Facing the Future Together

by Mark Safstrom

On June 4th 2011, over 400 delegates from three separate church denominations gathered in Stockholm, Sweden to do business at one joint annual meeting. The road to this meeting was long, with precedents of formal dialogue dating back to 1905. The goal this time: to create one new church out of three. While the history of Christianity is filled with stories of competition, division and even enmity between various denominations, stories of mergers and cooperation are perhaps all too rare. That three churches – each with distinct histories, traditions and theologies – could successfully broker this difficult merger says much about the vision and resolve of the leadership. It is also a humbling commentary on the challenges faced by all churches in Scandinavia, a region which has grown increasingly unreceptive to Christianity over the past century.

The main characters in this historical drama are the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden (Svenska Missionskyrkan), the Swedish Baptist and the Swedish Methodist churches. This trio is often referred to as the original “free churches” in Sweden, and came into being in the mid-1800s during the revival that challenged the religious monopoly of the Lutheran state church, the Church of Sweden. Since the Reformation, all Swedish citizens were obligatory members of this state church, and strict regulations limited all practice of religion outside the supervision of the Church of Sweden’s clergy. Thus, when many Lutherans who were filled with enthusiasm for revival and reform (known as ‘Pietists’ or ‘Readers’) began lobbying for the right to hold private bible studies, communion services and adult baptisms, the resistance by the establishment caused many to leave the Church of Sweden and form their own denominations. The first were the Baptists (in 1857), followed by the Methodists (1868), and the largest being the Covenant (1878). Whereas before the splits, the Pietists had often cooperated in various mission societies and joint ventures, once these Pietists evolved into Methodists, Baptists and Covenanters, they funneled their activity into separate denominations.

This denominational, market-driven model of Christianity became standard practice in the years to come, although many people still retained dual membership in the Church of Sweden. And for a time, it worked; these independent churches continued to thrive and grow through the early 20th century. However, by the 1930s the revival had begun to peak, and afterwards the numbers of participants in the old free churches began to steadily decline. This decline has continued down to the present day, and in the past few decades, the aging members of these churches have realized that the extinction of their institutions is a real possibility.

And so, three churches with common history have long been speculating about a common future. As the challenges increased of promoting congregational activities and community life in this secularized, prosperous and individualistic Northern society, repeated attempts to unite all denominations also increased, particularly after WWII. However, it was not until the 1990s that the most concrete steps were taken. In 1991, the three churches began to coordinate their national youth programs, which were eventually united in a jointly-run organization called Equmenia (2007). In 1992, the Baptists and Covenanters pooled resources to form one joint newspaper, Sändaren, and the following year the two churches also merged their seminaries to form Teologiska Högskolan Stockholm (THS). The Methodists also became joint owners of this school in 2008. The successes of these earlier ventures have often been held up as proof that the ultimate merger could work.

Serious discussion of full merger came in 2006 at a meeting in Tuscany, which will go down in history as a pivotal moment. A group of leaders from each church had gathered for a retreat to pray, seek each other’s counsel and share their experiences, including the denominational heads Göran Zettergren (Covenant), Karin Wiborn (Baptist) and Anders Svensson (Methodist). During this retreat, they glimpsed the possibility for much more, and returned to Sweden galvanized in the intention to not only cooperate, but to develop a strategy to unite their churches. Letters of inquiry were sent to the respective congregations, and the leadership found that their own sentiments were widely shared among the membership, as well. In 2009, at each of the denominations’ annual meetings, the delegates voted to proceed with plans for merger, and set the date for a final vote at this year’s meeting.

Part of the reason why the merger could work now, as opposed to even in 2000 when previous talks had stranded, is that the religious paradigm in Sweden had shifted significantly in the last decade. It was in 2000 that the Church of Sweden formally ceased to be the state church, and thereby also became a “free church.” As this great oak of Lutheranism also began to lose members and the place of Christianity in Swedish cultural life was questioned anew, the historical roles that the other free churches had played were again thrown into question. Where they had once protested the established church and competed with each other to develop denominational brands in the religious market, it now became apparent that they were all churches on an even footing, and furthermore were all faced with similar crises. (It was shortly thereafter that the “Swedish Mission Covenant” changed its name to “Swedish Mission Church” to reflect this change; previously, it had operated under the Waldenströmian principle that it was merely an ecumenical “mission society” and not a denomination in the proper sense).

However, this formal secularization was merely a symptom of long-term problems that the congregations had been struggling with for decades. Church historian Torsten Bergsten, who has carefully followed the ecumenical discussions of the free churches over the years, shared this sentiment with the newspaper Sändaren, and explained that until now the time was simply not ripe for merger. Bergsten pointed to examples of several local congregations, which out of necessity have already been cooperating across denominational lines.

“Now we are confirming at a central level what we have known on the local level for many years: We need each other, for both practical and theological reasons. The natural foundation for all of this has been Jesus’ words about unity.”

In the build-up prior to the final vote, enthusiastic ecumenical sentiments like this have been frequent, often invoking Christ’s prayer for the unity of his disciples (John 17:20-21). The commentary on the denominational homepages and blogs following this most recent annual meeting also demonstrated a kind of tempered euphoria.

However, as much as the desire for ecumenical unity has been a sincere goal, it is important to remember that reaching this point was not simply an idealistic move, but also a practical one, and might not have succeeded if the respective churches had not been in such a dire situation. Once the honeymoon is over, it will remain to be seen what the future will hold for this new marriage. In particular there remains the risk that dissatisfied congregations will leave the new church, and there has been discussion about whether some Methodist congregations will choose affiliation with other international Methodist bodies instead of the new denomination. When talks stranded in 1971 and 2000, it was in large part because the Methodists got cold feet. The end result could be that the new church will lose some congregations and individual members to other denominations.

The desire to preserve denominational identity and affiliation has often proven to be a major obstacle to merger. This is less of a concern for the Covenanters, as not only are they significantly larger than the other two groups, but the new church will likely not be much different in its operation and structure. It will have to be flexible theologically, and democratic and decentralized in its governance – two traits which are traditional hallmarks of Covenant identity. There is also the long history of functioning as a “mission society” rather than a denomination, meaning that practice is emphasized over theology, and that the congregations are more or less autonomous yet cooperate in joint mission activities and resource development (as opposed to denominations that have hierarchical structures and rigid theologies). Because the Baptists and Methodists have more established international “brands,” they quite simply have more to lose than the Covenanters do. As such, many have called on the Covenanters to be especially humble in accommodating the other partners.

However, easing this transition is the fact that the churches share many cultural traits. Because of the centuries-old dominance of Lutheranism in Sweden, many of the free churches have always operated within the shadow of Lutheran practice, liturgy and hymnody, such that the difference between Methodists, Baptists and Lutherans in Sweden is not as great as it is between those same traditions in North America. Several of the free churches, including the Covenanters, have already been using the same common hymnal for decades, for instance. The Methodists and Covenanters both have signed communion agreements with the Church of Sweden, as well, which will likely extend to the new church.

Another strategy in gaining support for the merger has been for the leadership to help the churches “remember” their common past, that is, present the history of all the interactions between them in a way that emphasizes joint ventures, shared historical figures, and common values. This is not difficult, as there are many valid examples of shared history, such as the fact that all three churches can claim George Scott, 19th century Methodist evangelist and founder of the journal Pietisten, as a spiritual forebear.

Nevertheless, this merger cannot be expected to be easy for any of the participant churches. There is still no name for the new body, and it will continue to be referred to as Gemensam Framtid (“Common Future” or “GF-Church”) until at least the annual meeting in 2012. The formal operations of the new church are set to begin with the New Year in 2012.

As Göran Zettergren told Sändaren, success will depend on capitalizing on the current enthusiasm and vision within the first year of joint operation. “Every organization can wind up faltering in one way or another. Now we have the opportunity to coordinate our resources and become a more visible church in our country. If we can communicate the strategic goals that were presented in advance of the first year of operation, I am hopeful that this will result in a renewal of energy and love for the cause.”

Zettergren’s sentiments reflect a widespread hope that this merger will inspire new enthusiasm and confidence for the daily operations of both the national leadership and the local congregations. In addition, there is the hope that this merger will cause the general Swedish public to take notice of their cooperation, and perhaps be more receptive to a unified Christian presence instead of the “club” mentality that outsiders may have perceived in the past.

Covenanters in North America have a long history of partnership with the Swedish Mission Covenant Church, including exchange of clergy and members, college and seminary exchanges, fruitful joint ventures in the mission fields (such as Congo, Alaska and China), and share an enormous cultural heritage of Pietist theology and hymnody. When the Evangelical Covenant Church was founded in 1885, it was heavily inspired by the precedent set by the Covenant back in Sweden. As the new church is born next year, there are great possibilities for continued cooperation, if leaders and laypeople from the ECC invest the necessary time and efforts to reach out to the new church.

It may also be important for churches in North America to study the experience of European churches closely. The challenges currently faced by congregations in Sweden are not all that dissimilar from conditions in various part of the U.S. and Canada, where popular culture is increasingly secularized and weekly church participation is more infrequent than it was a generation ago. Our common future – the future of Christianity in the West – may well depend on our ability to engage in the challenges faced by our brothers and sisters in similar industrialized, secular cultures and develop creative ways of meeting these challenges together.

Ecumenism, or the dialogue and cooperation between church denominations, has not always met with success in the past century. The hopeful burst of ecumenical conversation surrounding the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910 and the subsequent developments that stemmed from it, such as the World Council of Churches in 1948, have often been viewed with skepticism by evangelicals. This is not least because even the most limited cooperation can be seen as an approval of controversial differences in theology, culture and lifestyle embraced by the other denominations.

The Evangelical Covenant Church is perhaps unique among evangelical churches in North America, in that, like its Swedish sibling, it was born out of an ecumenical revival movement, and has remained interested in ecumenical cooperation to the present. Many Covenanters may remember how, in the 1960s and 70s, the denomination considered merger with other churches, but because it could not find sufficient interest among potential partners, tabled the issue. It seems from the recent experience of the Swedish Covenant that mergers may be most successful when churches are struggling, not when they are prospering. But there is also a case to be made that their discussions with the Baptists and Methodists, which began in better days, is bearing fruit now when these churches need it most. The ecumenical partnerships that we in the ECC nurture today, including our continued friendship with the new Swedish denomination, can prove to be an important investment in the future of both of our churches.

Mark Safstrom is Chief Editor of Pietisten, and teaches Swedish language and Scandinavian literature at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.

See all articles by Mark Safstrom