intended to start a religious debate, but to highlight just one aspect of French life. Please read it under the filter of cultural understanding! As always, this is a personal journal about my life, and one aspect of that--albeit a big one--is faith.

Mom and I went to church together for the first time in 30 years. You'll like this one, I assured Jules. That said, I warned Mom not to be alarmed when she heard the word 'culte'--it simply meant 'worship service'.

"It could be," Mom surmised, "that in France, a non-Catholic church is referred to as a cult."

Do you think? In any case, in English we don't use the word in the same way; cult, it seems to me, is most often associated with a group whose members have been brainwashed, or undergone un lavage de cerveau. Come to think of it, some would say as much of we believers, or nous les croyants... But that is another story and we won't get (too) religious here today--lest some of you sign off before I can secretly and methodically convert you! 

Not to worry, I am primarily here to share the French language and my life, ici dans l'Héxagone, for the past 25 years. Early on, I hoped to find a church, but I never thought it would take this long. It was a chance encounter with another marcheur (along the path I take each morning) that brought Mom and me to this tiny local just off the old port here in La Ciotat.

baptist evangelical church eglise evangelique in la ciotat france
With all of 12 members in attendance, things went relatively well during our first visit to L'Eglise Evangélique Baptiste--apart from my singing Grace Infinie off-key, and Mom's fit of yawning (who could blame her, she doesn't understand French!) which began an hour into the culte. But by our second visit, a week later, Mom and I were in the swing of things, juggling two song books, confidently accepting the Eucharist (Ouf! It was only grape juice! wish I'd known that last week....) and having located the donation box (marked Grazie! on the side. The church's treasurer is Italian). 

We especially appreciated the young guest pastor, from l'île de la Réunion. His message on How Not to Worry and his words on positive thinking made me wish my whole family was present. So when he mentioned un défi at the end of the service, challenging us to bring one person to next Sunday's service, I began to wonder who I could invite....

Then, last night, my son and his friend Paul were here, busily making dinner. As Paul prepared homemade French fries, I sidled up to the kitchen counter and smiled. "Hey, do you want to come to church with me next week?"

Max didn't respond right away, but our frites maker chimed right in. "You go to church?" Paul seemed surprised.

"Yes. I do now! To the Baptiste Evangelique church."

"Oh..." Paul said, a sly grin on his face. Isn't that a sect?

"A sect! Paul, don't say that! No, it's not a sect! It's a Christian church." 

"Yes, well, we (French) consider it a sect," Paul said plainly.  

There followed a surreal moment in which my feet were now firmly in the shoes of every other religion on the fringes of what society deems classic, and the question begged: Did the French see me as a Jehovahs' Witness? 

Paul nodded. "Kristi, you did try to get me to come to church...your church did ask you to go out and find new members..." 

Trying to explain my denomination (Baptist? Protestant? Gospel?) to Paul via a creaky rendition of Oh Happy Day didn't work either. Paul smiled patiently, and asked, "Have you ever heard that sung in a French cathedral?"

No, admittedly. But I thought the French loved Gospel! What about all the Gospel concerts that fill up each summer? Did they consider gospel singers as part of a sect, too?

In the end, we all agreed it was a great song! And so the evening ended with Max, Paul and me belting out Oh Happy Day over a delicious plate of frites. Hallelujah for French fries and peace to all of those who's shoes we have not walked a mile in. It is better to feel empathy than to define it. I will never forget those 5 minutes in which I stood wearing, in another's eyes, a cloth that did not define me--a T-shirt market SECT. And I could see, for the first time, how things might actually look to the French, and how things could  actually feel to those on the fringes.

Further reading: In this blog's archives, check out Explaining your Religion in France


le culte = service, worship
un lavage de cerveau = a brainwash
le croyant, la croyante = believer
l'héxagone = France
le marcheur = walker
le local = room in a building 
ouf! = phew!
un défi = a challenge
une frite = french fry

Kristi Words in a French life
For more about French cultural differences, please check out my book Words in a French Life (click here).

A Message from KristiOngoing support from readers like you keeps me writing and publishing this free language journal each week. If you find joy or value in these stories and would like to keep this site going, donating today will help so much. Thank you for being a part of this community and helping me to maintain this site and its newsletter.

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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety


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Oh how I wish you had a video of you all singing Oh Happy Day! Love that song! Y’all were having church right then & there- wherever two or more are gathered in His name....there is LOVE! Another favorite is Day By Day from Godspell. Love your posts! Xo

Fay Plauche' Butler

My personal favorite is "Hallelujah !" but also love your two favorites mentioned here. How I wish we could join the Provence painting group! Maybe next September. Fay Plauche' Butler

Shari Reed

Kristi—Your cult piece is very interesting cultural information. I certainly didn’t know how the French viewed
evangelical religions. The aspect of emotional proselytizing can be viewed as cultish behavior. But, without an
onsite leader the cult name isn’t correct. And extreme control of members is necessary for the cult label.
I really appreciate you sharing your experience because it expands my understanding of French culture
and asks if that the nation’s Catholic background influences how they see other religions.I will be researching
for more information about French evangelicals. Thanks so much for opening up this cultural topic.


One of the reasons that I look forward to your posts is that it is ALWAYS IMPOSSIBLE to guess what will be the topic. Keep it up, Kristi

Eileen deCamp

Hi Kristi,

I think it is great that you are going back to church with your Mom. I think all that matters is you find a church that is welcoming and you feel comfortable attending services there. It sounds like you enjoyed the service at L'Eglise Evangélique Baptiste and the positive message from the young guest pastor.


The service sounded uplifting. Not a bad way to start the week....


Oh, I'm so thrilled to hear that you and your mom found a church! Those who don't understand, won't understand, and that's okay. I'm sure it was jarring to suddenly feel so misunderstood and on the fringe. Enjoy worshiping our Savior!


I have made incorrect assumptions about France - wonder how many other incorrect assumptions I have made. Thought the Catholic religion was totally dominate due to history and all the beautiful cathedrals. Always learn something in your posts. Thanks

Stacy Lund

I’m in complete agreement with Eileen’s comments!

Thank you, Kristi, for once again putting a smile on my face and bringing laughter to my day!

Earle Self

I've only now run across your blog and found it intriguing, in that my daughter and husband bought a restaurant in Pralognan la Vanoise, Rhone Alps, a year and half ago. She also started a blog, which she had to suspend temporarily because of the time demands of the restaurant. I've purchased your first book and look forward to reading it. One small difference is that my SIL is German, rather than French, although fluent in English and French as well...



Kristin, good for you and Jules!! And you planted a little seed in Paul's mind. God can handle the rest. So glad you found a congregation in La Ciotat. The number of worshippers doesn't matter. What is preached does!

Vance Anderson-Inks

You may want to read up on the French Huguenots, the non-Catholic French, the Protestant French. I's very interesting.


Our dear Kristi,
How wonderful that you found a church(!),and very especially,that you and dear Jules go together.My belle pere always used to say that the best church is in your heart,(and he is right),but there just is something indescribable about Christians gathering together to honor God and His Son.
Our relatives in Serbia describe most people(with some exceptions) as Catholic who are outside of their Eastern Orthodox faith.Not deragoratorily,but just a statement of fact.Though I am not really familiar with many other countries,perhaps the French view featuring their religion is not unusual.
This certainly is food for thought.
Thank you for giving us some meaningful things to think about.
Natalia. Xo


Freedom of religion is important. To each his own. But don't you think proselytizing can be seen as brain washing or even insulting?




Hi Kristi - So glad you found a welcoming place for corporate worship! It is always encouraging and inspiring for me, wherever I live or travel. I also visited a “cult” or Protestant Church in France, and it was an uplifting experience. When we had a French exchange student stay with us here in the U.S. a few years back, even though she was of the “non-cult” faith, she enjoyed attending our local non-denominational church. “Sing Unto the Lord a New Song” became such a favorite that she incorporated it into her eventual marriage service in France. There we stood in a massive cathedral singing a song from the program in heavily-accented English. A delightful additional to the formal beauty of the occasion. Still in France after many years, she is a member of a 300-member gospel choir, There are so many ways to celebrate that God is good. Blessings, Janet

Sarah LaBelle

Yes, so many died in the religious wars at the end of the 16th century followed soon by the 30 years war at the start of the next century. Such a hard time to survive.

Maria Cochrane

So glad for both of you! I've been one time to an evangelical prot service in France and it was like you described - a small room with a small group of joyful faithfuls. I felt welcomed immediately. Glad this is something you & your mom can enjoy. Is she acquiring French? IF she wants to, check out Alice Ayel on YouTube - she has storytelling videos for beginners. Your mom will enjoy them and learn French.

Karen Whitcome

Thanks for this peek into a rarely heard of part of French society! Very interesting!! Keep us posted, please. Love to you all!

Debbie Ambrous

I noticed that you said you wished that your whole family could have been with you, so your invitation was not based on just pulling in members. I admire your courage in determining for yourself what is right and for your empathy for those who are labeled as cults and sects when that is far from accurate in many instances. Keep looking for satisfying answers and a song along the way can can bring joy to the heart. All the best to you and family, especially your lovely mother!

Chris Allin

Faith manifests itself in many different ways, offering trust and hope...

Betty A Gleason

What you bring to any church is what you get out of it. Be the love, fellowship, joy, and compassion. That also turns any gathering into a church. I'm sure many people have felt the peace of the Lord in your company. Hugs

neil abbott

I've just stumbled on this, whilst looking for an evangelical church near to Aubagne.
I worked as a baptist minister in Clermeont-Ferrand for several years in the 90's. Yes, trying to explain to our French friends that we weren't a sect, but part of the protestant movement was very challenging! Their wide eyed disbelief was only too apparent. One of the most infuriating comments was the following "well, we're Catholic and Christian, what are you?" once again, wide-eyed astonishment greeted my plea of being a christian too. Of course, one of the problems was the building; they would go to the imposing cathedral, in the centre of town, or if bored with that, could attend a mass at Notre dame du port, which was,i believe, the place of departure for one of the crusades. Our converted (obviously!) signwriters workshop lacked a certain gravitas in comparison. However, once we overcame the obstacle of their incredulity with regards to us, we were then able to explore their incredulity with regards to God!
It was the most challenging but wonderful times of my life and i sorely miss it, the wine, the cheese, the beautiful french language and our dear French friends.It was for us, our belle epoque!

Kristin Espinasse

Hi Neil, I so enjoyed your thoughs. Thank you for sharing your own experience with explaining our denomination here in France. Also, I see you found us via an internet search. I hope you will sign on to the weekly newsletter. This blog has gone out for 18 years and is the ongoing chronicle our our life in France. Would love to have you with us. Here is the signup link:

Amicalement, Kristin

Gordon R. Vaughan

I kept this article's email and finally ran across it cleaning my inbox this holiday weekend. Thank you for this interesting insight into French thinking.

My dad's big family had quite a variety of religious affiliations, including an aunt and uncle who were Jehovah's Witnesses. Having attended a few services as a kid (and receiving MANY copies of their magazines), I've always tried to be polite to the folks knocking on my door. This has led to enjoyable conversations with some, and others staying away after a while. Anyway, I know it must tough being called a cult.

What might be sort of ironic from a French perspective is that I had one uncle who converted to Catholicism when he married. When he passed, my dad (the next to youngest) was the only surviving sibling who went to his funeral - the others apparently thought Catholics were a cult, too!!

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