Apr 30, 2024

It is popularly said that the ways of the Lord are unfathomable. But Pascal's new friends had the answer to everything

The songs are modern and catchy, and within a very short time the service feels like a pop concert. People dance and sing and praise God's love, New York 2017.
Free churches promise a sense of Free churches promise a sense of community and answers to the big questions - but the price is high. A report.

Nadine A. Brügger (text), 
Karin Hofer (images)
April 27, 2024

[Google Translation]

“Welcome here” is written in big letters on the door and “Welcome home” too. It's Sunday morning in Zurich, the air is cool. You can no longer hear church bells, their call to church has already faded away. But at least one trade fair is still coming up.

“Is this your first time here?” asks a smiling young man. It stands at the entrance to a large multi-purpose room on Hohlstrasse. A somewhat lost-looking newcomer nods. “So beautiful,” says the greeter and shows the new guest inside. “Kafi git sa de Bar, sit wherever there is room.”

Inside, people are crowded together. There is a lot of greeting, hugging and laughter. Someone bring extra chairs. Spotlights draw colorful club lighting on the walls. There are microphones and guitars on stage. There is an envelope on every chair. “Become part of our church,” it says. Soon the envelopes disappear from view; The room for the worship service of Hillsong Zurich, an international free church with a branch in Switzerland, is filled to capacity.

The free churches remain stable

Full capacity - a situation that is rarely experienced in the Swiss regional churches, even on high church holidays. In the canton of Zurich, for example, in 2023 both regional churches recorded the largest decline in membership within a year that has ever been measured. Minus 3.7 percent members among the Catholics, minus 3.2 percent among the Reformed.

The non-religious have overtaken the Catholics

Religious groups in Switzerland since 1960, shares as a percentage of the resident population

On the other hand, the number of members of the free churches remains stable. According to the umbrella organization freikirchen.ch , 22 new local churches were founded between 2019 and 2022 . What does the community of free churches offer that the regional churches lack?

There was a vacuum

“I was lonely,” says Pascal, whose actual name is different. He found it difficult to connect. He didn't know the lightness of a clique, the solidarity of a friendship. Then Pascal, not a particularly religious person, moved to Zurich to study - and something wonderful happened: fellow students spoke to him, invited him to meetings, and asked him, the loner, to become part of their group. “You filled the vacuum that I felt inside myself,” says Pascal today, more than thirty years later.

Pascal's basic needs were finally met: "I got recognition, attention, community." And more than that. It is popularly said that the ways of the Lord are unfathomable. But Pascal's new friends had the answer to everything. They knew their own small place in the larger world structure and the meaning of life. They knew what God expected of people and what displeased him. The clear rules and clear structures gave Pascal security. “And so,” he says matter-of-factly, “I became part of an evangelical free church for the first time.”

Enough money for the meaning of life

“Switzerland, along with the USA, is the country with the most so-called sects,” says Christian Rossi, religious scientist at the University of Zurich and freelancer at Infosekta, the Swiss specialist office for sect issues. Rossi sees one reason for this in Switzerland's open and liberal tradition: "People don't judge other ways of life so quickly." Another in their wealth: “Swiss people, for example, often have enough free time to deal with religious topics and alternative models. You can afford to look for the meaning of life.”

It becomes problematic when a religious community works with different control mechanisms and instances. If dual thinking prevails - right or wrong, good or evil, us against others, salvation or hell - then there is usually something wrong, says Rossi. In such communities, answers to all the big questions in life are not a quality feature, but rather an alarm bell. New members are often consciously careful to either convert family members or friends or distance themselves from them.

A valuable person

Pascal felt that being part of a group greatly enhanced his own personality. The more a person gives to God, the new friends teach him, the more valuable he becomes. Pascal gave a lot. Read the literature of his church and spent his free time working for the community. But: “Your own appreciation went hand in hand with a devaluation of everyone else.” The relationship with his parents suffered as a result.

As a young man, Pascal saw no problem in the absorbing and highly judgmental structures of his community. “I didn’t know back then that community and friendship existed without pressure,” he says. Nevertheless, Pascal left for the first time in his mid-twenties: after completing his studies, he started an internship in another city. That was in the 1990s - the distance tore apart the connection to old friends and life took its course.

Pascal made his way in the working world, fell in love, celebrated his wedding and became a father. «But in the heart and mind this separation never took place. That's why my story with the free churches wasn't finished yet," says Pascal.

“Be brave”

On Hohlstrasse in Zurich, the worship team sings the first song on stage. However, this music has nothing to do with the ancient tunes in the heavy hymn books of the regional church. The songs are modern and catchy, and within a very short time the multi-purpose room feels like a pop concert. People dance and sing and praise God's love in parallel in English and Swiss German - each in the way that suits them. The texts are tailor-made for both languages.

The music written specifically for church services, which repeatedly makes it into the charts, especially in the USA and Australia, is an important feature of Hillsong. The Pentecostal Church was founded in Sydney in 1983 and is now celebrating global success. According to its own information, the self-proclaimed megachurch has hundreds of thousands of members internationally and earns millions from their donations. In countries like the USA, where there are no national churches but all churches are privatized, Hillsong is considered one of many churches.

In Switzerland, Hillsong is one of the free churches. Like many successful free churches, including ICF (short for International Christian Fellowship), its members are young, modern and international. This means that their appearance differs greatly from more dusty communities, such as the Brethren Association. But here too, the focus is on what once convinced Pascal: the feeling of community.

As with many successful free churches, the members of the ICF (short for International Christian Fellowship) are young, modern and international. Service in the Maag Hall in Zurich, 2016.

“Be brave,” one of the speakers on stage calls out to her audience. Anyone who feels that something stands between them and faith in Jesus should hold up their hand. The bystanders place their hands on the shoulders of the seekers. Short touches turn into long hugs. From individual people, balls and circles of many people who put their arms around each other's shoulders.

In the middle of it all is the newcomer who looked so lost at the entrance that morning. Just now alone, he now leans on a young man who hugs him. Suddenly tears stream down his cheeks. He needed this moment, this touch, this feeling of belonging. And with the touch comes a promise: You can always have this feeling of belonging - just come back. And bring something with you.

Free church or sect?

Distinguishing between free churches and groups with cult-like features is not always easy. That's why there is hardly any secured data. The Protestant information center Relinfo counts around 1,200 different communities in this country, around a quarter of which have the typical characteristics of problematic communities. How many communities existed beyond this cannot be determined.

The term free church means a Christian religious community that does not belong to an official regional church. The term “sect,” on the other hand, has historically always been used in a derogatory way. Today, a sect means a religious group that violates one or more fundamental rights. For example, they prohibit their members from freedom of religion or belief. The transition from a free church to a sect can be fluid. “There are many religious groups with more or less sect-like features,” says religious scientist Rossi.

Rossi doesn't just know what he's talking about in theory. He was a member of Jehovah's Witnesses for ten years, from the ages of 14 to 24. He was also fascinated by the clear answers to his big questions. And the prophecies of Jehovah's Witnesses. One of the oldest states that Armageddon, the Day of Judgment, should have occurred in 1914. Instead of the apocalypse, World War I broke out. The sect's governing body reinterpreted the apocalypse, 1914 was now the beginning of Jesus' kingdom in heaven - and the year of Satan's expulsion near the earth. No wonder a world war broke out immediately. Rossi thought that a world war would come very close to the end of the world - and was impressed.

In addition to the end of the world, which has been repeatedly postponed to this day, the governing body also made less important predictions that did not come true. Some of them were secretly adapted or removed from their own writings. At some point Rossi felt manipulated and finally dropped out. His family was waiting for him “outside”. Rossi studied religious studies, psychology and biblical studies – “maybe also a little bit to treat myself,” he says.

For a handful of money and time

In the Zurich church service, Pastor Elli, young and dressed as if she had stepped out of a Zalando advertisement, reads her sermon from her smartphone. It's about a poor widow who donates two coins to Jesus while rich men arrive with hands full of gold. "But," says Jesus, "she gave more than all of you - because she has hardly anything and spared some of the little for me."

Soon, a donation cup goes around and a QR code appears on the screen behind the stage to pay digitally. Elli points out the envelopes that were on all the chairs at the beginning. If you turn the flyer over, you will no longer read “Become a part of our church”, but rather “Giving, Giving, Giving” in capital letters – “Give, give, give”, because “Hillsong's strength lies in the generosity and dedication of its members”.

A cash donation can be made using an envelope or a standing order can be set up straight away. On stage, Pastor Elli emphasizes again that it doesn't matter how much or how little you give - the only thing that matters is that you give something. Because by donating to Hillsong you are directly honoring God.

Later, the QR code for making the donation will be replaced by the next week's program. “Take a photo of this,” says someone from the worship team into the microphone, “these joint events are important for our church.” He says it emphatically and with an undertone that makes it clear that this is not just an offer. You shouldn't just give money, time is also expected.

Fear and zeal

Pascal was in his late thirties when he had his “second episode”. Once again he felt lost in the world, once again he was looking for meaning in life, and once again it was a free church from which he expected support and answers. But now he was no longer a young student, but a husband and father.

The new free church, which Pascal also does not want to name, asked its members to also recruit partners. The fact that his wife didn't want to go led to tensions in the community. It was only later that he realized that the situation had also been difficult for her and the child. “There is very little attention to the needs of those who are not in the group,” he says.

At first imperceptibly, but steadily increasing, fear became an important factor that bound Pascal to his community. “I felt very guilty because I didn’t quite live up to the strict standards that were preached. That put a lot of stress on me because it was God’s standard,” says Pascal. Was his faith and commitment enough to get him to heaven?

Although - or perhaps precisely because - his wife refused to join, Pascal became even more involved in the community. Writings had to be read, meetings had to be attended and church services had to be organized. Pascal also took on numerous “offices” and was eventually even allowed to preach and teach. This recognition again – that felt good. It also compensated Pascal for missing much of his son's childhood. His time belonged to God.

And yet the feeling remained that I wasn't quite enough for the Almighty. “I felt more and more guilty towards God. But the more energy I put into the group, the more it became clear to me that I couldn't do everything perfectly." The pressure increases, Pascal can hardly stand it anymore. Finally it doesn't work anymore. Diagnosis: depression.

For the first time, Pascal was concerned with a question to which his community had no answer: If our God is a good, loving God - why does he demand that I sacrifice myself to the point of exhaustion? Pascal found two answers. Either this God he believes in is not a good God. Or what his community preaches is not God's will at all.

A few weeks after this realization, Pascal got out. That was six years ago now. Instead of doing his church work, Pascal now spends his time with his now 14-year-old son and his wife. And with new people whose friendship does not depend on regular prayer and unpaid commitment to the community.

Signs and wonders

Music is still playing on Hohlstrasse in Zurich. Two lists appear on the screen behind the stage: debits and credits, simple accounting. Links Things Hillsong members want in their lives, miracles they pray for. On the right, wishes that have already been fulfilled and for which they are grateful.

“Look, someone wishes you health!” The speaker on stage points to the left column. “And someone thanks you for your health!” She points to the right column. Two completely independent keywords are applauded as evidence of God's power. Afterwards the believers pray. Not quietly and alone, but as a community. Some mumble, others rock to the beat, raise their hands in the air. Something feverish is suddenly in the air. Something urgent, demanding.

Karin’s family also had a big wish. They hoped for nothing less than a miracle from God: Karin's older sister had Down syndrome. When she was born, her parents were overwhelmed. It was the 1980s and no ultrasound had prepared her for the disabled child. The doctors spoke of networking with other affected people and medical support. Nobody talked about healing.

Karin actually has a different name too. Like Pascal, she also wants to remain anonymous. Karin's story begins with her mother's despondency: she had been a believer for a long time, and she had also been desperate since the birth of her disabled daughter. That's when she heard about the Revival Fellowship, like Hillsong, a Pentecostal church founded in Australia that also has congregations in Switzerland and Germany, where Karin's family lives. This church was a place, she was told, where miracles could happen. Why not one for your daughter too?

After her departure, Karin went through an emotional phase: “Mourning for the missed golden twenties, in which I had denied myself almost everything except Bible study and friendships with women in the community.”

A new focus

Friends and neighbors had withdrawn; no one knew how to deal with the disabled child and the mother's desperation. With Revival Fellowship, on the other hand, people prayed for the child together with the parents. Although this did not cause the extra 21st chromosome to disappear, it still healed the family.

The focus shifted and the family gained a common goal. The healing of the disabled daughter was no longer important, but rather the preparation for the return of Jesus. This is what people prayed for and evangelized for. At the same time, the family remained surprisingly liberal.

Karin and her brother were allowed to continue to maintain friendships with non-members, although Revival Fellowship actually only allowed this for missionary purposes. The parents also did not implement absolute abstinence from alcohol because it is not explicitly required anywhere in the Bible. At home at the kitchen table, the Bible and community were also discussed critically. This gave the family a rebellious reputation within the church.

Karin, who was eight years old when she joined the sect, attended high school and graduated from high school. Karin says today that hers wasn't that different from a childhood outside the church. It wasn't until she was a teenager that she felt the rules more clearly. Falling in love with someone who doesn't belong to the church: not possible. Sex before marriage: forbidden.

Doesn't God even exist?

When Karin was in her mid-twenties, she changed communities and moved from Germany to Switzerland. She had hoped that this would give her more freedom and a greater say in the still young Bern community. Instead, the critical spirit and free discussion at the kitchen table at home were missing. Karin was unhappy, but she wanted to hold on.

Then everything happened in quick succession.

Her best friend died of cancer and her brother suffered from severe depression. Two years later, Karin's father died, and a year later her big sister died. But in the community the motto was still: Pray and everything will be fine. “But I saw that that wasn’t true,” says Karin. The more questions she asked, the fewer answers she got.

The Swiss community leader said: "If these people couldn't be healed, then their faith wasn't strong enough." Karin thought: “Either God doesn’t care – or he doesn’t even exist.” The community leader's wife said that what was important was life after death, that with God, not that on earth. Karin saw it differently: “I wanted to live before it was too late.” She no longer wanted to give all her time to the Revival Fellowship, missed meetings, and began to become detached.

The community responded with isolation. “I was literally told I was a bad influence.” A threat to the unity of the community. Sometimes it occurred to Karin that her community might have cult-like characteristics. But she pushed him away. Because: If that were the case, then she would have to leave. And then what? Start from scratch again. She hardly remembered life before church."


No comments: