Expats flock to Sweden’s evangelical churches

With Easter just around the corner, contributor Judi Lembke looks at how a different breed of churches in Sweden is helping English-speaking foreigners find a sense of community in their adopted homes.

Expats flock to Sweden's evangelical churches

Moving to a new country is never an easy task: moving when you might not know a soul, when the language is a mystery and when you are faced with an entirely new culture. All of it can be downright daunting.

Today a growing number of foreigners moving to Sweden are finding that non-traditional churches can offer a home away from home, particularly those offering services in English.

Estimates say about half of regular evangelical churchgoers are foreign-born.

“I was never particularly religious, but moving around in the expat world made me search for a deeper meaning, for both my family and me,” one mother and US native tells The Local outside the Charismatic Baptist New Life Church in Stockholm.

“The modern churches give room to explore and the kids enjoy the more exciting atmosphere. We also get to meet people like us, who are foreigners living in a foreign land.”

Regular church attendance in Sweden hovers somewhere around 5 percent, while levels of atheism among Swedes are estimated to be as high as 85 percent.

Yet more than half of all weddings in Sweden take place in churches and nearly 90 percent of burials follow Christian rites.

Additionally, membership in the Church of Sweden, which lost its status as the official state church in 2000, still stands at nearly 70 percent – a statistic that likely has more to do with the fact that anyone being born in Sweden up until 1996 automatically became a member of the church, something one had to opt out of in writing.

While church membership is slowly declining across the country, a number of evangelical churches are finding their congregations getting a boost from faithful foreigners who have moved to Sweden and are searching for a new spiritual home.

And while many say spirituality plays a part in their decision to join a church in Sweden, almost as important is the longing for the sense of community that comes with joining a congregation.

“We’ve made a lot of friends at our church. Some are foreigners like us but a lot of them are Swedes, and that’s helped us have a soft landing as we find our way in our new country,” another New Life parishioner explains.

Offering a mix of rousing guitars, modern technology and something of a call and response ethos, Sweden’s evangelical churches have seen their numbers explode in recent years, often on the strength of interest from foreigners.

“Many people, both native-born Swedes and expats, are not only looking for a sense of community, they’re also looking to explore their spiritual side more fully and in an international environment, where they can discover God with like-minded people and amongst those who feel familiar,” John Van Dinther, founder and head pastor at the Charismatic Baptist New Life Church, tells The Local.

Van Dinther’s church, which has congregations in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Västerås, is part of the 300-plus strong network of Evangelical Free Churches of Sweden. He is not surprised that foreigners who move to Sweden end up joining his church.

“It’s a terribly isolating experience for some when they move to a new country, and it can mean a great deal to have a place where they can speak their own language and mix with people of their own culture,” he explains.

Traditionally, Stockholm’s English Church has been the go-to place for the city’s community of English-speaking foreigners (as well as for any number of Swedes).

Reverend Nicholas Howe, the church’s humorous and soft-spoken leader, says he currently speaks to close to 100 parishioners each Sunday at the church with a history stretching back to the mid-1800s.

“We’re not flashy and we don’t pressure people; we are quite English in our approach and while we offer guidance and spirituality to our visitors, we also offer a place that can feel familiar and comforting to those who are adrift and struggling to find their way in a new country,” he explains.

And Stockholm’s Storkyrkan Cathedral, part of the Church of Sweden, also offers regular sermons in English.

But according to Church of Sweden spokesman Pär Sandberg, it is up to each individual parish to decide whether or not to offer English sermons.

“We try to make our services as accessible as possible, but there’s no centralized edict that churches must have sermons in English. That’s an assessment they have to make,” he explains.

The pastors from Storkyrkan and the English Church meet regularly to exchange theological ideas and to debate some of the larger issues being confronted today, such as gay marriage and women bishops. The English Church also hosts open discussions over coffee to discuss issues impacting the church following Sunday services.

While the English Church maintains an important position among churches in Stockholm offering sermons in English, foreigners new to Sweden and keen to join a church are increasingly being drawn to congregations that offer something different from the English Church’s staid tradition.

Hillsong Church, a Pentecostal megachurch that originated in Australia, is another evangelical church offering services in English every Sunday in the Swedish capital.

Hillsong pastor Andreas Nielsen explains that his church attempts to help parishioners “tend to the larger questions and try to find meaning beyond the everyday practicalities”.

“Stockholm has the largest number of people living solo in the world – around 50 percent. People are lonely and they feel a strong need to connect with others,” he says.

“Add to that those who are new here and are perhaps feeling isolated and you can see how our church provides that sense of belonging that people are missing when they move to a new country.”

According to officials from Hillsong and New Life, foreign-born worshippers make up about half of all parishioners at the various evangelical free churches.

Hillsong and New Life boast membership rolls nearing 1,000 and estimate that half of their members are expats. Both hold multiple bilingual services each Sunday and work a great deal with community outreach, which they feel is a key to helping people find their place in their new country.

“We give them advice, a shoulder to lean on, a place to find comfort and to make friends,” says Van Dinther.

Pastor Neilsen and Reverend Howe both agree, however, that enmeshing oneself in an “expat community” can hinder integration into Swedish society at large.

“We’re lucky that we have a lot of Swedes in attendance, as they help bridge the culture gap,” Neilsen explains.

“Non-Swedes can interact with fellow countrymen in their own language, but they also intermingle with proper Swedes and that helps them find an opening into Swedish life.”

Expat parishioners at both churches agree, explaining the non-traditional churches have been important in helping them finding their feet.

“It’s not all hushed and solemn; it’s lively and interactive and people are very friendly,” says Neil, a father from the UK who attends Hillsong services, adding that the energy of the services makes the churchgoing experience more fun for his children.

Swedes have also found themselves drawn to evangelical churches and an approach to religion that differs from the country’s prevailing secularism.

Nils, a Swede who “found religion” five years ago and currently attends services at New Life, says he enjoys helping fellow parishioners who are new to Sweden by “being a friend, helping with the language, or just answering questions and giving advice”.

“Swedes don’t talk about religion,” he explains.

“But when people come from other countries, they are open about their beliefs and don’t have that shyness we have about saying it out loud. It helps us Swedes to find our voice.”

Judi Lembke

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‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.