“The Well” — Church Through Community

by Rev. Aaron J. Thompson

“Is church planting really necessary in Sweden?” As a new church-planting pastor in Gothenburg, Sweden I have heard this question more than a handful of times. This question comes from Swedes and Americans alike. Before I answer that question I believe it is more important for us to look back before we move forward.

For the last 5 years I have been serving as a missionary and pastor in Sweden. For the first few years of being here I observed, and then I observed some more. I have been a full-time student of everything Swedish: the language, the culture, and the church life. One of the things I enjoy the most is seeing God moving in the lives of Swedes. Their outward expression of faith may seem rather tame on the outside, however on the inside there is a heart burning for the Gospel. This passion is deep and sincere, yet I cannot stop sensing that there is a wall stopping the Gospel from going further. Some say the wall is apathy and/or secularization, and others say it is the cultural idea of “jantelagen” (the social law which states that one is not to think that one is actually important, good at something or better than anyone else.) These things may very well be the “wall” which comes between Sweden and the Gospel today, but I have heard stories of what God has done in this far north country’s past.

One example was told to my wife and I as we were at the midwife for a check-up. Our midwife, who does not give the impression of being a Christian, was telling us that it is a taboo for women to say that they drink, which is why she was persistent in asking Stina if she was drinking while pregnant. The midwife was just trying to make sure my wife was not drinking. Our midwife then told us that this “drinking taboo” goes far back in Sweden’s history. During the early 19th century, many Swedish citizens were drinking themselves to death, but the churches mobilized the temperance movement and this awakening changed society, thus making an impact on overall Swedish drinking culture for generations.

Both those inside and outside the church are still talking about this awakening today. I am concerned about the younger generations in Sweden, because they have not experienced this awakening. The older generations remember some of this, but the younger generations have not experienced Jesus like many of the older generations have.

Perhaps we need to look even further back in time before we can answer the question surrounding why we need church planting in Sweden. From my understanding of the Bible and with my experience as a missionary in Sweden, I can see nothing other than the need for us, the Church, to take the call of following Jesus more seriously. In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Each follower of Jesus Christ is sent, sent to be a blessing, which extends back to God’s calling of Abraham in Genesis 12, “all peoples of the earth will be blessed through you.” These verses have changed my heart and they are the very reason why I am serving in the capacity I am. Throughout my life I have had a passion for people from different countries and cultures, therefore it is merely logical I am serving as a pastor in a multi-cultural church plant in Sweden. We are a church built through community. The name of the new church is called “Brunnen,” which is Swedish for “The Well.” The name comes from John 4—the story of Jesus meeting the woman at the well. It is our hope that people will meet both Jesus and others at Brunnen.

Brunnen started several months ago with 8-10 people and we are now 22-25 people (fast growth for Sweden). We have 6 mini-discipleship groups (2-3 people) and have two meal sharing cell-groups (10-12 people). In Brunnen there are 7 different countries represented. It is interesting to know that 1 out of 9 (11 percent) people in Sweden either has a foreign background or has a parent of a foreign background. In Gothenburg it is 1 out of 5 (20 percent) of the population. In the town of Brunnsbo, where Brunnen is located, 2 out of 5 (40 percent) of people have a foreign background. Sweden is similar to the US in one way, all the immigrants and minorities go to one church and all the people of the majority go to another. However, for us in Brunnen the passage from Revelation 7:9-10, where all nations and tongues praise God, is a reality of God’s kingdom that we long to experience here on earth too.

In Sweden there is the fear that the Church may actually die out, since congregations are closing their doors faster than churches can be saved or new ones started. Christians in Sweden are noticing that something needs to happen if the Church is going to survive. Old congregations need to “restart” and find life again and new churches need to be planted so that they can reach those who are not being reached by the existing churches. New churches are often better, but not always, at proclaiming and demonstrating the Gospel in ways that today’s generations understand and can accept. If you were to ask some of the members of Brunnen if church planting is necessary, I believe they would answer like this: “Yes, church planting is necessary because my current church community is just that, a church plant! It is needed because we want to reach out to those who have not yet heard or experienced the Gospel.”

One example of this is how Brunnen has reached out by starting a Language Café where people can practice their Swedish and Swedes can help those who are practicing the language. It is a perfect meeting-point for Swedes and immigrants. Helping people over the hurdles and struggles of language is a practical way of bringing the Gospel into people’s lives. By doing so, we can help people be a part of Swedish society; by doing so, we free people from their burdens; and by doing so we change culture by living out the Bible in today’s world.

Church planting in Sweden has opened my eyes to see just how much God is needed. When we started Brunnen there were no boards, no committees, no one to lead worship, no one to help clean-up, and not even a person to share the Gospel with...there was nothing. It is in the nothing that God creates “good.” I have learned that prayer is everything, because if I really want something to happen I can run around and keep myself busy, but in the long run it is really God who speaks to the heart of the people, so I might as well go to Him first.

This must have been what the founders of the Swedish Mission Covenant felt like in the 1860s and ‘70s. Many people formed house groups, and they shared communion in these home gatherings. These people were pioneers, who dared to explore the unexplored, our forefathers and mothers were doing what we are doing today, planting churches. It was the house churches in Sweden, which then spread to the U.S. during the mass emigration from Sweden. The Swedes left their home country and brought their home churches with them, thus starting the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) of today. It is amazing to know that the ECC is now “thanking” our forebears by sending missionaries. I suppose one could say the Gospel is coming back full circle.

So with all that said, is church planting necessary in Sweden? I would say yes because church planting has helped me realize that Jesus Christ has already planted the church, we just need to help it grow—this is the same church and faith which is growing in Brunnen this very day.

I end with this story: A Swedish friend of mine who is studying to be a medical doctor told me that the Church is a lot like the cells of the human body. Each cell has a choice to make: it either grows or it dies. I believe each church, which is a part of the Body of Christ, has this same choice: to live or to die. And as my Swedish friend said to me, “So if we are cells, are we helping the body to grow or die? Because if we are not helping it grow then we are sadly helping it to die.” So my challenge to you is this: will you help the body to grow or die? If you are helping it to grow then how are you doing that? Why should we be interested in planting churches in Sweden, or in any other country, if we are not interested in church planting and growth in our very own church? Think about it…