The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
The government says that Sweden is “amongst the least religious countries in the world”.
Sweden’s economic resilience, growth and confidence have been viewed enviously in Europe, with the country strongly outperforming most of its partners across most sectors. Of all the national economies in the European Union, Sweden has emerged as possibly the least damaged by the 2008 financial crash. It boasts universally high development indicators.
Sweden’s 1.7 per cent growth (Q1/2017) was described by the Guardian’s usually more circumspect business correspondent, as “rollicking”! Forecasters do not expect record growth rates to persist throughout 2018, but confidence remains high that steady economic growth will be the norm for Swedes for some time.
Critically, while GDP continues to surge, and unemployment has returned to low pre-2008 levels, manufacturing for export is strong and investment is healthy; inflation is under control. The government, despite running a budget surplus, is increasing its spending, which coupled with low interest rates continues to promote economic expansion.
Sweden has climbed up the world rankings for ‘Best Countries for Business’ and the Global Competitiveness Index, published by Forbes and the World Economic Forum respectively; which they attribute to the process of de-regulation, low corporation tax, and high levels of innovation, skills and low levels of corruption.
As a result, Swedes enjoy some of the highest living standards anywhere in the world, and exceptional figures for pension provision from their current working-age population, which augurs will for their longer-term prosperity.
Sweden has a long-held reputation for economic egalitarianism, with a tradition of state-welfarism, high progressive personal taxation and significant wealth redistribution. Today, that legacy is an ideological battleground.
Voices on the left claim that Sweden’s drive for economic growth and competiveness has squandered its unusually low levels of inequality. The centrist and centre-right parties disagree, and claim that this economic growth has funded the public services that are the foundation of Swedish egalitarianism.
Neither side in the argument appears to be entirely wrong; while Sweden is less egalitarian than it once was, the OECD still ranks it as the most economically equal country in the world. Whether the wave of recent immigrants into Sweden, many of whom arrive without assets, will join the wealthy socio-economic mainstream or form an intergenerational underclass, will be a critical test of Swedish egalitarianism going forward.
Moves towards making Sweden the world’s first entirely cash-free economy threaten to make even basic participation in society dependent on access to internet banking, smartphones, apps and mobile internet access.
Sweden is a constitutional monarchy. The Riksdag, the 349-seat unicameral legislature, is elected by proportional representation. Control of the house enables a party or coalition to form a government and select a prime minister from within it.
The monarch is King Carl XVI Gustav, who has reigned with public support since 1973. His personal scandals do not appear to have stimulated republicanism, and his heir, Princess Victoria, maintains high public approval ratings.
Sweden joined the EU in 1995, following a referendum the previous year, but subsequently opted to remain outside the Eurozone. Social Democrat Stefan Löfven has served as prime minister since 2014, and will lead his party into the general election scheduled for 9 September 2018. While he is expected to emerge as the leader of the largest party, it is unlikely that he will gain an overall majority and so the next government and prime minister will emerge from coalition negotiations.
The Swedish government’s guide for incomers is revealing. It emphasises quite modest and unassuming qualities such as taking off one’s shoes when entering a home, being on time, and learning to queue patiently. Immigrants wanting to enjoy Sweden’s wealth might be surprised to discover that a prized trait is “Lagom”, which means ample, or sufficient. In other words, conspicuous consumption is seen as vulgar; and moderation prized.
These more conservative principles sit alongside Sweden’s very liberal attitudes to sexual and gender ethics. Yet it was Sweden who pioneered the criminalisation of the purchase (rather than the sale) of sex.
Sweden has extremely high levels of gender equality, with one of the lowest measurable ‘gender gaps’, according to the World Economic Forum. The country also boasts the third-highest quality of life for older people in the world, with high pensions, many employment opportunities, good public safety and transport.
Sweden has not been exempt from the challenges posed by immigration over the last decade. In 2014, Sweden had “the most generous immigration policy in Europe” and accepted 165,000 immigrants over the proceeding year, which given the country’s small population (10 million), made it the highest per capita European migrant destination.
While this liberalism was initially celebrated, by 2016 the legal framework started to change in line with hardening public attitudes, and immigration has become increasingly more difficult. The difficulties of assimilation were highlighted by the terror attack in April 2017 carried out by an Uzbek national. The ‘Sweden Democrats’ party has gained support with its anti-immigration platform.
Sweden may have gone further, and faster, than any other European nation in rejecting allegiance to the church which once helped to define its identity. Surveys suggest that Sweden now has the highest proportion of atheists in the Western world.
While some Christian traditions remain part of Swedish cultural life, church attendance itself continues to decline. The government says that Sweden is “amongst the least religious countries in the world”.
It goes on to describe the almost total acceptance of values at odds with traditional biblical approaches to morality on issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and cohabitation. It notes that the Church of Sweden has been a participant in this shift in values.
In the wider community, there is a renewed interest in Viking pre-Christian spirituality, and occult practices.
According to Daniel Stråle, of OM Sweden, the churches are playing an important role in caring for the significant numbers of refugees in Sweden, even as public attitudes towards them harden. He sees the church’s work in this field as being a profound demonstration to these incoming communities of God’s love for them, as well as being an important witness to secular Swedes of the contemporary relevance of Christianity.
Stråle also notes that numerical decline of the mainline churches does not represent the universal picture of Christianity in Sweden, in which there are some counter-trends. Church planting has restarted, and there is increasing co-operation between churches.
A large body of anecdotal evidence is also accumulating about significant numbers of immigrants in Sweden putting their faith in Christ, with baptisms and house-fellowships growing among Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, Iranian and Eritrean communities. “A lot of people are coming to faith now,” Stråle observes.
Jesus famously warned his hearers, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Sweden’s thriving economy, high levels of development, and beautiful land, but large-scale rejection of Christianity, suggests that his question contains a piercing insight. In many ways, Sweden has “gained the whole world”, but the question remains, can it hold onto its soul?
Gavin Matthews is a writter, blogger and Bible-teacher.
This article was published with permission of Solas magazine.