Swiss church is stamping passports for eternity
VADUZ, Liechtenstein — “Does anyone want their passport stamped?” I…
ZURICH — Felix Manz died here in a watery grave.
He was drowned as punishment for his stubborn refusal to recant a belief deemed heretical — that only repentant adult believers, not infants, should be baptized.
“Faith baptism … was something revolutionary at the time,” Olivier Cuendet, an evangelist for a Church of Christ in Switzerland’s largest city, said as he pointed to a plaque on the banks of the crystal-clear Limmat River. It commemorates Manz, who was cast into the icy water on Jan. 5, 1527, after he sang a full-throated rendition of Psalm 31: “Into thine hand I commit my spirit.”
Less than half of Switzerland’s 8.7 million souls identify as Catholic or Protestant, according to government figures. In the short two decades since the plaque recognizing Manz and five other martyred Anabaptists was dedicated in 2004, the percentage of Swiss over age 15 claiming no religion jumped from 11.4 to 29.5.
Now the pristine church buildings that line the Limmat — Grossmünster, Fraumünster, Wasserkirche — are destinations for tourists, not pilgrims. The city’s true cathedrals house its financial institutions, its world-renowned banks and multinational corporations.
In a city once known for religious disputes — including a heated one between Manz and Zwingli on baptism, not sausages — “the biggest adversity here is a lack of dependence on God,” said Anina Good. She worships with the Church of Christ, which practices adult baptism by immersion.
Five hundred years after Manz drowned for his belief, “most of us have so much, good jobs,” she said.
“Switzerland makes you feel like you don’t need God. This is what we fight here.”
Missionary Clyde Antwine arrived in Zurich in the summer of 1959 — just in time to watch an angry man storm out of Bible class.
“It was a confrontation about premillennialism,” he recalled. The Church of Christ (“Gemeinde Christi” in German) was just a few months old, planted by Jack McKinney, a former Navy sailor who served in the Pacific during World War II, and Swiss evangelist Heinrich Blum. Antwine and his wife, Gwen, studied at Abilene Christian University in Texas before following McKinney to Europe.
“We seemed to live from one crisis to the next. That’s going to happen until you have that healthy nucleus. The wolves are going to come in.”
Swiss German, it turns out, was a bit different from the German Antwine had studied, so he caught only a few words of the heated debate over whether or not Christ will reign on earth for 1,000 years.
But the tiff proved to be emblematic of the years to come.
“We seemed to live from one crisis to the next,” said Antwine, who served in Zurich for seven years. “That’s going to happen until you have that healthy nucleus. The wolves are going to come in.”
No wolves were apparent as the Gemeinde Christi gathered for Sunday worship — some 63 years after the Antwines left to serve in Augsburg and other parts of Germany.
More than 60 people smiled, hugged and exchanged stories in the church’s meeting place, the bottom floor of an office complex. Though nondescript, the building houses the offices Swiss citizens must visit to get their passports, so giving directions here is easy.
Despite the city’s declining church attendance, the congregation is a healthy mix of the gray-haired and the newly married. Young believers passed communion trays, checked audio levels and ran PowerPoint.
Slowly, the church is resuming in-person Bible classes that were curtailed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the congregation is the envy of many other European churches, which dwindled to almost nothing during the pandemic and are struggling to recover.
The Christian Chronicle asked members what makes this church different. What is the source of its longevity and vitality?
Whether they replied in German or English, their answers contained the same word — “Wolfram.”
That would be Wolfram Schrader, a German-born cook and guitar teacher who served as the church’s longtime evangelist.
At age 85, he and his wife, Berty, still walk — at a brisk pace — from their apartment to the church building. After worship on a recent Sunday, as church members cleared away plates from their monthly potluck, he talked with the Chronicle about his journey to faith.
He was interrupted throughout, as church members stopped to talk to him before leaving.
“This man who came to say goodbye, I studied with him for seven years,” Schrader said, “and with his wife. A group of six young people, young sisters, I studied with them at least five years. The big guy who sat at the computer today, I studied with him. He was 18 years old when I started.
“This makes a big difference.”
Schrader’s grandmother made a difference in his faith. She was a spiritual person who lived a difficult life, enduring two world wars. Her husband was killed in the first one, and her son, Schrader’s father, served in the second. He was gone for three years, during which he was captured by the Americans and held by the French.
Despite the hardships she endured, his grandmother always told him to “go with God,” Schrader recalled.
He moved to Switzerland and trained as a chef, specializing in expensive dishes with pheasant. He cycled competitively, until the wheel of his bike made contact with another cyclist’s wheel. He was thrown to the street.
“This showed me how vulnerable life is,” he said. While riding a tram, he saw an advertisement for a gospel meeting hosted by the Church of Christ.
He and his wife studied the Bible with workers including Jerry Earnhart, an American missionary. Berty Schrader was baptized in 1961, with Wolfram following two years later. Gwen Antwine helped teach them English. Wolfram also learned Hebrew and Greek.
He practiced preaching in Vienna, Austria, where a missionary, Tom Turner, told him, “You didn’t reach the people.” He changed his approach. He focused on inviting people to one-on-one Bible studies.
“When you come to the church, he takes you in,” said Brigitte Muggler, who was baptized in 1989 after studying with Schrader. She was looking for Christians “who read the Bible, whether Catholic or Reformation, and who love each other.”
Schrader “taught me how to study the Bible,” Muggler said, “how to grow in your own faith.”
He did the same for the church’s leaders — including Chris Simeon, whom he baptized in the early 1990s. Simeon, originally from India, now serves as an elder along with Schrader and Martin Lysser. Working with the church’s two evangelists, Olivier Cuendet and David Tarjan, they train church members to conduct Bible studies for the next generation. Rather than sending members away for ministry training in the U.S., the congregation focuses on in-house discipleship, Simeon said.
Not all of them stay. Dorothee Zehnder, who grew up in a Church of Christ in the eastern Swiss city of Schaffhausen, fell away from the church when she went to the U.S. to study.
“Many of my friends think there is something bigger, but they can’t name it,” she said. As for her, “I felt alone. I needed God.”
Now 26, she worships with the church in Zurich. Her husband, Gabriel, was baptized last year — after studying the Bible with church members.
“I’ve been asking myself, ‘What is holding me back?’” he said. “I knew it was the right thing to do.”
After serving in Europe, the Antwines returned to the U.S. and trained future generations of missionaries at Oklahoma Christian University. They visit Switzerland and Germany when they can and have sponsored teams of students on mission trips here.
Among Churches of Christ on the continent, “it’s one of the larger and stronger churches in Europe,” Clyde Antwine said of the Zurich congregation. He credited that to the Bible studies conducted by members including Schrader — studies that continue long after baptisms.
“What’s that going to produce? It’s going to produce a church that knows what it’s all about. And they’re going to convert others.”
“What’s that going to produce?” he asked. “It’s going to produce a church that knows what it’s all about. And they’re going to convert others.”
They’re also going to help others in need — including refugees from the conflict in Ukraine. The Zurich church has become an adopted home for two Ukrainians, Lena Prochorova and Tamara Maliuga, who are members of Churches of Christ in the war-torn nation. Members in Zurich have provided them with housing, transportation and support.
And, most importantly, love, Maliuga said.
“This is a very, very good family,” she said. “We are loved by everyone, and we love every person here. This church family — this is a real family.”
Five hundred years after Zwingli’s sausages, Manz’s martyrdom and Switzerland’s Reformation, the Zurich Church of Christ fights against its city’s spiritual apathy by investing in its people, Cuendet said, those in need and those with plenty.
“You have these brothers and sisters; you’ve been given them by the Lord,” he said. “You make the best of them.”
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