Swiss evangelicals perceived as minor but dynamic brand of Christianity

Media reports in Switzerland (and neighboring countries) tend to associate evangelicals with dynamism and growth, thus contrasting them with other, established branches of the Christian faith, according to RW associate editor Jean-François Mayer, who was speaking at the 10th anniversary of the Réseau Evangélique Suisse (Swiss Evangelical Network) in the town of Tavannes. Mayer was drawing on research from his recent book on the evolution of evangelical Christians and the way they are perceived in French-speaking Switzerland, noting that evangelicals have been represented since the 19th century as a small but well-known segment of the religious landscape in traditionally Protestant areas. Thus they were not ignored. Moreover, Billy Graham came for evangelization meetings in Switzerland as early as 1955, and his brother-in-law came in 1966. The famous International Congress on World Evangelization, which left a deep and lasting impact on evangelicalism worldwide, took place in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. The event was reported too, but media did not realize at that time the potential of evangelicals for future growth in Switzerland proper.

Mayer traces the awareness of evangelical growth to the 1980s and 1990s; articles started to appear about an evangelical “wave” or “booming evangelicalism” in French-speaking Switzerland. Packed evangelical assemblies, with many young people, were intriguing to journalists at the same time that mainstream churches registered sparser attendance. From that time, whether in a positive or in a critical light, evangelicals have been associated with the idea of vibrant communities on the rise. While there is definitely truth in that perception, Mayer observes that—as evidenced by recent academic research—not all evangelical churches are growing; some are losing members. In addition, some younger churches on the rise gather a significant number of faithful who had previously belonged to other evangelical denominations—internal circulation is strong, for a variety of reasons. While not exceeding 1.5 to 3 percent of the Swiss population at this point, evangelicals are growing. Mayer added that in the current Swiss context, it is already a success for a church to manage not to decline.

One factor in evangelical growth has been the planting of churches in traditionally Roman Catholic dominated areas of the country, partly for serving a more mobile population coming from other cantons but also attracting new converts. Another significant factor has been the addition of a number of churches formed by non-European migrants in urban areas of Switzerland. This influence will likely contribute to changing the shape of evangelicalism in Switzerland. The Swiss Evangelical Network, which currently includes the majority of evangelical congregations in French-speaking Switzerland, and its local branches, are making an effort to integrate these immigrant groups. This integration is one of the reasons leading Mayer to emphasize the importance of a cooperative body such as the Swiss Evangelical Network—it gives a common profile to a fragmented and diverse evangelical milieu. It also fulfills a need for outsiders (other churches, civil authorities) to be able to enter into a dialogue with a representative body. Except for Hindus, all major religious families in Switzerland now have such representative institutions or committees. At its 10th yearly assembly last month, the Swiss Evangelical Network indicated that it was still intending to become part of the Swiss Council of Religions, thus reaffirming its desire to make evangelical voices heard in wider society.

(J. F. Mayer, L’Evolution des Chrétiens Evangéliques et leur Perception en Suisse Romande, Geneva: Réseau Evangélique Suisse, 2016; Swiss Evangelical Network –