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The Next Generation of European Churches

Leo Bigger leads International Christian Fellowship in Zurich, the largest church in Switzerland, and the congregation is showing the way to reach the younger generation in Europe.

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In the predominantly post-Christian country of Switzerland, Leo Bigger is defying the odds by building a church that continues to draw people. International Christian Fellowship is proving the spiritual life is still relevant to many young people.  In this conversation, we dig into how Leo and his team work to awaken a previously disinterested population to the gospel. 

What would you say sets International Christian Fellowship (ICF) apart from other ministries in Switzerland? 

We are currently the biggest church in Switzerland, and I think it has to do with how we adapt to things. The world is changing. Ten years ago, there was no Facebook, no Instagram. We have to incorporate those things into the church. A lot of people preach without any props or multimedia; their preaching style is like that of twenty years ago. But the young generation wants to be engaged.

When we started, about 25 years ago, there was no Hillsong, no Planetshakers. Throughout Switzerland, people were saying all kinds of negative things about us: the worship style you’re doing is like a party, the preaching is only stories, the salvation is only emotional – things like that. But for me, I was thinking about the young generation.

My question at the moment is, “How can I preach with the smartphone during the message?” So what we are currently doing in our services is this – I will preach for 15 minutes, and then people can use their phone to send in questions for the last 15 minutes.  It’s all about engaging the next generation.

I don’t know if this all will work, but I’ve always been a risk-taker.  Even as a child, “no” was just a word to me.  “No” doesn’t mean “no” – that’s my attitude. If people say it won’t work, I believe there must be a way.

How did your picture of a church that’s engaging for young people come to you? 

When I was very small, I always loved the church setting. I was brought up Catholic; my whole family was involved in the Catholic church. In fact, my mom prayed every night that one of her 5 kids would one day be a priest! I often asked myself, why not me?

One time when I was 16 years old, the pope came to Switzerland. I wasn’t saved then, but he preached about a young generation standing up for God. I didn’t know what that meant, but I said, “God, I want to serve You.” It was immature, but I knew I had times when I felt God speaking to me.

Between the ages of 16 and 17 years old, I played in a hard rock band, and my bass player was a Christian. We had a discussion about heaven and he told me, “You’re going to hell.” As a Catholic, I always believed in God and thought I was pleasing God, but never had a personal relationship with Him. It was my first time hearing about Jesus. Many months later, when I was 18 years old, this same friend invited me to his home on the 1st of January, where he and his whole family shared Christ with me. I invited Jesus into my life, and that was the turning point in my life.

“‘No’ doesn’t mean ‘no’ – that’s my attitude. If people say it won’t work, I believe there must be a way.”

One day when I was driving home, I heard a voice telling me, “You will be an evangelist, you will win people for God.” The next morning, during a break in French class, I gathered all my fellow students and shared Jesus with them. That was my first “crusade.” From then on, I always had a longing to lead people to God.

Every Sunday after that, I went to the Catholic church. After 9 months, I realized I was the only young guy there. I started thinking, what would happen if I could lead that church setting? What would I change? What would I adapt so my friends will come to church and stay in church?

This was something growing in me every Sunday. To make a long story short, a friend of mine asked me, “I want to plant a church in Zurich, a church for young people. Do you want to join me?” I said “Yes”, we came to Zurich, and that was the beginning of ICF.

Starting a brand new church in this context must have been extremely difficult.  What was the greatest challenge you faced in those early days?

The biggest challenge was that when we started the church, it exploded in growth, doubling every year. When we reached 1000 people we didn’t have enough leaders who understood how we were doing church. We were the first church of this sort in Switzerland, brand new with no model to follow.

We had a lot of people who wanted to serve and wanted to be hired to work for the church. We hired people who had only been saved for maybe 6 to 9 months.  Teaching them the Christian lifestyle and our DNA was a nightmare. On the other hand, older leaders tended to be a bit too religious.  I don’t want to sound judgmental, but all these more experienced people really only wanted to teach “deep” things.

Leo preaching in the early days of the church, Zurich, 1996

 

Despite all this, after five years, we were the largest church in Switzerland. We knew that we had to keep searching for the right people or our momentum would be dead. So, our biggest challenge was to find leaders who understood the new DNA.

What were some of the other challenges that you faced as the church grew?

A big one is that we have been a portable church for many, many years. This may sound romantic—we would always say, “Hey guys, we’re not relying on a building, only on the Holy Spirit,” and people would applaud!  However, it was actually a nightmare to be portable for so long. You could be signing a contract for two months, and after two months, the landlord was kicking you out! That was a big challenge.

Another difficult thing we had to do was entering into church planting. We never intended to plant any churches other than our original ICF in Zurich. When we started, we were three people working together. We said to one another, “We will stay together, we will die together, we will be buried together in Zurich.”

But one time we invited a prophet to speak in the church. He prophesied, and wrote down a name — it turned out to be one of my co-workers. Everyone in the church understood that this man should go and plant a church. Our first church plant was like a prophetic exercise. We were crying, “We don’t want to plant a church,” but we knew we had to obey God’s call.

That first church plant grew very fast – after one year, they had more than 300 people in attendance.  The average church in Switzerland only has about 80 people, so others in our congregation saw this success and said, “Oh, look, it works, I want to plant a church too.”

Within three years, half of my closest leaders had planted a church elsewhere. I couldn’t help questioning, “Why is everyone going? Am I not a good leader? Am I too tough?”

But then, we had planted 10 churches, and these people had our DNA, so it was relatively easy. The challenge we have now that we’ve gotten quite big is a lot of people want to join us because of our name. We have to be selective because we don’t want to have a “copy-paste” church. We have certain values that we want to be in every church plant we have.

How has your picture of God and the kingdom changed or expanded in your years of leading ICF? 

When someone starts a journey with God, one of the biggest prayers is, “Here I am, God, use me for Your kingdom.” That prayer has a really deep meaning; sometimes God is asking you do things that you think you would never do. We have to realize that church is not about a name or my ministry, but us serving God in whatever it takes, and being obedient.

Sometimes, I have to learn this the hard way. God speaks to me and I feel in my heart, “I will never do this.” But at the end of the day, when God speaks, you have to be obedient.

Has your style of leadership changed over the years?  What is it like leading teams in a European context?

People think that if you’re a leader, you can do whatever you want. But the day you hire people and have different teams, they bring in new ideas, and you want each individual to flourish.

I’ve learned that leadership means teamwork. You always have to find the balance between leading, guiding, and giving people enough space to be creative. This is especially true in Europe, a continent with so many languages, attitudes, mindsets, cultures, and food. Switzerland is not made up of one guy running the nation, but it’s a team of seven people running the nation. They come from opposing parties, and discuss topics and come to a conclusion, which will be the solution. The European way is more of working with a team. If you do it top-down, the people leave.

We believe in appointed leaders—every team has a leader. But their job isn’t to dictate – it is to gather the people around the table and discuss the issue. For example, how can we do church planting? The leader leads the team, facilitates the discussion, and makes the call. Nobody should say, “I am the leader, everyone needs to listen to me.” People would respond, “Good for you, but we’re leaving.”

Looking back, did you expect to make the impact the church is currently making?  Were you surprised by the growth of the church?

The Swiss mindset is always to think very small. But when I came to Zurich, I said to God, “I believe I can build the largest church in Switzerland.” I told this vision to one person in my circle, and he responded, “You are super proud, you cannot say things like that.” I realized I had to keep this vision in my heart, between me and God, but the first thing I did was find the largest indoor stadium in Zurich. I stood there and said to God, “One day I’m going to fill this stadium with people from my church.”

Fifteen years later, we did fill up that stadium during our celebration. It was a tremendous statement, not only for me, but for the whole of Switzerland. We were in the newspapers for over a week, with thousands of people attending church.

Leo Bigger with his wife Susanna, Zurich, 2010

 

That’s incredible – God fulfilled your bold desire!  Do you have any other favorite examples of dreams that God is fulfilling through your ministry? 

One more highlight is our TV ministry. We are broadcast on secular TV channels. Every week, our messages are aired on TV up to forty times — and not on a Christian channel. This means that people who go to a hotel can see our messages all over—even the hotels that skip the Christian channels! Can you imagine? This is mind-blowing, because we are really reaching so many unbelievers.

One time, one of the largest channels in Switzerland came to me, asking me and my wife to do an 8-minute story about Christmas.  They chose to give us a prime time slot and would show this story for 24 days in a row at 8:00 PM, declaring the message of Christmas. The person who contacted me with this opportunity is a non-believer, yet he let us do it for free. It was such a big blessing, to proclaim the Gospel through the Christmas message to such a large audience.

“I’ve learned that leadership means teamwork. You always have to find the balance between leading, guiding, and giving people enough space to be creative.”

What would you say are the three key traits needed to succeed in this ministry?

The most important thing is character. I’ve seen so many people who are very gifted, but very lacking in character. The church needs good solid character. We need to work on that.

Another thing is commitment. You make a commitment for the church. When I hire someone, it has to be a 5 to 10 year commitment. Of course, there are still times when God can speak to you to move on. I believe you can’t do much when someone is there for only two years. We are impacting generations.

Also, you need to be a life-long learner. You can learn from everyone.  My question is – what have you learned? You can learn at least one thing from every church, from every person. You need to have an open mind. Because at the end of the day, what matters is that we have learned more about God and about people, so we can have true relationships with them.