In the past month, CHC has had a massive dose of its favorite clinical psychologist, Dr Robi Sonderegger. The good doctor delivered a three-day masterclass to the church’s pastoral staff and preached at four weekend services. City News caught up with the father of five for a chat about life in Switzerland, how he reconciles his profession with his faith and how to avoid an “Ishmael” situation in our lives.
You and your family moved to Switzerland not too long ago. Do you and your wife Noleen have a psychology practice there? What made you move there?
We have a practice in Australia which we run from a distance. We are in Switzerland simply because God called us there—we’re still trying to figure out why, but in the meantime, we’re building a church there.
That’s exciting news! What’s the spiritual climate in Switzerland like?
Europe, generally, in the last two years, from what I’ve observed, is turning a corner; we have come out of post-modernism and into pre-Christianity. People are open to the Gospel now and once again asking the question, ‘Who is this Jesus guy? I’ve heard about Him but I don’t really know anything about Him,’ because we’ve all been living in the days of secularistic post-modernism for so long. So churches all over Europe are springboarding (into Christianity), and to me, it’s really exciting that there’s a Euro-Asia corridor: European churches are looking to Asia to know how to do church well. Asia now has a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to guide the Church in Europe.
And how has life in Switzerland been for you and your family?
Our kids (aged 1 to 10) miss their friends, but the good news is that they’re making new ones; they have to learn a brand new language, and so are we all, learning about the new cultures and customs in Switzerland. In Australia, we’re very relaxed but in Switzerland there’s only one way to do things, and that’s the Swiss way, so we have to learn about the local customs and practices in order to not be out of place.
And which city or town do you live in?
In Davos on the Alps, the home of the World Economic Forum and the highest city in Europe.
Going back to science and God—as you have said, these two are frequently seen as diametrically opposing subjects. Were you a believer before or after you started studying psychology?
I grew up as a Christian. I became a psychologist not because of my faith, or even in spite of my faith. But He used my profession to help equip and empower the church.
And how did you reconcile what you were learning, or what you have learned, with your faith?
There are different worldviews; the worldview of the lecturer or the department head will often determine what gets taught. But we’re actually teaching the same evidence—we’re interpreting it differently. So if you’re strong enough to hold on to your own worldview and look at that evidence through your own lenses, you’ll be able to come up with a potential alternative explanation as to why things are the way they are.
In Asia, there is some level of shame when it comes to admitting that one has emotional or relationship problems. How can we help draw someone out who won’t admit he or she has a problem? How can we help?
There are what we call stages of readiness for change. People are not always ready to admit they have a problem. All too often, it’s not until that person hits rock bottom when they recognize their need for help—that’s when they’re motivated for change, unfortunately.
The way I look at it, is like a person who’s canoeing down a river and somebody tells them there’s a waterfall up ahead. Early intervention and prevention is much better than treatment. So all the person needs to do is to take a few gentle paddle strokes on one side of the canoe, which will casually steer them to the river bank where they can get out and walk away. But if they wait till it’s too late, in crisis-mode, then all too often they find themselves in a situation where it doesn’t matter how hard they paddle; they are gonna over the waterfall. So our goal is to get people to be motivated for early intervention and prevention, and I think that’s the role of the church—that we get to address issues before they become crises.
At a sermon you preached you taught that following a call God gives us in our own strength can lead to error (e.g. Abraham and Ishmael). What if we don’t hear any further instructions from the Lord after He says “I’m going to give you a son”? What should we do while waiting so that we don’t fall into the same error?
How do we know we didn’t hear wrong the first time?
The sheep know the sound of the Shepherd’s voice.
Anything else we should be doing?
Just be patient. Sometimes that’s the whole problem—we’re so impatient, we wanna do it in our time and our way, when instead we should actually stop, wait and pray and ask, ‘God, how would You like me to do this?’ We don’t wait for the ‘how’, we just run off and do it. We know, you know it’s God’s voice, and if you’re doubting whether or not you it really was His voice, then maybe it wasn’t, so you go back once again and say, ‘I’m Your sheep, and I know Your voice.’ You will know when He speaks, it’s loud and clear. He’s not the author of confusion. Sometimes we just need to develop a little bit of patience, and lean in.
This trip you have preached more than taught in church. Are you planning to preach more worldwide?
Not really, I just take each day as it comes (smiles).
The interesting thing about coming to CHC is that I never preach or teach messages I have taught multiple times; it’s always fresh content. It would be so much easier to just give something that I’ve given somewhere else, but all too often I find God saying no, I want you to speak on this topic, and I have to create it from scratch.
But that’s very exciting for me; for example, I wanted to preach a message on dealing with disappointment—I’ve preached it before, it’s in the bag, it’s a slam dunk, gonna be great—but I really felt God telling me to preach on finding hope in a hopeless situation, which was the message about Noah’s ark turning into Noah’s park, but that message about lifting our eyes was exactly the same theme in Phil Pringle’s sermon last week, and I didn’t know about that, until I arrived in Singapore.
That just confirms for me that God has a word in season for CHC about being careful about what we look at, and that our eyes—where we look—will determine where we go. So it’s exciting to know that God is providing fresh revelation. Whether it’s preaching or teaching, I just wanna be obedient to what God instructs me to do, knowing that ultimately CHC’s members will be the beneficiary.
Thank you for that. Why is it that CHC has friends like yourself who are so willing to come back again and again to minister to us even though we’ve not been in a particularly pleasant position the last few years?
I believe in God, and I have developed a brotherhood with the pastoral leadership at City Harvest, so it’s beyond belief—it’s family now—and you stand with your family, whether they’re going through hot or cold, thick or thin, height or depth, for better or for worse … that’s what faithfulness, loyalty and commitment is all about. And I love my family.