Emptiness

Scandinavia is filled with large, beautiful, empty churches. They were built over many centuries, starting early in the second millennium. They have been emptied over the past century, as the formerly Lutheran state churches drifted into increasingly liberal theology, and its rotten fruits: apostasy and unbelief.

Hedvig Eleonora Kyrkan
From The Wall Street Journal:
    Consider the scene on a recent Sunday at Stockholm's Hedvig Eleonora Church, a parish of the Church of Sweden, a Lutheran institution that until 2000 was an official organ of the Swedish state. Fewer than 40 people, nearly all elderly, gathered in pews beneath a magnificent 18th-century dome. Seven were church employees. The church seats over 1,000.
    Hedvig Eleonora has three full-time salaried priests and gets over $2 million each year though a state levy. Annika Sandström, head of its governing board, says she doesn't believe in God and took the post "on the one condition that no one expects me to go each Sunday."

Foto: Wikipedia Commons, FrisoKry

Source: Andrew Higgins, In Europe, God Is (Not) Dead,
Wall Street Journal,July 14, 2007

Actually, "drifted" is not the right word. They were steered in this direction quite intentionally; but that is another whole story. This page simply describes the results: empty churches and millions who no longer hear the Gospel.

The 2007 report at right from the Wall Street Journal describes Hedvig Eleonora Church, a congregation in Stockholm that had 7,312 members at the end of 2012 … but the Journal found forty people at Sunday worship, of whom seven were church employees. Is it a coincidence that the board chairman says she does not believe in God and does not attend worship? Or that four of the five council members, and 15 of 18 board members are elected on political party slates?

The congregation website's frontpage features (as of this writing) a piano festival and other concerts, and the upcoming church elections, but not worship services. This church need not be singled out for criticism, it is all too typical. Like many CoS congregations, this one has a strong music and choir program, especially children's choirs. Swedes love to sing: if not for the wonderful choirs, CoS churches would be even more completely empty.

Uppsala Cathedral

Scandinavia has many beautiful cathedrals, such as this one in Uppsala ... but very few attend worship.

Uppsala Cathedral is not always empty, however. It was filled for this 2007 "ecumenical climate change" service. The climax was a showing of Al Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth." Note the screen at the High Altar — the focus of this "Green Sacrament." The photo was on the webpage of SKR (Swedish Christian Council), but was removed shortly after it was posted here.

Note that Hedvig Eleonora is a relatively "conservative" congregation (e.g. 14 of its 18 board members are nominated by relatively "conservative" Swedish political parties), thus its focus on music. By contrast, the first item listed today (5 August 2013) on the Stockholm Cathedral website summarizes the sermon from the August 4 "Love Mass" in the cathedral that concluded Stockholm's Gay Pride Week. The current bishop of Stockholm is in a lesbian registered partnership.

The Wall Street Journal reporter might have visited Hedvig Eleonora on a particularly bad Sunday, but the national statistics show that 40 out of 7300 members at Sunday worship is fairly normal. CoS statistics give the total Sunday attendance for 2012 as 4.5 million. This figure excludes special events such as weddings, funerals and concerts, so it is a good indicator of the size of the worshiping community. If all 6.45 million CoS members had attended every Sunday, total attendance would have been 342 million (there were 53 Sundays in 2012). Thus, average Sunday attendance was 4.5 ÷ 342 or 1.3% of members. Thus an average 7300-member CoS congregation would have about 95 members at Sunday worship. But this number includes the "high attendance" Sundays such as Easter, First Sunday in Advent (a high turnout day in Sweden), and other holy days such as Christmas (Eve) when it falls on Sunday. "Ordinary" Sundays would have much lower attendance, so 40 might be below average, but not by much.

Figure 1

As the Figure 1 illustrates, Hedvig Eleonora Congregation's experience reflects the nationwide trend. Worship attendance has been dropping steadily in Sweden for decades. In 2012 less than one percent of the Swedish population attended a CoS service on an average Sunday. This chart captures both the effects of the declining CoS membership and declining attendance by members. Comparable figures for Norway are shown beginning in 2005, the earliest year available online from Norway's Statistical Bureau. As shown, attendance is a bit higher in Norway, but dropping fast. The slight one year bump in 2011 no doubt reflects the nationwide grieving after the mass murders of July.

St. John's Stockholm

Churches are for sale all over Sweden. St. John's in Stockholm has been on the market for years ... it is now rented by a Catholic congregation.

Norway does publish attendance on special days. In 2012, about 551,000 or 15% of CoN members attended Christmas Eve services, but only 102,000 (2.7%) on Easter. The contrast between Christmas Eve and Easter Morning is probably significant, as the cultural traditions surrounding Christmas are probably very strong.

Of course, some who left the national churches have transferred to "free churches," some of which are Lutheran; but this number is a small fraction of those who have left the national churches. Over the past two decades, CoS membership has fallen by about 1.3 million and "free church" membership in Sweden has risen by about one sixth as much.

Figure 2

The Church of Finland publishes roughly comparable statistics that yield a slightly higher attendance, but only 1.4% of members attend on what CoF designates as "normal" Sundays. This number might be a bit understated compared to the CoS, because CoF excludes the "high attendance" Sundays such as Easter, which are included in the CoS figure. On the other hand, CoF bases its number on only three "normal" Sundays, so one might question how these three Sundays were chosen.

If the Church of Denmark (Folkekirken) publishes attendance statistics, I have not yet found them. Denmark does have higher baptism rates than Norway and Sweden, but as Figure 2 shows, these are falling steadily in all three countries.

An extensive 2010 survey of 10,700 CoS members by Chief Analyst Jonas Bromander reveals that 15% of CoS members describe themselves as "atheists." Another 20% say they are "agnostic." Only 15% say they "believe in Jesus," although this expression is not defined. The remaining 50% place themselves somewhere on the spectrum from Belief to Unbelief to Apostasy. Sweden is likely the most secularized nation in Scandinavia, but the others are no Bible Belt.

Concert in All Saints Church

See, churches ARE sometimes full in Sweden. Oh, wait … this is a string ensemble concert.

Empty churches that cannot be sold, like Maglarps Church near Trelleborg, are razed, starting with removing the spire.

This is what was left.

What explains this decline in membership, belief and participation? Our thesis is simple: the underlying reason the Scandinavian churches are empty is that, with a diminishing number of exceptions, the Gospel is no longer preached and the Sacraments are no longer rightly administered. Instead, the national churches have been hijacked and diverted from their mission of making disciples. They have largely been turned into tools of a political movement to "fundamentally transform" both their nations and their peoples. It should be no surprise that the people have departed.

Of course one can offer demographic explanations — migration to the cities, disruption of the village culture, the decline in marriage and children, among others — and some of these are surely contributing factors. But it is sometimes difficult to distinguish cause and effect. Why would a newcomer in Stockholm or Gothenburg be drawn to a church in which the authority of Scripture is undermined and assaulted? A church in which the pure spiritual milk of God's Word is replaced with a rotten swill of ideology? A church whose bishops no longer defend the faith they vowed to uphold? Even decisions about having children are not entirely economic matters. The decline of the church may be much deeper than mere demographics.

“In times of decline, when the crowds are thinning seriously, the Church must only ask herself if she has rightly administered the Sacraments and if she has proclaimed the Word purely and clearly and lovingly. If she has done that, then she has also done all that is in her power and all that God has commanded her to do for the conversion of man." - Bishop Bo Giertz[1]


1. Bo Giertz, Christ's Church: her biblical roots, her dramatic history, her saving presence, her glorious future (2010 transl. of Kristi kyrka (1939) by Rev. Hans O. Andrae).

X