How we do church tillsammans in Malmö

by Barb Swanson and Steve Swanson

“I am a companion of all who fear thee, of those who keep thy precepts” (Psalm 119:63).

This is the text that Pastor F. M. Johnson used to begin his sermon at the 1885 organizational meeting of the Covenant Church—though I am certain that he read those words in Swedish! It speaks to the deep call to unity which marked those faithful pioneers. That same spirit of unity in Christ has impressed me as we have lived and worked in Malmö, Sweden for the past six years. Never in my years of pastoral service have I (Steve) experienced such a level of trust and cooperation between leaders and members of the Christian community. When I attend a local pastor’s meeting, I am greeted by my colleagues from the Pentecostal, Orthodox, Catholic, Free, and Swedish Lutheran churches. But the gathering soon moves into worship and prayer. We plan some common events, but most of the time is spent seeking the Holy Spirit and praying with and for each other.

Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city with a current population of 370,000 inhabitants (or at least that’s the number that’s been counted!). There are 186 languages represented in this fascinating city, and it’s just as easy to order baklava and a strong Arabic coffee as it is to have a cardamon roll for your afternoon fika, or coffee break. In January 2020, the local pastors’ group decided to gather as many from our congregations as would gather together for worship at Sankt Johanneskyrkan (St. John’s Church). Over 800 people attended! This had never been done before in Malmö. Little did we know that this would be the last time we would be able to gather for a long time due to the outbreak of the pandemic.

You have perhaps read, or heard in the news, about Sweden’s unique approach to COVID. We practiced social distancing by maintaining a minimum two meters of distance from each other. Ad campaigns taught us how to measure two meters by counting the average number of limpa (a loaf of bread). Kids learned quickly how to wash their hands well and cover a cough in their elbows. Those employees who could work from home were encouraged to do so, and if anyone had any symptom of anything (cough, fever, chills, just not feeling well), people stayed home. It was the norm. In the height of the pandemic we were only allowed eight people in the room for a worship service!

You can imagine how important it was for us to remember that beautiful service of 800+ people in church, praising God, celebrating communion, hanging out, and enjoying fika together. It was definitely a memory that kept us going through those months when each church was barely able to gather. Our pastors’ group also took a break during that time, because together we can easily be twenty or more leaders. God knew we would need to have that memory to carry us through some of those long months when so much of life was shut down.

I often wonder how this can be in such a secular, modern Swedish society. Recently one of our local pastors did some research on how many people attend Sunday worship in Malmö. His research discovered that out of a population of 370,000 only 2,500 people are regularly worshiping in the churches of Malmö, which is less than 1%. At the same time, 125,000 people identify themselves as Muslims in Malmö, which is nearly 33%. Malmö and the southern region of Skåne have long been considered a pioneer region for the gospel. The revivals of the 19th and 20th centuries did not reach far into this region of Sweden. Perhaps because the followers of Jesus are such a minority of the population, the pastors and leaders of churches have felt a greater need to be together and work together. It is most certainly the work of the Holy Spirit drawing us closer to Christ and to each other.

Some examples of that unity are coordinated Alpha courses, so that we can offer that pathway to faith all year round! During the spring of 2023, there were 80 people joining an Alpha course in several different congregations. On Easter Sunday we set up a stage and held an outdoor praise celebration in one of the downtown squares of Malmö. Believers and seekers wandered by, stopped to listen, and joined in conversation about the risen Lord Jesus. There was Swedish praise music led by a female African preacher and her church’s choir rocking the square, Möllevångtorget on that side of our beautiful city. Perhaps fewer people were out and about that afternoon at that time of the day since Easter was right in the middle of Ramadan this year. Yet the Spirit moved on the square.

Each month people gather to “Pray for Malmö,” in a different church or ministry center. The meetings are led by lay people and pastors together. Often prayers are made in many languages, such as Persian, Arabic, Urdu, Serbo-Croatian, and English. Swedish, of course, is often the host language of the service. But what we have truly experienced in this season is the reality of how different the kingdom of God is as we choose to embrace how God intended for the kingdom to look like here on earth.

Sweden is not the same country that many of our forefathers and mothers left to come to America. There are still many quaint villages and red-painted stugas in the forest. You can still find a delicious cardamom roll in most bakeries, but alongside them will be baklava and falafel. The person serving you could be wearing a headscarf.

Sweden in 2023 is a multicultural, multiethnic society trying to find its way in the world. Pastor Johnson’s words still ring true today. God is the companion of all who fear him and keep his precepts. We praise God for the community of saints that we have found in Malmö. Together we are listening to God’s word, praying in God’s spirit, and seeking to follow Jesus our Lord and Savior!

Oh, yeah—to our delight and surprise, we broke our own attendance record from 2020, by gathering over 1,000 for worship at St. John’s in January 2023! The words of witness that came out of those who had done the Alpha course were powerful. Each participant had been given a sign with words on both sides of the sign. A couple examples of the texts on those signs included anxiety/peace or addictions/freedom. Perhaps the most endearing was a middle-aged dad from the Middle East who held up a sign that said “infertility for 13 years of our marriage,” and next to him stood a little 3-year-old girl with a sign that said “I am the miracle that God did for my mommy and daddy.”

In the Covenant Church, we often say, “we’re in it together.” It’s the same in Swedish and in Sweden. How we do it tillsammans is what brings joy to the Father’s heart.