Swiss evangelical group YOU Churchexternal link says it is being unfairly labelled as a sect that manipulates people. Claims of healing, money grabbing, and the estrangement of followers from their families have been cited as the main problems. What – and who – is behind the organisation?
This article is a part of a series looking at alternative religious and esoteric groups in Switzerland, including criticismexternal link of their practices.
At first sight the drab building in the industrial zone of Kloten, near Zurich airport, seems like an unlikely location for an evangelical group. Were it not for the name on a letterbox and a banner outside, I would suspect that I have come to the wrong place. But appearances can be deceiving. Two smartly-dressed women meet me outside and usher me to the basement of the building.
I expect to see a dark and dingy hall next to the cellar storage space and laundry room found in most Swiss residential buildings. Instead I am led into a vast atrium that looks more like a music concert venue than a worship centre. It features a stage complete with state-of-the-art video recording equipment with a barista bar and lounge space thrown in for good measure. It is a far cry from the average Swiss Protestant church.
The place is empty on the Thursday afternoon when I visit. One of the women who meets me there is YOU Church's spokeswoman Andrea Wanieck, a dark-haired young woman with a direct gaze. She tells me that between 120 and 200 people attend the Sunday service in German each week in Kloten, and another 1.5 billion households worldwide have the potential to see the services through television broadcasts three times a week.
One of the main founders of the church and current Senior Pastor is Jella JR Wojacek – known as Pastor J.
Wojacek was inspired by Nigerian pastor Chris Oyakhilomeexternal link, who runs the megachurch Christ Embassy with millions of followers worldwide.
YOU Church began as a splinter group of the Zurich-based International Christian Fellowship (ICF)external link and was called Kingdom Embassy International. After internal splits and mergers – it went by the name of Word&Spirit International for a while – it began operating as YOU Church in 2015.
Besides Sunday services, the church hosts prayer nights and small Bible study classes. Worshippers are offered dance and karate classes and a playroom for their children. The church also funds Bible sessions abroad, for example in the Dominican Republic and the Philippines.
However, the group has come in for some criticism and was responsible for the second-highest number of callsexternal link (35) made to the Infosekta helplineexternal link last year. Waniek attributes the increase in helpline calls to what she calls fear-mongering by Infosekta.
Three issues keep cropping up among hotline callers asking about YOU Church, according to Infosekta: healing, money, and the estrangement of followers from their family.
“People hear about us from other Christians, friends or social media and look to find solutions to specific problems though the Word of God,” says Wanieck.
One of those solutions is the healing of physical ailments ranging from migraines to more serious conditions. Wanieck's assistant, the other woman I'm meeting, says she was unable to have children but was "blessed" with two after she joined a special healing service and started attending YOU Church services. The assistant did not want to share her identity because she had received threats by someone with a dislike for YOU Church.
“A lot of people today are fearful to admit that healing is happening because the media and skeptics say it is a lie,” says Wanieck.
There have been instances when followers have stopped taking medications because they felt it could interfere with the healing promised by the church. This is something for which YOU Church has faced criticism.
“When people receive a healing, we ask them to get it verified by a doctor. We do not say anything about stopping medication,” says Wanieck.
She believes the church is not to blame if someone stops taking medications even though they have been specifically told not to.
Wanieck did not share the annual expenditure of YOU Church but said that even if every worshipper donated 10% of his or her income – which is recommended – it would not cover expenses of free events like gospel concerts, Sunday services, sports activities and running costs. The 10% figure comes from the Old Testament concept of “tithes”, and evangelical groups have been criticised for using it to fill their coffers.
“It's not as if you cannot come to church if you don’t pay 10%. That's ridiculous. You give freely and joyfully, not as a burden,” says Wanieck.
According to her, people become more successful when they apply God’s principles. She says that she received information while praying which helped a work project save CHF250,000 ($252,000).
“When you have healing miracles and success in your professional and personal life, why should I not give something back freely and with a cheerful heart?” she says.
Last year, a mother went to the mediaexternal link complaining that YOU Church had brainwashed her two daughters, who had cut off all ties with her. Wanieck denies the allegations and claims that the family had a lot of problems before the daughters joined the church. She asserts that the mother lied about having her relationship with her daughters ruined by YOU Church and that the media spun the story in an inaccurate way.
The spokeswoman also asserts that most accusations against YOU Church are made by friends and relatives of worshipers who have never attended any services. According to her, the bulk of the criticism comes from social media, often anonymously, using fake profiles.
“People have even lied that we hold people captive in the cellar and starve them. This is defamation,” she says.
Infosekta's view on YOU Church
Susanne Schaaf of the helpline Infosekta agrees that YOU Church is not in the same category as more esoteric groups.
But she insists that so called “free churches” exhibit sect-like tendencies.
“At first glance they appear like any Bible group. This is one side of the coin and behind it lies a black-and-white approach of either you are with us and God, or you are under the influence of Satan,” she says.
She also says that some members give more than they can afford because the leader says that they will get back what they give, tenfold or hundredfold.
On the subject of healing, Schaaf is aware that YOU Church has officially made it clear that they do not require worshippers to stop taking medication. However, she feels they should do more to prevent people from interpreting messages as they see fit.
“When people end up with problems, the groups try to blame the outcome on external factors or the members themselves. These controversial groups should be responsible for how their messages are received,” says Schaaf.