Seven years ago this week the Rev. Dr. John Stott concluded his final public engagement. Stott, whom, Billy Graham named as “the most respected clergyman in the world today,” concluded his public ministry at the age of 87, asking evangelical Christians in England, "What is God's purpose for his people? God wants His people to become like Christ…. Christ-likeness is the will of God for the people of God.”
Building his sermon on three texts – Romans 8:29, 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 1 John 3:2 – Stott affirmed that “if we claim to be a Christian, we must be Christ-like.” Stott warned his audience that being Christ-like in “patient endurance...may well become increasingly relevant as persecution increases in many cultures.”
During my stay in Sweden earlier this month, participating in the FSAOF retreat and later, attending the SA’s annual Congress in Stockholm in Salvation Army uniform, I, along with hundreds of assembled Salvationists, was met not so much by persecution as indifference. Sweden’s is the largest Lutheran church in the world, yet some call it the church of the non-believers because it’s also the most secular and religiously apathetic country in the world. Swedes choose to belong to the church because it provides a convenient and historically important meeting place for family occasions including infant baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Ninety percent of all Swedes are still buried with a church service, according to the Church of Sweden. It also serves as a refuge in times of national crisis such as the sinking of the ferry Estonia in 1994, in which 800 people died, most of them Swedes. The SA played a significant role in providing emergency assistance and grief counselling.
A recent survey by the Church of Sweden found that about two-thirds of the country’s 9.4 million people belong to the church. Yet, only 15 percent of church members say they believe in Jesus Christ. An equal percentage of Swedes call themselves atheists.
The survey, conducted by Jonas Bromander, chief analyst of the Church of Sweden, also found that membership continues to decline (at an accelerating pace), from about 95 percent of the population 40 years ago to the historically low 68.8 percent today.
Sven Björkborg, a pastor who serves several parishes southwest of Stockholm says he believes in Jesus Christ, which is not a requirement for Church of Sweden clergy. A December poll by the Swedish opinion research organization Sifo found that 83 percent of Swedes believe that Christmas should be about family, and only 10% said it was about celebrating the birth of Jesus.
H.B. Hammar, former dean of Skara Cathedral, said that of the 3,384 churches in Sweden only 500 (16%) or so are used at most once a month.
A THREE DECADE GROWING CHASM
The former Bishop of Stockholm, Krister Stendahl caused consternation in the 1990s in espousing ecumenicalism above salvation. And in his analysis of Matthew 1-2 he states that historical evidence neither affirms or denies the claim or the claim of Jesus' divinity. And, he believed that the Christian call is to go into the world and listen to others with humility, willing to learn and to help where we can. He once commented: “When God comes into the Oval Office in the morning, he doesn’t ask for Christian growth statistics but ‘What have my Christians done for the Kingdom?’”
And the newly elected German born, Arcbishop Antje Jackelen, known in Sweden for her statements questioning the Virgin birth and endorsing the theory of evolution has done little in reaffirming the Swedish religious traditions.
The archbishop recently said in the newspaper DI Weekend that the position and responsibility she sees that the Swedish Church has: “to nourish people's zest for life and create opportunities for the future among young people, to engage in an open and equal society, a more equitable and sustainable distribution of world resources and to contribute to peace and reconciliation between people and states.”
How ought the 6 million members in the Swedish church who have historically been taught that the way to salvation rests alone in Jesus Christ translate Jackelen's belief that Jesus is not the only way to God, nor does she believe in the virgin birth or heaven and hell.
Is it not the role, the duty, of the leader of the Swedish church to advance the understanding of the 400 year established religion and to educate the 6,000,000 church members in a religiously complex world?
Tomorrow: Marcus Birro, perhaps Sweden’s most famous and vocal Christian who now has more than 20% of the country’s adults reading his chronicles in Expressen and blog every week. And, while many Christians throw their hands up in despair, Marcus is taking a further step and will start his own video blog ‘on the world today’. The format will touch on those matters of everyday life where Swedes live; the world of sports, leisure and recreation with faith as a necessary element in being truly fulfilled.