Living in the redzone

Recently I came across this tweet showing a map of the worldwide growth of the evangelical church.

In the countries shaded blue the evangelical church is growing faster than the population rate, its increasing it’s percentage share in those nations.

In the countries shaded yellow, the evangelical church is growing but not as fast as the overall population. The numbers are going up but the percentage is going down.

You may notice about four countries shaded red. In those countries the evangelical church is shrinking. I’m church planting in the red zone.

Sweden is democratic, prosperous, with low-corruption and marked by progressive liberal politics and big government. It is, mostly, a great place to live and Swedes are mostly proud of their nation. Although it’s a long way from utopia: anti-immigration parties are on the rise along with types of crime that Sweden is unused to. The increased diversity is definitely messing with the Swedish notion that the Swedish way is best, because no one really knows what is Swedish anymore.

In the BBC article on corruption a woman was quoted as saying “We see ourselves as a model for other countries,” and that attitude would apply to matters of faith too. As Andrew Brown writes,

Once upon a time, Sweden was seen as virtuous and blessed because it was uniquely Christian; by the time I came to live there, in the late 1970s, it saw itself as virtuous and blessed because it was uniquely secular and unreligious. This is still the popular understanding.

Sweden is one of the least religious nations in the world and has become a byword for secularism and most Swedes would take that as a compliment. The general tolerance and openness that is a mark of Swedish society is also a mark of the national church’s theology. Just over a week ago, five priests in the Swedish Lutheran Church made headlines as they penned a piece (*swedish) calling for more churches to be open to Muslim and Jewish worship services as we all worship the same God anyway. “We have different ways to God and God has different ways to us” they said.

As a result Sweden is a favourite spot for atheists (‘such a civilized place’) and for missiologists (‘such a godless place’). Certainly the dominant narrative is that it doesn’t look good for Swedish Christianity. Visitors to a service at the Church of Sweden has halved in the last 15 years, and every denomination is losing members year on year. Most of the free church denominations are being propped up by one or two ‘successful’ churches. According to one leader, there won’t be much left by 2050 (*swedish).

Yet recently there have been some reports and articles that suggest that perhaps, just maybe, things are looking up for Christians in Sweden. In April of this year a feature in Christianity Today by Lisa Ann Cockrel painted a positive picture for the free churches in Sweden. Despite the grim statistics the tone was positive, the future hopeful, the worst is perhaps past.

There are only a handful of large churches in Stockholm, maybe less than five could claim to see more than a thousand people at a weekend. There are maybe another five or so between 3-500. In this small pond, Miss Cockrel talked to leaders of three of these churches.

I’ve met all of the Stockholm pastors quoted and they’re doing great work. Hillsongs is growing, New Life & Elim are two of the few Stockholm churches not just committed to planting churches but actually doing it.

But the needle isn’t moving. Church attendance in Stockholm is unlikely to be more than 2% on any given Sunday. Almost every free church pastor I’ve met has a membership at least double the normal attendance. If you hear a membership figure quoted about Swedish churches, that is nowhere close to giving you an accurate picture of the health of a church.

I personally know church planters all over the city, working hard, good faithful people. I also know that the success rate isn’t high and the numbers are small. Is it all bad? No. Is it anywhere near enough to change the picture right now? No.

Then Andrew Brown wrote a piece for the Church Times, called Signs of Hope in a secular land which had the wildly misleading subtitle, ‘The Church of Sweden is experiencing elements of revival’ which is only true if by revival you mean, ‘not dying as fast today as you were yesterday.’

So amid all the, again, grim numbers (for a national church only 1.3% of the population attend according to Brown) where’s the evidence of hope?

The number is shrinking steadily, but, in recent years, more people have signed up to pay than have requested to leave the Church, even if overall membership is shrinking because elderly congregations die.

The numbers are still going down by 1% a year on its membership roll and for the Church in Sweden which is financed by taxes it must have seen its budget shrink by 15% since 2000. While still phenomenally wealthy, at some point or other in the next 20 years or so it will inevitably begin to feel the pinch. Next?

Well, other than some anecdotal evidence that members of the elite are feeling comfortable proclaiming themselves Christian, there was no next.

Although there was one interesting piece which does give a glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile, during the period of Christianity’s greatest decline, the number of Swedes saying that they definitely do not believe in God has shrunk; the number who believe in an ill-defined “spirit or life-force” has risen to more than half, and belief in life after death has also increased. What on earth is going on?

The Christian answer would, I suppose, involve a gradual forgetfulness of what Christianity means: a quotation from G. K. Chesterton would come in handy here, about the way that people who no longer believe in God believe in anything.

Although Brown seeks to provide an alternative explanation, I think he’s closer to the truth in what he says here. Consumerism and materialism have been found to be spiritually unsatisfying, and while there is scant evidence of a love for doctrines or dogma there is plenty of evidence that a vague, comforting hope that we’ll all be alright in the hereafter is plugging the hole.

Some have expressed hope in the new immigrant churches in Sweden. Stefan Sward says (*swedish), “The new church is Sweden which is bubbling up under the surface but still hasn’t reached the radar for the established Christian press or denominational leaders, is dominated by people who were born outside of Europe.”

I think there is something in this, I have heard many encouraging stories of conversion in Iranian communities and know several vibrant ethnic churches. Yet so far the ethnic churches made up of Sweden’s growing immigrant community have mostly failed to have wider impact.

Yet with the growth of immigration received Swedish values such as equality and individualism may need to be rethought and I’m not sure anyone is ready for those kind of conversations yet.

I think there are reasons for hope, I think I’m realistic not negative about both the state of Sweden and what it might take to turn things around. I think what God is doing in the few larger churches and amongst immigrant communities in Sweden are reasons for hope. The renewed commitment to church planting is another. We’re planning and working on resourcing 200 church plants in Scandinavia over the next 20 years, which seems huge to us but just a drop in the ocean.

Yet, over the next 30 years or so I believe the needle can and will begin to shift not because of our efforts but because God still wants to call people from the North as well as the South, from the West as well as the East.

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