Hillsong Geneva meets in a converted theatre, the Théâtre de la Madeleine, in the centre of the city. The main hall seats approximately 500. There is a foyer, as well as rooms upstairs and downstairs for children and infants.
The church is part of the Hillsong network which started life as a youth-friendly Pentecostal megachurch in Sydney, Australia. There are now Hillsong churches in 30 countries around the world, including two in Switzerland, in Geneva and Zurich. 2022 has been a difficult year for Hillsong, with the church's founder, Brian Houston, resigning after an internal investigation found he had engaged in inappropriate conduct with two women. The congregation of Hillsong Geneva is diverse, including people of different skin colours worshipping together – and crucially, up on stage. Geneva is a very international city and this seems to be reflected in the congregation.
The church is on the Rue de la Madeleine in the beautiful and historic Old Town of Geneva, with the Saint-Pierre Cathedral and the Reformation Wall, featuring statues of the heroes of Calvinism, a few steps away. Because its location is so central, it is well served by Geneva’s public transport system.
The head pastor introduced and emceed the service, while the sermon was given by a visiting speaker. A seven-strong band led us in worship. The pastor and the visiting speaker were both accompanied by interpreters.
What was the name of the service?Dimanche 10h30, ‘Sunday 10.30am’.
How full was the building?
The theatre was packed to the rafters! Every seat was filled and the foyer was crowded – there was a lot of ‘whoops… pardon… j’ose?’ as we tried to make our way through.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were welcomers at the door. I made for the coffee stand where a friendly German guy made me a latte and advised me to sit up front.
Was your pew comfortable?
They were luxuriously comfy leather theatre seats. Though, it being a service in the Pentecostal tradition, there was plenty of standing.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
In a word, busy. People were greeting each other, buying coffee, taking their seats.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
‘Bonjour l’église!’ – spoken by the main vocalist in the worship band before launching into the first song.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Everything was projected on the screen above, including the song lyrics and the scripture references, which were all presented in both French and English.
What musical instruments were played?
This was a standard rock band set up: two vocalists, keyboards, electric bass, electric guitar, electric acoustic guitar, and the drummer in his obligatory plexiglass cage.
Did anything distract you?
Geneva is currently experiencing a heatwave, and try as they might, the ceiling fans were no match for a building full of sweaty bodies. In addition, the visiting speaker was wearing a trouser suit in a shade of green that could only be described as violent.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The service offered standard Hillsong fare: rock music about Jesus, plenty of audience participation, arms akimbo in audience and onstage alike, and not a whiff of serious biblical study. A couple of scripture verses were used (out of context) to prop up a point, but there was no depth from either the pastor or the preacher.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
The sermon clocked in at 44 minutes, which might be normal for a Pentecostal church, but is far too long for this bells-and-smells Anglican, especially given the sermon’s lack of weight.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 — The preacher, who was Australian, was very passionate. As previously mentioned, her trouser suit was a distraction, but she is a skilled preacher with a clear passion for the Lord. She constantly interrupted her interpreter, who was trying valiantly (and very impressively) to provide on the spot translation into French. This wasn’t a problem for me, since English is my first language, but for those in the congregation who spoke only French, it would have been very difficult to follow.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We can trust in Jesus. Our ways are not his ways. She mentioned her cancer journey, and an overdose she experienced as a teenager. There was lots of audience participation, and even some words of wisdom for unsuspecting audience members. However, there wasn’t a great deal of substance. The sermon seemed like more of a motivational talk with some scripture sprinkled in. It certainly spoke to the people there, though, and both her (and their) passion for Jesus and the gospel was palpable.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I was very impressed by the two women who provided French-English and English-French interpretation. The music, though not my cup of tea, was excellently performed. And I will admit to being moved by the altar call, which entitled me to a free copy of Mark’s Gospel in French. It was nice to spend a bit of time during the sinner’s prayer with Jesus.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As usual in Hillsong and churches of its ilk, there was the obligatory call for donations. I used it as an opportunity to slip in my home-made Mystery Worshipper card. The guilt-tripping and yanking of scripture out of context to fund a church that has been embroiled in scandal stuck in the throat. On that note, I was surprised to see Brian Houston, who recently stepped down as global senior pastor for breaching Hillsong’s moral code, being featured in the pre-service slide show, and his books for sale in the foyer.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The foyer was as packed after the service as before. I manoeuvred my way up to one of the greeters, who gave me my copy of Mark’s Gospel and directed me to a counter where a friendly woman took my email address and phone number. She told me about the cell groups they have, and how, from next Sunday onwards, the main service will be followed by a barbecue in the park. I discovered that BYOB stands for ‘bring your own bratwurst’.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The coffee was for sale, and a latte cost 3 Swiss francs (approx. £2.50 or $3). That’s not too bad for Geneva as a whole, but paying for coffee at a church rubs me the wrong way. It was, however, delicious.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 — I’ll only be in Geneva until the end of the summer, but I don’t plan to return. I have theological problems with Hillsong – as you might have guessed – and the music and worship style aren’t my bag.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
In some ways, yes. The congregation were friendly and enthusiastic. But the money-grubbing and flimsy sermon made it a less than ideal experience.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Our preacher’s trouser suit? The QR code displayed to fund a church that has covered for child molesters? Hopefully, it will be the diversity of the congregation and their infectious attitudes. Time will tell…