Evangelical churches boom in Switzerland

Young Swiss are increasingly drawn to evangelical organisation International Christian Fellowship

In Switzerland, evangelical churches attract twice as many worshippers every Sunday as traditional Protestant churches.

This content was published on December 4, 2011 minutes

Olivier Favre, pastor in a charismatic church and sociologist of religion at Lausanne University, tells the evangelicals are successful because they understand people’s needs.

Favre, who has documented the rise of the evangelical churches, sees no contradiction between his role as a detached observer and a committed man of faith. Pentecostal movements have experienced rapid growth since the 1970s in South America and Africa, profiting from favourable social and economic conditions. But how do you explain their success in rich countries like Switzerland?

Olivier Favre:  The key strength of the Pentecostal movement is the idea that God intervenes in people’s everyday lives. It is true that people living in insecurity may be more attracted by this notion than those who are comfortably off. In our very individualised society, where many are alone, the idea of a personal relationship with God, belief that he answers prayers, that he can heal the sick and effect miracles meets a spiritual need. In addition, the very modern style of worship attracts young people.

This development also owes a lot to migration and the growth of so-called “ethnic” churches, mainly in cities. These churches operate as an entry point for African and South American migrants. They are places that offer essential support as well as the language and music of their home countries. Everyone expects to find answers there to their immediate, specific needs, whether metaphysical, psychological, physical or material. Are these churches trying to make religion something individual, something they can sell?

O.F.: Yes, in a sense. Ours is an individualised society,  based on emotion and placing great importance on the quest for identity. Evangelical language is evolving and adapting to actual needs. It places less emphasis on sin and repentance and more on personal growth and development. And it does this on the basis of certain Biblical texts, believing that there is as much a spiritual as a psychological explanation. Your colleague at Lausanne University, sociologist of religion Jörg Stolz, compares religion to a market, where churches must have a clear image to differentiate themselves from others. Have the evangelical churches been more successful at this than others?

O.F.: You can’t compare the religions market with the economic market. Religion would lose its meaning if it were just a mirror of society. The evangelicals have a critical attitude towards society yet incorporate the best in society. For instance, the evangelicals place strong emphasis on personal and spiritual gifts. The individual can expresses himself through his talents and abilities and speak out in meetings. In this sense you can say they have adapted to modern times.

For a religious movement to succeed, it has to be both strict and not fundamentalist. If it adapts too much to society it will grow cold, lose its fervour and have difficulty surviving without state support. On the other hand, if the movement is too fundamentalist it will exclude the rest of society and fail to attract. That goes for all religions. With their simple message, distance from the traditional churches and conservatism, are the evangelical churches the equivalent of populist movements in politics?

O.F.: The evangelicals are often accused of simplifying their message or reality. This is true in part as far as understanding of the gospel is concerned. The approach is simple, the message clear and direct: to be saved you have to believe in Jesus Christ. Yet, in the socio-cultural make-up of the evangelicals you also find intellectuals and highly qualified people, people who reflect and who see life as being more complex. In North America, the evangelical churches are confused with the ultra-conservative right. Is it the same in Switzerland?

O.F.: The comparison with the United States is a bit tricky. Most European evangelicals opposed the Bush administration policies and the war in Iraq. Surveys in Switzerland have shown that evangelicals vote like the average Swiss, that is they lean to the right. One vote in two goes to one of two evangelical parties, the rightwing Federal Democratic Union and the moderate Swiss Evangelical People’s Party. From an individual moral standpoint, the evangelicals are conservative, but very progressive on social issues such as ecology, with a simple respect for creation.

Switzerland's evangelical churches

According to a recent study conducted as part of the National Research Programme, “Religions, the State and Society” (PNR 58), 690,000 people – one in 11 people – attend religious ceremonies each week. 38 per cent attend Catholic churches, 29 per cent attend evangelical churches, 14 per cent attend Protestant churches and 11 per cent attend Muslim services.

Researchers highlighted the fact that evangelical religious services attracted twice as many people each weekend than Protestant churches. Just two per cent of Swiss people are members of an evangelical church.

Leaders of evangelical organisations indicated that their services attract more worshippers than members, with a participation rate of 111 per cent. The participation rate for Catholics is four per cent, while it is three per cent for Protestants.

There are pronounced differences between evangelical churches. The “charismatic” organisations are experiencing the strongest growth, while more conservative organisations are in decline and traditional evangelical churches are stable. 

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