Those Great, Empty Churches

Cathedral in Uppsala, Sweden near sunset

The church was stunningly beautiful.

The brick shone in the sun. The stained glass windows brought a sense of reverence and peace. The great big organ played clear and magnificent.

The pews were clean, the floor mopped, the candles for All Souls Day lit, and there was warmth.

And rarely was the Church filled for a service.

A beggar sat by the door, asking for spare change - I didn't need to understand Swedish to know what he was saying. I wondered if he ever came inside of the service - at least to get out of the wind.

"I don't know a single person my age who goes to Church," one of the young men in my seminar said. I couldn't help myself - I was shocked. Of course I knew the statistics - Sweden is the most secular society in Europe, which is far more secular than America. While the majority of the population are members of the Church of Sweden (Lutheran), less than 2% attend worship and services regularly. Maybe its because I recently graduated Seminary and so my life is filled with young people who go to Church - or who are trying to start their own faith-rooted endeavors. My life in New York City, and my work in India, is infused with spiritual-religious people; I cannot imagine trying to engage with the Anthropocene Age without engaging with spirituality (although many of my closest friends are agnostic/atheist and they continually push me on this, that remains my belief). So even though I knew the pews had emptied many years ago, I still was surprised by how no one around the table knew people who went to Church. They had friends who went to the Mosque. Indeed, "religious life" is becoming associated with Islam; the recent waves of deeply religious immigrants into Sweden has led to a proliferation of Mosques around the country. More than 2 million inhabitants are of foreign origin. More than 200 languages are spoken in a country that has, for most of its history, primarily spoken Swedish and been quite homogenous.

The influence of this new-found diversity - including confessional pluralism - is of great interest and was a regular topic of conversation. The increase in Islam is shifting how the dominant culture conceptualizes religion. But before considering the complexities of race, ethnicity, religion, and the difficulties of cross-cultural engagement that a country that deeply values fairness and equality, I want to pause on these large and often empty churches. Swedes will marry inside of the church - but then, after that, they do not go to Sunday service. The candles are lit but the pews are empty.

Amongst the Christian faith networks I work with, most often there is a sense that if churches took on sustainability more seriously, especially around food and sustainable livelihoods, it would also contribute to increasing church attendance. Provide the theological and actual services that people need and more people will come to church because church will be more relevant to their lives. Become a source of life-giving-energy, and life will thrive. Its a simple argument that gets to my understanding of the core of Jesus' life-giving message. I've seen several cases where it has been true (although usually it is a combination of factors, not "only" putting together a committee on sustainability). I'm less confident if this approach would "work" in the churches in Sweden, in part because the church-going habit has become so very much out of favor and is not "cool." Indeed, I was looked at with shock when I considered the possibility of going to a service on a Sunday morning by some of my hosts.

It seems that we might do well to ask a bigger question: not what will bring people to church per se, but what is needed to adapt to climate change (by which I mean: to live well, to thrive), and how can the Church be a part of that? In this, we need to consider the church as a political player, as a landowner, educator, and as a deep part of Swedish history and culture. One also needs to ask, how can Churches be part of the general response to the increase in loneliness, depression, high divorce rate and isolation that is also a part of Swedish contemporary culture. Spiritual questions and needs remain, regardless of what you do on Sunday morning. How will they be answered? By whom? In what way? And - where? What rituals, songs, and practices of meaning-making will emerge?

These are big questions. But the spiritual-cultural dimensions of climate change means that questions of how we engage with more-than-ourselves and with the deep interconnected web of all of life needs to be included. Climate Change is too big to be left to purely secular spaces, even in a society that defines itself as largely secular.

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