- Colorful Islands in the Church Landscape

Colorful Islands in the Church Landscape

There are hundreds of migrant churches in Switzerland. Immigrants seem to prefer to start a new church instead of attending existing Swiss churches. Why?

Johannes Müller: The stories I hear from African church leaders are generally very similar. At the start, all of them tried to join a local church, but after a while, they noticed that it just didn’t fit. In the 1990s, when the number of Africans in Switzerland increased greatly, several people from the same African  country or region then joined together and started their own church. New immigrants then got connected to these churches directly when they came to Switzerland.

Samuel Kopp: The situation is pretty much the same for the Latinos. Peole want a church similar to the one they had in their native country. They look for something in a church that makes them feel at home. The native tongue also plays an important role.  

Do these churches keep to themselves or do they seek contact to Swiss people and Swiss churches?

Samuel Kopp: Many keep to themselves, even though they would like other contacts. Whether they actively seek contact is another matter, because they do rub the wrong way sometimes. The Gospel that these people, for example from South America, bring, is lived out and experienced so differently that both sides sometimes ask themselves: “Is this the same Gospel?” That makes these encounters very challenging. The church cultures are sometimes completely different.  

Johannes Müller: Most African church leaders have a vision to reach Swiss people and would like to be perceived in that way. They also wish to carry out events together with Swiss churches. The actual contacts tend to be mostly sporadic.   

Natural contacts occur where international and Swiss churches share locations and rooms. But exactly that is a difficult situation. Order, hygeine and noise become key issues which can lead to frustration on both sides.

Do migration churches help people to integrate into society, or do they rather have the opposite effect?  

Johannes Müller: There’s an odd mix of both. That type of church is often the only link or safe harbour that immigrants have. In the churches they find people who understand them, which gives them security, and they receive advice. In that sense, the churches help them get their bearings here. The question is what happens in the medium term. If you only move in those circles and don’t learn the native language very well, it can tip towards the opposite end of the scale.

Samuel Kopp: From my point of view, these churches have a great integration potential. That’s one of the main reasons I am committed to AGiK. International churches act as safe harbours from which we can be active. They help people deal with the new situation. In the worst case, however, churches can also lead to people closing themselves off from society.

Do migration churches have an influence on the church landscape in Switzerland?

Johannes Müller: I have noticed that many Swiss church leaders are very surprised to discover how many of these churches there are and how active they are. That means that awareness of these churches is surprisingly low. And if there’s no awareness, there’s also no influence. Many churches do dare to take some steps. They try to do things together. The exchange, for example in the Evangelical Alliance, is often felt to be interesting and enriching. Given the current scale of worldwide immigration taking place, which is complely new, the worldwide body of Christ can be experienced and is visible  locally.

Samuel Kopp: Migration is a fact which God has created in Europe and in Switzerland, but also a gift of His. It is simply not taken note of sufficiently. The topic of immigration is strongly marked by Islam, even though one million of the 1.5 millionen foreigners in Switzerland are Catholic. For this reason, one of AgiK’s main goals must be that these immigrants are taken into account and receive a voice.  

What are the goals of AgiK’s work? Which goal are you trying to reach?

Samuel Kopp: We see that we’re just starting and we need to raise awareness. The international churches often have no idea what’s happening with us and we don’t know what’s going on with them. We are trying to develop cooperation models and go down the same path as they do, in order to better use the potential that God has given for both sides.

Johannes Müller: When I started working at AGiK six years ago, the networking of Swiss people who were developing intercultural activities was functioning quite well. There was mutual stimulation and exchange of experiences. Since then, AGiK has taken several steps toward its goal of having Swiss people and international Christians get active together. We try to let people experience this unity, for example with the “Celebration” in Zurich.

How can migration churches and Swiss churches benefit from one another more?

Samuel Kopp: The big challenge is putting things into context. It’s hard to notice that we have lots to share with each other because the Gospel is lived out so very differently. The foreigners in Switzerland are not only a mission field, they’re also a mission power. We have lots to give to each other in the areas of evangelisation, prayer, reading the Bible. It just needs a readiness on both sides to learn from each other and to walk this road together.   

Johannes Müller: The “exotic” is very attractive. Latin American or African music draws people in. I help to organize an annual African concert in Winterthur. There is no other Christian event to which you can invite people so easily. The allure of the exotic is positive. If cooperation results from an event like that, then it’s also a signal to society; people from totally different backgrounds can do something together and the connection is the shared faith.

What is needed so that churches approach each other?

Samuel Kopp: It needs individuals who act as bridge builders, like the Co-Leader of AGiK, Carl Hardmeier. The secondos are also important, because they can act as mediators.  

Johannes Müller: I have always experienced that such get-togethers are eye-openers for both sides. When cultures clash, then you have no idea what the other side expects. You have to be conscious of the fact that there are great differences. It only works if you are aware of your own culture as well as that of your counterpart, whom you then have to approach step by step. However, this kind of process takes time and effort.

What is your personal motivation for intercultural work?

Johannes Müller: A key motivation for me lies in the Biblical promises: Jesus is the savior of the entire world. In Revelation, the different nations are always identified with their own identities, but there is no separation anymore. The exciting thing about our global world today is that people from completely different backgrounds encounter each other on a local level. My motivation is that part of this great goal of God’s is becoming visible and can be experienced already today. It’s something very special to me when I see that an African feels he is understood because we have that mutual connection in Jesus. Or it works the other way around, when Swiss people suddenly realize: “That’s fantastic that people can meet each other in such a way.”

Samuel Kopp: I’m motivated by the potential that I can see for integration. I see the migration churches as something that God has created and given to us as a gift. It’s also interesting from a historical missions point of view. Christians are coming back from the countries we have evangelized, that’s also a sign. For example, when you hear things like: “Your ancestors brought us the Gospel and we’re bringing you some of it back.” The main themes are exciting, but it’s very challenging to implement them.


Personal Information

Johannes Müller belongs to the managing team of AGiK (Intercultural task force of the Swiss Evangeilical Alliance) and lives in Winterthur. He is married to Barbara and has five children. For 14 years, he was training Christian leaders in Guinea (West Africa) with the Swiss Alliance Mission. During the last six years, together with Barbara, he has been building up the “African link”, a ministry with African church leaders and their members in Switzerland, which is assiciated with MEOS.

Samuel Kopp is Co-Director of AgiK together with Carl Hardmeier. He and his wife Annagreth have two grown children. For eight years, he worked in theological training in Cameroon. Today he is pastor for foreigners at Arche Winthertur and works part-time in theological education in Benin.


Opinions from the AgiK event “Colors of Worship”

“I have lived in Switzerland for 18 years and it has become my second home. God means everything to me and it’s important that I can worship him in my native language, the language in which I got to know Him. There are many churches here, but they are often empty. I wish that more people in Switzerland would go to church.”
Guerda Schlatter do Nascimento from Brazil (30), Greifensee ZH

“I have only been in Switzerland since last September and I like it very much here. I attended ICF for quite a while and now attend an African church, because I sing in the worship team there and because they speak English. For those of us who are new in this country, the greatest problem is the language. Integration has to start somewhere and that’s where my African church helps me. I wish that the churches would work together more.”   
Peter Adhola
 from Kenya (29), Bülach ZH

“I’m the leader of the 'Oikos Tamil Church' in Zurich. We have Tamil and Indian members. There have been Tamil churches since 1991 and in the meantime they are at seven different locations in Switzerland. We talk to Tamil immigrants about Jesus, give them Bibles and help them. Every Friday, we pray for Switzerland and that the people here become Christians.”
R. Mahendran from Sri Lanka (52), Niederweningen ZH

“I have been in Switzerland for 35 years now and feel very well integrated. Although I speak German, I like to hear and speak about God in my mother tongue. To be together with my compatriots and to talk about God means a taste of home and that’s very important to me. But I also like to go to a Swiss church or an ecumenical service, because we all belong together under God.”
Soonja Kim from Korea (54), Freiburg FR