By Charles Braddix
STOCKHOLM, Sweden — What’s the most embarrassing thing you can talk about in your city? Discussions that include God, said a Scandinavian pastor.
The pastor in Denmark told this to sociologist Phil Zuckerman, who spent 14 months interviewing nearly 150 Scandinavians, according to The New York Times.
This can pose a dilemma for Christian workers trying to evangelize and plant churches in countries like Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland. The key, however, is not leaving God out of spiritual discussions, but knowing how to have an appropriate spiritual conversation with Scandinavians, said International Mission Board strategy leader David Moench, a Tennessean and member of Brentwood Baptist Church, Brentwood.
Moench said sharing one’s faith in a postmodern culture must be done in ways that are genuine, not prepackaged. Rational approaches just don’t work. Stories are the key.
“You ask a lot of questions and you listen, then you look for bridges,” Moench said. “What are bridges from their story to my story? My story, because I’m a believer, involves my faith in Christ, my community that I live in, the church that we’re part of planting. Then I can begin to share God’s story, and that’s where it might be alright.”
Talking about God throughout Scandinavia can be tough because people are not interested. It could easily be believed that religion is a personal issue, thus not discussed. Zuckerman’s research states, however, that it is actually a non-issue.
“Interviewees just didn’t care about it,” he says in his book Society Without God, cited in The New York Times article in 2009. He uses phrases like “benign indifference” and “utter obliviousness” to describe most Scandinavians’ ideas about religion. For them, religion and Jesus are both “nice.”
Sweden is the least religious nation in the Western world, according to a WIN/Gallup International poll, conducted at the end of 2014. Eight out of 10 Swedes are either “not religious”or “convinced atheists,” the poll shows.
“It’s a little bit surprising because we have a lot of ‘church’ members,” said Gunnar Sjöberg, head of communication for the Swedish Church. The poll shows that 63 percent of Sweden’s population is comprised of members of the once official state church.
“The presence of religion and the church in many Swedes’ lives is most visible when traditional rituals or ceremonies are performed,” Sweden Sverige, the official website of the Swedish government, reports. “Chief among these are christenings, marriages, and funerals.” The site points out that “secular” ceremonies are now becoming more and more common, however.
The Church of Sweden has often accompanied liberal social change rather than obstructing it, the site notes. “Christianity and the church may have maintained ritual and cultural importance in Sweden, but this has not prevented the country from becoming one of the world’s most liberal societies,” the site says.
“In some areas where religious and social conservatism often prevail, such as the right to abortion, no serious debate exists in Sweden. Living together and having children without being married is also socially acceptable, and recent statistics suggest more than 40 percent of first-time parents in Sweden have children before getting married.”
The Church of Sweden has performed legal same-sex marriages since 2009.
Moench said postmodernism is not a culture one is born into or that one acquires. “It’s actually a filter on how to look at everything,” he said.
“So postmodernity exists within the church. Therefore, it’s not something to be challenged, to be confronted; it’s actually a way that we should communicate the gospel cross-culturally.”
He warns that what is happening in Scandinavia now is a good indication of what is to come in the United States.
“…You’re not fighting against necessarily a cultural view of Christianity. You’re actually fighting the ignorance of the fact that they’ve never met anybody who genuinely believed and acted upon the words of Jesus, lived in community, and carried out those truths.”