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The folk religion is increasingly shaped by various types of Eastern, New Age, and neo-pagan religiosities, alongside continuous impulses from traditional Christian beliefs.
The religious history of Scandinavia is one dominated by established Lutheran state churches. The current situation, however, is characterised by an ambivalent and changing context. The result is a number of complex and changing relationships for the established churches in Scandinavia. This is true whether thinking of their relationships to the states and the nations, to other denominations, or to individual members.
Historically, the Reformation legacy has been highly influential, but that heritage is no longer a key shaper of church and culture. There is still a strong evangelical tradition in Scandinavia, especially in Norway. Traditionally, many evangelicals belonged to inner and foreign mission societies operating within the old state churches. This is illustrated historically by the significant prayer house movement, with its evangelical, Pietistic and mission-orientated focus.
The strength and size of evangelical non-established churches and networks have increased in recent years in Norway. This is partly due to Christian immigrants from other countries. Overseas mission has traditionally been central to many Scandinavian evangelicals, with Norway as a leading country. The traditional established churches and many theological institutions have been influenced by so-called liberal theology of various kinds, even though there are many evangelical ministers serving within these historical Lutheran churches.
The Church of Norway has had a number of key evangelical leaders, also among its bishops, but its leadership has recently become more pluralistic. The Norwegian evangelical mission societies are still influential, alongside the Catholic Church and Pentecostal churches. The Church of Denmark is probably the most pluralistic of the Scandinavian established churches, with the whole theological spectrum within its formal structures. The Church of Sweden and some of the Swedish free churches are characterised by political correctness, whereas the Swedish Evangelical Alliance and its members represent a clear evangelical presence. The Church of Finland has a number of evangelical leaders and ministers, but is also deeply influenced by liberalism and political correctness.
The state church legacy has led to a number of popular misconceptions. Many would consider the local church as identical to the local established parish church, which has simply become a religious service-provider. Being baptised as an infant and confirmed as a teenager, are often considered as equal to being a Christian, independent of personal beliefs, values and commitments. Many view the biblical Gospel in purely therapeutic terms, especially related to crisis situations personally or collectively. In real life, many Scandinavians are simply indifferent to the biblical message, as something belonging to the past.
There is currently an increasing secularisation and pluralisation in Scandinavia, which is evident in many areas. There is a subtle kind of practical atheism, which is very pervasive in our affluent Nordic countries. The worldview influences from secular humanism and naturalism are becoming increasingly influential in the educational system, the academy, the media, and the arts. The number of Muslims is increasing, mostly due to immigration. The folk religion is increasingly shaped by various types of Eastern, New Age, and neo-pagan religiosities, alongside continuous impulses from traditional Christian beliefs.
The strength of the established churches is their wide contact with local communities, but the value of this is dependent on their theological conviction, profile, and impact. The most common evangelistic approach in Scandinavia across the denominational spectrum in recent years is the Alpha course.
Inspired by DAWN, there is an increasing emphasis across Scandinavia on church planting, with a focus on small groups, house churches, and personal relationships. However, these encouraging trends are not matched by an equal emphasis on authentic and relevant preaching and teaching, and the corresponding need to relate biblical faith to everyday life. These two latter tasks include the urgent need for evangelical churches to equip their members to be disciples and witnesses, especially in secular contexts such as the media, university, and the workplace in general.
It is more demanding to be a local church, since “going to church” no longer is a shared cultural commitment, not even among elderly people. The following excerpt from a news story in Sweden is telling: “Elderly people are more active today in all respects – including getting married at old age – and in all form of activities, with the exception of going to church.”
A related major weakness of many local Scandinavian churches is the alarming lack of real contact with young people. It is a fact that many denominations (not the least in Sweden) increasingly have lost their youth during the last 20-30 years. It is thus a real and urgent need to re-engage younger generations in Scandinavia with the biblical Gospel in all its richness and relevance.
Margunn Serigstad Dahle is Programme Director of and Associate Professor in Communication and Worldviews, Gimlekollen School of Journalism and Communication, NLA University College, Norway.
This article was first published in Solas magazine. Solas is published quarterly in the U.K. Click here to learn more or subscribe.