Church gets hip to attract youth

SwissInfo/April 9, 2004

Uncertain about the future and desperate for guidance, young people in Switzerland are turning back to God.

But it is not the traditional churches which are benefiting from this renewed interest in the Christian faith. New generation evangelical churches are pulling in the crowds with dance music and disco lights.

"A boy called Eutychus, who was sitting by the windowsill, was overcome by deep sleep, because Paul was so long in preaching. Overwhelmed by sleep, he fell down from the third floor..."

The New Testament tells us the boy was dead, but Paul restored him to life.

This story from the book of Acts may serve as a dramatic illustration of the risk that traditional churches face when they fail to engage with the young.

"To sell the faith," says sociologist of religion Jörg Stolz, "the new churches have no qualms about using rather unconventional methods."

New approach

Traditional churches have also used "spectacular" methods down the ages to maintain a hold on their congregations: the dramatic architecture of Gothic cathedrals or Baroque churches is just one example.

Music has also served the Church well. But while the Pope has attended rock concerts during youth meetings, the structure of the Catholic liturgy has remained traditional.

For some other churches concerts form the very heart of worship: the sermon no longer comes from the pulpit, but from the stage.

This is the way the International Christian Fellowship (ICF) works, particularly in Switzerland. It is a free church based on American evangelical fundamentalism, one of "the most successful products" on the religious scene, as Stolz sees it.

"The Bible is our basis, so what is changed is just the presentation, which we want to make more modern and attractive," ICF spokesman Daniel Linder explained to swissinfo.

"We want to attract people who've never been to church, or who don't go anymore because they think it's behind the times."

Something for everyone

Every weekend hordes of young ICF worshippers, attracted by the music, the discotheque lights and preachers of their own age, sing and dance in a collective experience of transcendence.

Established in Switzerland just eight years ago, the ICF already has 5,000 adherents.

The church has a presence in 15 cities and the number of people attending its services increases by 25 per cent every year. Not bad when you consider the chronic crisis afflicting the traditional churches.

The spirituality of the young is quite different to that of adults, and the ICF has managed to make the most of this "generation gap", offering different types of meetings and events for each age group.

Fighting back

To staunch the haemorrhage of members, the mainstream churches in Switzerland have now started to react by focusing on the young.

For about six months now, the reformed churches of Zurich have been working on a pilot project aimed precisely at the young and known as "Jugendkirche Zürich" - Zurich youth church.

"The statistics are quite clear: between 60 and 80 per cent of young people are interested in God and in religious matters. But after their confirmation, their relationship with the Church comes to an end," project communications manager Angela von Lerber told swissinfo.

"For the moment we haven't got thousands of people turning up, like ICF has, so we don't need to worry too much about the visual impact of the events. Even so, we've got contacts with young people in the hip-hop scene, and we're mainly working with them."

The Catholic Synod of Zurich has also recently approved a "Church of the Young" project, which should get underway in 2006.

"Who knows, perhaps we'll be able to cooperate with them too," added von Lerber.

Linder says the ICF has been branded a sect by some theologians, but is not worried by the criticism.

"What matters is that people come to us because they like it, and in time they might begin to support us, for example by doing voluntary work. But those who don't want to stay just leave and that's it, because we don't have members."

Pull of the Pope

The free churches are establishing a hold mainly in Protestant areas of Switzerland, although they also manage to pull in a lot of Catholics.

But despite his advanced age and ill health, the Pope still exerts a great influence over young Catholics and that should not be underestimated, Stolz argues.

"The Pope has huge charisma and immense media presence," he said.

"The youngest are those most inclined to identify with a role model. The fact that the Pope does not step down, despite his weakness, only strengthens his charisma."

"The Pope appears increasingly like a saint."

In June, young Swiss Catholics will have an opportunity to meet the Pope when he visits Bern to attend a youth meeting.

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