Inch wide, mile deep?

Recently Sweden made a surprise appearance, not in the Eurovision song contest but in First Things magazine. Matthew Milliner made a visit to an ecumenical community called Bjärka-Säby. In the midst of his visit he makes a surprising announcement;

Overwhelmed by it all, I announce that whereas American Christianity is a mile wide and an inch deep, Swedish Christianity is an inch wide and a mile deep. Never have I seen ecumenical cooperation as I have here. I unfurl a grand analogy: Under secularism’s tectonic pressure, the continents of differing traditions are drifting closer together. As the landmasses merge, some jump to another side, while others remain. But the merging of continents is far more significant than isolated bounds, however athletically impressive. Personal conversions, despite the attention they can generate, are small change compared with the payoff of broader ecclesial union. And toward this goal, Sweden—thanks to the remarkable Bjärka-Säby—seems decades ahead.”

I’ve been mulling over this for weeks now and I’ve two main observations from the article because it is at odds with my observations on Swedish Christianity over the past few years. Although I confess, I have not visited Bjärka-Säby.

Firstly, I’ve been trying to understand what it was that made such an impression on Milliner.

The article is descriptive of place but actually contains little of substance beyond a convent and this retreat centre to support Milliner’s grand claims. Certainly the beauty of the place seems to have left its mark, as did the ecumenical spirit of the place with its Coptic icons & ceremonies, Lutheran liturgies and its cassocked Pentecostal minister. It even drew comparisons with fabled Mount Athos in Greece. Milliner also seems impressed that the leaders who he met didn’t fall out over the issue of Ulf Ekman’s conversion to Rome, although it puzzles me, somewhat, as to why he thinks it should.

Secondly, Milliner’s headline claim that Christianity here is an ‘inch wide and a mile deep’ seems off the mark. Milliner has unwisely taken one small slice of deep and concluded that it must be like that everywhere. If only that were true.

The Lutheran Church of Sweden is the most liberal of all churches and is practically indistinguishable from society in its values and proclamations. It is hemorrhaging members. One priest told me, his was one of the larger Church of Sweden congregations in Stockholm with around 80-100 regular attenders. Declining denominations merge to stem the losses only to continue to decline.

Milliner had it half right, it is inch wide.

Yet Evangelical Christianity in Sweden continues to look to America for it’s inspiration and advice. Pastors regularly make their pilgrimages west in search of the cure. Conferences are well attended when the latest big-name pastor from the States is flown in.

Ecumenical gatherings appear, as so often, to end up at the lowest common denominator and (from my casual observance at least) are usually blandly inoffensive and toothless. Church after church is looking for the fix to massive decline and as a result are blighted by pragmatism and unhindered by theology.

Whatever depth there is, is not widespread.

It is not all bad news. I am hearing testimonies of conversion or healing. I’ve met more and more pastors who, in their own words, have discovered a renewed hunger for theological depth, clarity and robustness. There is evidence of a growing commitment to church planting as the basis for mission. At one end of the spectrum there is a renewed interest in house churches and simple churches as a means of renewal and at the other end Hillsongs Stockholm is growing fast and gathers a crowd. There is reason to hope that it will both widen and deepen.

Yet, I think it remains reasonable to say that these signs are just that, signs and not the reality. Sadly, from everyone I’ve met and everything I’ve seen and heard, and it genuinely pains me to say this but when it comes to Swedish Christianity, I fear a more accurate description would be ‘inch wide and inch deep.’


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