Just five minutes’ drive from my apartment lies the village of Zollikon, well known for its early Anabaptist history. Further along Lake Zurich is the city of Zurich — today one of the economic lungs of the nation, but once a major centre for the Reformation.
The Zurich canton, like those of Basel, Bern and others, is regarded as Protestant, whereas Lucerne and the central cantons are seen as Roman Catholic.
But these labels have little real significance now, since Protestant Christianity has long since lost its edge in Switzerland.
The last referendum on abortion offers a telling example of the decline that has beset Protestantism. The Swiss voted overwhelmingly for further legalisation of abortion (72% in favour), and against a ‘pro life’ initiative (81% against).
Headed by Geneva (French-speaking) and Basel (German-speaking), the Protestant cantons were strongly in favour of the liberalising law, compared to the Roman Catholic cantons.
Church attendance in the mainline denominations has declined sharply. This has interesting financial consequences. Swiss residents must indicate their religious affiliation on their tax forms, since the state churches raise income through state-imposed taxes on the professed adherents of their churches!
While Switzerland as a whole is conservative in outlook, Swiss churches are not far behind other West European countries in general spiritual trends.
The main Swiss Protestant denomination is called Reformed. But the word ‘Reformed’ is misleading, since the church is liberal, though it contains ‘islands’ of evangelical Christianity (and even Calvinism). Generally speaking, however, the state church’s influence on national life is diminishing.
The various Protestant groups outside it are known as free churches. Their theology is Arminian and strongly influenced by pietism and dispensationalism. Neo-evangelicalism is also here to stay.
It has become difficult to define what a Swiss ‘Evangelical’ really is, since unity has often been sought at the expense of truth.
Many believe that the key to revival is for all professed ‘Christians’ to ‘come together’. The inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture are played down. Evolutionary views and unity with charismatic Catholics score highly in some of these circles.
The great issue for many churches is not the glory of God, but getting more people to attend church services. The disastrous consequences of these misplaced priorities are there for all to see.
Church leaders have been quick to point out that the Word of God allows freedom in the structure of a worship service. What they fail to teach, however, are the biblical boundaries for that freedom. Consequently, the centrality of preaching and the need for reverence in worship have been sadly overlooked.
An obsession for reaching the young people has left the older generation wondering about its own place in the church. In some cases, there is de facto encouragement given to God’s people to worship in different age groups.
The central truth of Jesus Christ, head of his church and bringing his people into vital unity within his body, has been sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism.
Concerned Evangelicals have reacted to these adverse trends in different ways. Some have left their congregations (or been forced to leave). Some churches have opposed the new trends, even though their denominations have endorsed them.
Others have reacted by becoming merely negative (‘old is good, new is bad’). Sadly, others have stopped attending church altogether.
The diverse weaknesses of the churches have resulted from the low priority given to preaching and teaching the whole counsel of God over a long period of time.
Many Christians have had little exposure to real Bible teaching. Whole books of the Bible remain closed in church and at home, leaving the ordinary churchgoer in great ignorance.
The consequent erosion of morality among Christians has been apparent. Practical themes like family worship, Christian liberty, the law of God and church discipline are hardly ever tackled.
And church history is neglected — few realise, for example, that Spurgeon believed and preached Reformed theology.
Nevertheless, there are some positive things to be said. Switzerland has long been a missionary-sending nation, and in evangelical churches there still remains a desire to reach out to the unconverted.
Reformed views are gaining credence in some fundamentalist circles. Younger Christians are questioning the dispensationalism and pietism they have inherited. It is not easy for them as they struggle to work out their theology in Arminian or neo-evangelical congregations.
In the last two years, I have met many Swiss Christians who have come into the Reformed faith. Some are church leaders. Most have been influenced by literature or by visits to the UK or USA.
I know of one independent church in the region of Zurich that has declared its intention to be Reformed. That church is pastored by a former Westminster Theological Seminary student.
Reformed literature in German (published, for example, by 3L-Verlag, www.3lverlag.de) has been helpful in both strengthening and encouraging reformed Christians.
It has also been instrumental in challenging others. To date, several books by Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones have been published, with encouraging sales