Thoughts from a spiritual graveyard

More By Manuel Vigilius

‘Spiritual graveyard’.

That was the phrase I heard a well-known evangelical church leader use to characterize the situation in Western Europe at a conference some years ago.

Harsh and categorical. A one-dimensional label, perhaps, but the words have stuck with me, and I think there was more than a little truth in the phrase.

Evidence of life

Personally, I have always been attracted to graveyards—‘churchyards,’ as they are called in Danish. Not because I am morbid, nor only for their serenity, order, and evergreen bushes, but for the tales they tell and the evidence they bear. Evidence of lives lived. Of life itself.

Western Europe—including the Nordics—is marked by spiritual life lived throughout the centuries. Our history is long and rich, and one needs only to drive through any major city or the countryside of a Nordic country to see its evidence: Church towers and buildings tell an irrefutable story, and our cultural norms are soaked in Christian ethics.

However, true, open, confident Christian faith and missions have become rarities in the Nordics. 

With this statement I’m not suggesting that God is asleep or passive. There are numerous bright spots of life and spiritual growth in evangelical churches in Nordic countries if you only know where to look. We should not ignore the many brave and faithful Nordic believers; brothers and sisters fighting the good fight at high schools and universities, in company canteens, on social media, at home and on the streets—praise God for them!

Not encouraging

But overall, the picture is not encouraging.

Protestant churches and organizations that champion trust in the Bible, personal conversion, discipleship, and evangelization are not, for the most part, growing or increasing their influence on society and culture within our Nordic lands. 

Just consider:

  • Legislation and public opinion about ethics (abortion, sexual ethics, same-sex marriage, gender views).
  • Church membership and affiliation to evangelical movements (in Denmark, for example, membership of the state church has declined from almost 90% in 1985 to around 70% in 2022 and the number of local communities in the largest evangelical movement, Indre Mission, has been nearly halved in just 14 years(!) from 398 in 2009 to 246 in 2023. These numbers are likely comparable in all Nordic countries). 
  • Divorce and ‘coming out’ as practicing homosexual has become widespread, even within evangelical circles. 

For those confronted with the brutal facts about the diminishment of our faith within our cultures and lands, the easiest solution is often to ignore or gloss over the reality, focusing our attention on something more cheerful and controllable—family life, career, entertainment, or sports. Every mature Christian recognizes this as what it is: Unholy escapism.

The easiest solution is often to ignore or gloss over the reality.

But then there are other more natural and ‘pious’ reactions. They are trickier because they are hard to recognize for what they really are—false and futile fixations, ‘Christian’ though they may seem. I want to point to three typical ones:

1. Nostalgia

Many elderly Christians remember signs of spiritual awakenings in the 1960s and the impressive energy and confidence of the Christian counter-cultural activism that followed in the 1970s, when, for example, many private Christian institutions and schools were established. 

Middle-aged Christians like myself remember a childhood and youth where we belonged to a weird minority, but still a much bigger, more committed, and resourceful minority than what we see today. (Just compare the number of local church buildings and ‘mission/prayer houses’ that are no longer working as congregational gathering places to the number of new congregations being born.) 

We might react by dreaming of, praying for, and maybe working for ‘another big awakening like in the old days.’ We want it back! 

We want to be many. We want to have influence. We want a ‘Christian society’ where everyone is taught the Bible and every gathering is started with a prayer. We want something akin to America’s “Bible belt.”

2. Hopes of a magical solution

Others among us hope and pray for a quick fix where God just snaps his fingers and turns the tide, filling the pews, pockets, and membership files of the churches and organizations and transforming society’s culture with a strike of spiritual (or rather: magical) force.

This way of thinking fails to take into consideration that God’s work is often, at least from our perspective, slow, hard, and full of ups, downs, and unexpected turns— and it is very rarely disconnected from human action (Luke 10:2; Rom. 10:14-15; 1 Cor. 15:58).

3. Analysis, analysis, analysis

Still others prefer to process their grief, frustration, and fear through analysis, analysis, and yet more analysis to understand what went wrong, as if the right diagnosis itself will bring about lasting change.

We don’t know what to do

Now, I am not negating the value or place of appropriate grief or hope, the desire for spiritual awakenings, numerical growth, biblical literacy, public prayer, or analysis. However, I do not think that any of these postures are the best way to respond to the crisis in which we find ourselves here in the Nordics.

In fact, I think we need to take some time to dig a deep hole and bury our misguided hopes and postures here, in this spiritual graveyard. It is time for us to lay our illusions and nostalgia to rest. Nostalgia—longing for the past, living in the past, preferring to talk about the past, demanding a rerun of your favourite version of the past—is derailing your efforts (Eccl. 7:10) and draining the courage of our sisters and brothers (Prov. 12:25; John 14:1; Eph. 4:29); not least the young who haven’t yet lost sight of what God is doing today and how he is doing it in our times.

It is time for us to lay our illusions and nostalgia to rest.

Belief in God’s sovereign power is essential, but expecting a quick fix, a magical solution, that is disconnected from reality and an understanding of how God operates in this world, is an unhelpful and pacifying falsehood (Is 55:8-9). 

And knowledge and analysis, however necessary and useful as part of God’s work, will never bring us all the way to real and lasting change (Prov. 3:5; 28:26, Ecc. 12:12).

These false hopes are death to us because they get in the way of an important realization and dynamic: We must give up on our own ideas and resources. We must realize we are over-matched and overpowered. We are lost and “we do not know what to do” (2 Chron. 20:12). We are at the end of ourselves. 

At the very edge of the grave, we must remember God doesn’t primarily use our strengths. He uses our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9–10).

We need something else entirely. A miracle, yes. But God’s miracle, in God’s way, and in God’s good time.

God doesn’t primarily use our strengths. He uses our weaknesses.

Interested in a possible way forward? Read on in the next article, The always possible dawn.

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