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One of the main tasks of those involved in mission is to challenge the people to ask questions like “What does it mean to be a Christian?”
Norwegians love to be outdoors and they do not worry about the weather. They even have a little rhyme that goes something like this: “There is not such thing as bad weather, there is only bad (or unsuitable) clothing”, meaning that one can be outdoors in all kinds of weather as long as one is properly dressed.
This in itself presents an interesting missiological challenge: Norwegians’ love for being outdoors has for years been a special challenge during Easter time when majority of Norwegians will leave for their mountain cabins to ski or hike leaving the churches with the challenge of finding creative ways how to motivate people to attend Easter services.
According to Evert van de Poll, Northern Europe is mostly protestant, industrious, enterprising and economically developed, used to plurality of religious expressions, and largely secular. Using this description as a starting point, I would like to suggest three main challenges for mission in the Nordic context.
Challenge 1: Knowledge of Christianity and the Church
The first issue is related to the average Norwegian's knowledge about Christianity and the Church. Here we meet a twofold challenge: from one side, most people have very limited knowledge about the basic elements of Christian faith. From the other side, most of them are convinced that what they know is sufficient, and, more importantly, that their views are correct.
What are some of the fundamental, underlying issues that shape these views? Let me mention two of them. First, church history in general and the heritage of pietism in particular. The impact of this pietistic heritage on the perception of church should not be underestimated – Christianity is still very often described in terms of what it prohibits and/or condemns. The second issue is related to attitudes towards religious pluralism. Values of equality and egalitarianism are central in Norwegian society and therefore there is a strong dislike for any kind of exclusive claims, especially if they are perceived to teach that some are better than others. These attitudes and views often lead to the conclusion that the Christian faith has little or nothing to offer.
So one of the challenges for mission in Nordic context is to be able to motivate curiosity about Christianity as well as to be able to go beyond the lack of interest or negative attitudes.
Challenge 2: The Folk Church phenomenon
The second challenge is connected to the folk church phenomenon. Most Norwegians (up to 80% of the population) are members of the Lutheran church and therefore consider themselves Christians, but less than 10% actually attend church services or are actively engaged in the life of the local congregation.
Here I would like to challenge the observation that the problem of nominal Christianity is most widespread in the Southern part of Europe among Roman Catholics. Countries like Norway (as well as the other the Scandinavian countries) where majority of people are members of the Lutheran church also struggle with the same problem.
The attitude that is sometimes described as “belonging without believing” or “belonging without practicing” presents a serious challenge and points towards the fact that one of the main tasks of those involved in mission is to challenge the people to ask questions like “What does it mean to be a Christian?”, “How does one practice one’s faith?” or “What do we understand by discipleship?”
Challenge 3: A highly differentiated society
The third challenge is related to the fact that churches have to reflect and find out what is their role and function in a highly differentiated society. As a result of the secularization process most of the social functions of the church (such as education, healthcare) have been taken over by the state.
Thus although the churches are still involved in charity work, they are no longer the only or even the main actor engaged in this kind of work. But if taking care of the poor and vulnerable is no longer seen as a uniquely Christian then we have to ask what is Christianity’s unique contribution to society? What is it that we can offer to people that no one else can?
Finding good answers to these questions, to my opinion, is essential for mission in the Nordic context.
Vija Herefoss is a theological advisor at the Norwegian mission and human rights organisation Stefanus Alliance International.
This article first appeared in the April 2014 edition of Vista magazine.