Swiss pastor Leo Bigger shares his journey to conquering Mount Jungfrau and talks about his approach to keeping the church healthy.
When Leo Bigger, 47, the pastor of the International Christian Fellowship in Zurich, Switzerland received an invitation from his friend, psychologist Dr Robi Sonderegger to climb up Mount Jungfrau, one of the main summits of the Bernese Alps (a range of the Swiss Alps), he saw it as a chance to overcome his fear of heights.
September 2014 thus saw Bigger and Sonderegger on a journey to overcome their giant. Bigger shares with City News his expenditure and the story of his home church back in Switzerland.
What made you decide to climb a mountain?
When I met Robi two years ago, it was like a relationship at first sight—I saw him and I felt like we had been friends for many years. I love to do new things and always want to have a next step in my life. I realized years ago that I’m afraid of heights. It’s not rational because when you walk on the floor and it does not fall, it means when you walk on a higher ground, it’s the same thing. Two years ago, I wanted to get rid of my fear of heights, and so when Robi asked me to go on this expedition with him, I agreed. I don’t like to have fears in my life. I preach in church and teach the members not to be ruled by fear but I was afraid of heights, so I had to conquer it.
What was the experience like?
It was the most challenging thing I have ever done, physically. I came to a point where I felt I couldn’t go on for even another meter. I do a lot of sports and I have heard people saying that you can come to a point where you can’t go any further—I was experiencing that for the first time. Physically, I was game over, and emotionally I had all the feelings of giving up. After six hours I had thoughts of giving up. I could see the summit but I thought to myself, “It’s okay, I don’t have to be a hero.” The guide started to talk to me and I made the decision to finish it. When I was walking, I told myself this is the first and last time I’m ever going to do this. Then the next day after I climbed the mountain, I thought, “Let’s go again!” Besides my marriage, receiving Christ and my children, this is the most crazy thing I have ever done.
I was taking one step at a time because I was so tired. When the altitude started to set in, my heart started to beat very fast. It was very difficult to breathe because the air is very thin [high up on the mountain]. I just took one step at a time and tried not to think about anything more. But when I sat down and wanted to give up, I thought to myself, “All my friends will ask me, Leo, why like this?” and I know I’ll regret because I’m quite a competitive guy. I know I have to do it.
What kept you going?
It was the name of Jesus. Every other step I would say “Oh Jesus, please help me. Please guide me. Please protect me.”
What did your wife say about you going up the mountain?
My wife was not afraid. She said, “I will start to worry when I feel a need to worry, but now there’s nothing to worry about”.
Did she say she wanted to go with you?
No, but when she saw the pictures she said, “Next time I’ll join you.” She was a little bit jealous.
So will there be a next time?
I will go again in 2016. I will climb the Matterhorn [on the Pennine Alps]. It’s 300m higher than Mount Jungfrau. I will say it’s not more difficult but just a little longer. For that, I will train.
The Matterhorn is the biggest mountain in Switzerland and for me it is to challenge the heights once again. I am not afraid (of the heights) like I used to be but I’m still a little afraid. So I want to do this. I will train because I think it will be much easier if we are trained. The problem is the physical thing: we made it but the other two guys walked up and down like it’s no big deal. I want to make it and feel much lighter.
During your service at City Harvest Church, you talked about people who try to tear a person down with words, like people who discouraged you from making this climb. What is some practical advice you would give to someone in a similar situation?
The question is always, “What is God saying to me?” People always have their opinions and views on life, but for me I know in my heart that this—conquering the mountain—was something I needed to do. It was more than just conquering the mountain, it was doing something in my spirit.
People have to rely on God and listen to what He is saying. There are a lot of things that makes no sense at all to other people. We are currently building a building and people ask, “Why so big?” Of course, we can start to argue, but in my spirit, I know it’s from God. You need to rely on the Word of God because that is the thing that stays forever.
Be open to what people say, but know that your foundation is in the belief that God has spoken to you.
Tell us about International Christian Fellowship. What is your congregation like?
We started the church 18 years ago. I grew up in a Catholic Church but I received Christ when I was 18. I ask the question: “What kind of church should I have?” all the time. Most people don’t go to church in Europe anymore because church is boring to them. So I wanted to be a new and fresh kind of church. I would say our style is similar to CHC: contemporary music, sermons preached in a way that people can relate to, it’s Biblical but when people go to work on Monday they can bring something with them. I always try to communicate in a very creative way.
We have four services on a Sunday morning for families and the night service is for young people between 14 and 25. We have celebration services in English and Latino, and we also have six satellite churches. We broadcast the message every third week and for the rest of the weeks, they have live preachers. We have 3,200 people in the six churches in Zurich, but International Christian Fellowship has 47 churches all over in Germany and Austria.
What are some of the challenges growing the church?
It’s actually the workload and the emails. There is a difference between having one child and five children—when you have five children, it is not how you manage, it’s just more work. That’s the challenge: to keep multiplying and adding new leaders to take over positions, you have to equip and train them fast enough.
What are some ways you identify and grow leaders in your church?
One of the values in our church is that we do church as a team. Everyone has a special anointing or gift that they can give to the church—that is our message. Our members may start out as a greeter; serve in the cleaning team, the choir or wherever they are. We give them opportunities to grow in terms of leadership. We teach about leadership—we have different courses—but the most important thing is that we give opportunities to people so that they can put their gifts into practice. Because we have six satellites, we need lots of worship leaders, drama, multimedia crew. We have created this need for volunteers and we cannot sit there waiting for someone to come and do the job. We need to ask around for guitar players, video team, or people who have a passion or a dream for it. Then we train and equip them.
What are some practical things you do to keep the church healthy?
It is the same thing as a child. If you have a child, you nurture them in terms of milk and you give them love, a house and you protect them. You will never say to a child: “My five year strategy is you’ll grow to two meters.” You would never do that. The only thing the parent is looking for is that the child has everything. When the church has the five-fold ministry, which is the Apostle, Teacher, Prophet, Evangelist and Pastor, it is a balanced church and a balanced church will grow.
I’’ll give you an example. If the teaching is very low, no Bible study and teaching, the people will not stay. If the pastoring is not good, it’ll just be a gathering. My job is to make sure that these five-fold ministries are strong and healthy; to really meet the needs of the people. My questions are the same questions of a mother: is the food good enough, is there enough love and affection? Apply same principle to a church.
Can you tell us about your own family?
I have two boys, Steven and Simon who are 14 and 16. One of them is a DJ in the youth ministry and the other one is in charge of the game station ministry. When the people come earlier, they have game stations like soccer.
My wife Susanne is in charge of the ladies ministry and also leads the churches.