In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
“We have a lot to learn from Christians from other continents where being in minority is the ordinary way of life for a church”, says parish pastor Haakon Kessel. 15,000 left the Church of Norway after deregistration was made available online.
The Church of Norway (Lutheran) has decided to make it easier for anyone to join or leave the institution. The launch of a website which simplifies the procedures of registration has led to a strong reaction: more than 15,000 gave left the institution in only seven days.
The leadership of the state-church (with 3.8 Million members, 73% of Norway’s population) was not surprised by the 'exodus': “No one should be a member of a religious community against their will, and therefore I am glad that this solution has been put in place”, the Chair person of the Church Kristin Gunleiksrud Raaum said.
But what does this tell us about the situation of the traditional Christian institutions in Norway? How do church leaders see the future?
We asked Haakon Kessel, a Church of Norway parish pastor of Ræge Church. He who shared his views based on his personal experience from the ground.
Kessel believes Norwegians “have shifted from a time when the church enjoyed legal and financial privileges and had a guaranteed sphere of influence, to a time when people only seek the church if they want to.”
“We may get discouraged by the influence of secularism and pluralism but must keep in mind that it is now looking more and more like the social reality of the first church”, the Protestant minister adds.
Read the full interview Evangelical Focus did with Haakon Kessel.
Question. What have the secular media in Norway said about this new option to join and leave the Church of Norway through a website?
Answer. It received a lot of attention in the media, even on the national TV news. Most people become members of the church when they get baptised as infants, unconsciously of course, it is the parent’s decision.
But you have to make a conscious decision if you want to leave the church. More than 15,000 left the church in a matter of days, and this reflects the fact that many people have wanted over years to leave but did not take the trouble to do so.
It was too complicated and the register wasn’t properly functioning etc. So this number reflects an accumulation over years. The Church of Norway has 3.8 million members, 15,000 is less than 0.5 % so I think it is fair to say adherence to the church is still solid.
Q. Do you see this online solution as a helpful option? Do you agree with Gunleiksrud Raaum in the opinion that people should have an easy way to leave the register when they are not really being active members of the Church?
A. I can only answer for myself. I think it is helpful and also inevitable. We live in the online reality and have to relate to it.
I agree with Director Gunleiksrud. I know a lot of people will question how it is possible to leave or enter the church without any personal contact with a church, fellowship or pastor. I see that paradox, but this is how a national people's church works: membership is perceived differently than in an independent local church.
I understand it raises some questions, but it also gives opportunities to meet and reach people that other churches do not have.
Q. Would you think the possibility of becoming a Church of Norway member through an online application makes people disconnected from a real Christian engagement: discipleship, attendance to meetings, community...?
A. I do not think online membership makes any difference in that respect. People are engaged in the church irrespective of how membership is technically registered. It is a matter of faith.
But there is a flip-side here: It has also become easier to become a member. During the first days, when a lot of people left the church, 500 people registered to become members. These are people who consciously want to belong. The church should focus its attention in that direction, so they feel welcome and get integrated in the community.
Q. What developments do you think should happen in the Church of Norway to see new spiritual growth and more active members in the parishes?
A. I believe we have the same challenges as other churches in Europe. We have shifted from a time when the church enjoyed legal and financial privileges and had a guaranteed sphere of influence, to a time when people only seek the church if they want to.
We may say that people’s relationship to the church has shifted “from law to longing”. How do we meet that transition? I don't believe in any quick fix or new revolutionary method for growth in our churches.
But I believe that instead of moaning the ever shrinking spheres of influence in society for the church we should rather focus on meeting the longings of people. The best way to communicate faith is through relationships, starting with our own relationship with God.
We may get discouraged by the influence of secularism and pluralism but must keep in mind that it is looking more and more like the social reality of the first church. This makes the New Testament even more interesting in our day and time.
We are not moving farther away from the biblical world, we are getting closer. We also have a lot to learn from Christians from other continents where being in minority is the ordinary way of life for a church.
Q. Do you support the separation of church and state in Norway? How will it happen? How can it benefit the Church of Norway?
A. I think it was a good decision, it was overdue. There is no theological basis for a state-church. The “divorce” is a gradual process.
Financially the church will still receive support from the government (taxes) based on membership. But even if there is a split, there is also a desire to keep it as a “folk- church” (people's church) to preserve the broad an open appeal which the Church of Norway still enjoys.
I sometimes struggle to explain this to Christians from other countries with no “national” church. There is a lot of faith among ordinary people which does not necessarily express itself in regular church attendance and activities. We have to acknowledge this faith and see it as an opportunity to lead people into a deeper relationship with Jesus and the community.
ABOUT HAAKON KESSEL
Haakon Kessel has been a missionary pastor in Osaka (Japan) for 12 years. For the last 3 years, he has been the parish pastor of Ræge Church, near the city of Stavanger, Norway.
Besides studies in theology, he has a degree in social anthropology.