Why are some churches not growing
"Values don't grow on trees"
Niklaus Peter has been pastor of the Zurich Fraumünster for twelve years. The 60-year-old dean of the parish chapter and father of four regrets that Protestant theology is currently "weak".
At Christmas, churches not only fill up at short notice and newspapers bring full-page interviews with pastors, it also flashes to promote sales in streets or shop windows: Does that still get to the heart of the original message?
I do not fall into the reflex of scourging commercialization. The play of light and dark is part of the magic of Christmas, be it in one's own existence or above Bahnhofstrasse. To this day, Christmas stories are often about a spark of light that comes into a life in the form of a person, an event. In this respect, the emotional is also a piece of Christmas for a very intellectually inclined person like me - as long as it does not tip over into sentimentality.
You are not afraid of trivializing the idea of Christmas?
Yes, absolutely. It becomes trivialized above all when it is completely taken out of the context of Good Friday and Easter, i.e. with the passion story. Anyone who absorbs the longing for warmth must also make this depth visible.
The Christmas message is simply easier to convey than the idea that God's Son sacrifices himself for this world.
It is such a strong message: God himself does not avoid suffering, he goes the way with people. This has nothing to do with weird martyr ideas or the absurd notion that God demands a blood sacrifice.
When the Christmas trees came up in Zurich almost 250 years ago, the Reformed pastors railed against “the mischief and idolatry” that is practiced with the Christ child. The fir trees have also been in Reformed churches for a long time.
Today one cannot seriously object to such symbolism. Religion also has a lot to do with beauty and art, just not in the sense of an individual exaggeration of often embarrassing private mythologies. Today we have too few artists who seriously deal with our religious tradition, as Arnold Schönberg did with the figure of Moses.
Zwingli's spirit is often conjured up when it comes to explaining the negative characteristics of the brittle people of Zurich. Is that doing him injustice?
Yes, it's outrageous. A mix of Catholic stereotypes, which were introduced during his lifetime, and prejudices of the 68 generation, which continue to have an effect even in our church. Zwingli was enormously courageous and deeply influenced by the Christian humanism of an Erasmus von Rotterdam. The Reformed always formed an educational denomination. And Zwinglians brought in a more innovative spirit than Lutherans. We should try to learn to appreciate these roots of Reformed ethics again.
But a certain moralism is one of the dangers of the Reformation?
For sure. A moralist divides the world into good and bad and believes he is on the right side. That's not my idea. So I first look for what connects with other denominations and religions. My job as a theologian is not to criticize externally, but internally.
You have already publicly criticized the “feel-good church” and the organization of the service. Free churches have achieved quite a bit of success with such methods.
They also approach people more. Regional churches are sometimes a bit complicated and neglect the aspect of celebrating together. But some members of free churches come to us later because they are looking for more.
Are you concerned that there are now more Catholics than Protestants in Zurich due to the migration flows?
We know about migration, and our church is in a difficult position due to the general spiritual weather situation, and is registering withdrawals. We are about to become a minority. Maybe that's not bad at all: it could help us regain our shape.
«We have become a general store. Every pastor cultivates his or her own individual religiosity. "
If we asked a hundred people in Zurich what exactly is celebrated at Christmas, maybe seventy would know. At Pentecost ten at best.
That is now formulated somewhat optimistically. Today the churches fail to convey their traditions as a common space of meaning. I advocate seeing religion not as a set of dogmas, but as a language into which I grow. I like to speak of a grammar, a basic vocabulary of belief.
That almost sounds like linguistics.
An example: Many have adopted purely economic language when it comes to interpersonal issues, in the sense of “return on investment”. They invest in relationships, and when it doesn't work, they withdraw love. The Christian language would be: You are given an encounter, you have to cherish and nurture it.
Is charity rightly generally accepted as the basic message of Christianity?
Yes, if it is not understood in the shallow sense of "all you need is love", but in a deeper sense: The core metaphor of our human existence is not to assert oneself in the fight against others, but to build something together with others. It goes deeper than sentimental love.
There have never been so many opportunities for diversion. Does that reduce or increase the chances of the Reformed churches to get more support again?
There are new opportunities, many are looking. And the understanding grows again for what great, deep treasure the Christian tradition holds. That could give us strong moves. But we are not well positioned at the moment to stick to the language of football. We're a bit shaky, also theologically, far from the strength of Karl Barth.
The masses seem to be thirsting for easy-to-grasp messages, listening to the Dalai Lama, for example.
You can think what you want of him: he finds people with his language and his humor. I don't want to distance myself from him, but rather try to perceive what connects religions, also in exchange with Jewish and Muslim theologians. However, there are extreme forms that are bad and we have to clearly oppose this.
IS also recruits young people in this country. Does he benefit from the fading of local religious traditions?
That has hardly anything to do with our church, there are also very few cases. The danger does not come from the religions per se, it comes from those marginal areas that have become toxic. So our society should not arm anti-Islamist because of the threats, but emphasize what unites. But for this you have to know and name your own roots. All in all, our open society has neglected for too long its traditions that nurture and bring to life an ethic. Many people say they are for general humanism. But values do not grow on trees, but mostly - admittedly not alone - in religious contexts.
Is the church interfering enough in political and social debates today?
We could raise our profile there. But we must not try to cover up with political statements that our theology is weakening. We should first take a more prominent position on the big questions, from the core of our religion: What guides us? What is justice That is only credible if we as the Reformed Church have the courage again to have something like a confession to formulate a core of our convictions. The Catholics have something ahead of us here. With us Protestants, the faith is borne from below, the church does not take a position as a whole. This has great advantages, but the danger lies in a certain cacophony. We have become too much of a general store in which each pastor cultivates and proclaims his or her individual religiousness.
How should the Reformed Church regain its profile and commitment?
One would only have to agree once on a grammar for the worship service. When the pastor greets the congregation with the words that it is nice that they came outside despite the wonderful weather, it sounds more like a private than a religious celebration. And the sermon should not deal with a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, but a text from the Bible.
Where do you stand politically?
I am not a member of any party. But politically I am a liberal with the deep conviction that the true, the human will ultimately prevail. A vital economy should be regulated by the free play of forces and not by the planning of any bureaucrats. And one should allow a wide variety of opinions without moralizing. Theologically, however, I am not on the liberal side.
Do you have two hearts beating in your chest, one political and one theological?
The questions of liberal theology are of great importance to me, I have dealt with them intensively. It is very important to question everything dogmatic. But liberal theologians prefer to talk about religion rather than God. And our church no longer manages to systematically develop the connections, everything crumbles into individual diversity, which leads to disorientation and arbitrariness. But I believe that there is a supra-individual core in which God ultimately addresses us directly.
Can you manage not to make an image of this God for yourself?
Yes. That is what is demanding of biblical belief that one does not make one's own ideologies and values universally valid. Every image of God is a constriction. However, no language can do without images, we need them, preferably so many that none can be raised to the sole validity. The Bible already provides us with linguistic images like that of the hand of God.
Since then, this hand has been interpreted a thousand times, from Rilke to Maradona.
Religion offers a linguistic area in which an infinite number of people wrote, from the psalmists to Rilke. In this sense, too, religious traditions allow complex spaces of meaning to grow.
How familiar are you with doubts?
Doubts are a very vital aspect of my existence and belief, they ensure that it stays alive. Those who do not doubt do not believe in earnest, but simply keep telling themselves their worldview. If belief changes in a pulsating way, then it cannot be a sterile, unchangeable nature reserve.
"The sermon is not intended to deal with a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm, but rather a text from the Bible."
A house of worship should be an open house, okay?
In any case.
Since this year, however, you have been charging entry to the Fraumünster.
That doesn't apply across the board. Only tourists pay admission. Anyone who lives in Switzerland and is looking for peace and quiet in the church will receive a free admission card without any red tape. Mass tourism left this church no longer a church. Those seeking peace and quiet were disturbed by groups of fifty tourists who left after two minutes. Now you let yourself into the silence again. In return, tourists receive additional information and can visit a small exhibition in the crypt. I fully support the visitor regulations.
With the renewed Münsterhof, the Fraumünster has again received a very worthy platform. How does that feel?
It is a great pleasure. Square and church correspond again, the gastronomy makes a great contribution. The usage concept prevents too many events and focuses on culture. There is still some potential there. The carnival could well take place somewhere else. But how about the many sculptures in the basement of the Kunsthaus, couldn't they even be shown in this beautiful square?
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