Believing without Belonging?

By Lind, Hilda | International Review of Mission, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Believing without Belonging?

Lind, Hilda, International Review of Mission

The Church of Sweden has about 7.4 million members (83% of the country's total population) and since the beginning of the 16th century has been an Evangelical Lutheran Church. During all this time the church has been closely connected with the state. That situation came to an end recently. On 1 January 2000 the Church of Sweden was disestablished and is now recognized as a free church.

This has not changed the basic role of the church in Swedish society or. the church itself. However, the church now has a new Church Ordinance (1) that provides a new starting point for the church's effort to understand what it means to be a church for the "here and now". Another consequence of disestablishment is that the state no longer will guarantee or secure the wellbeing of the church. The church now bears sole responsibility for raising the funds it needs. Only by being relevant can the church keep its members, achieve financial stability and have a role to play in society. A third effect is that the Church of Sweden, though remaining the majority church, is now one among others, and shares almost the same conditions as all the other denominations in the country. Ecumenically this is important.

In the Church Ordinance the parish is said to be the local pastoral area:

The Church of Sweden appears locally as a parish. This is the primary unit of the church. The fundamental commission of the parish is to hold divine services and to engage in teaching, in diaconal ministry and in mission. The aim is that people shall come to faith in Christ and live in faith, a Christian communion be established and deepened, the reign of God be spread and the creation be restored. Everything else carried out by the parish is in support of and a consequence of this fundamental commission. (2)

As we have seen, the fundamental commission has four different dimensions, viz, divine service, teaching, diaconia and mission. These four perspectives are interdependent and inseparable. The word "mission" is important in this context; previously, the Church Ordinance used "evangelization". The change of word has been consciously made and is theologically grounded. In the past, "evangelization" was used to indicate that the church had to keep the Swedish people rooted in the Christian gospel because Sweden was considered a Christian country. Most people regarded "mission" as an activity that took place outside Sweden, with a focus on bringing the gospel to "unreached" people. Since 1874, the Church of Sweden Mission has been the church's official agent for this purpose, and for cooperation with other churches, mainly in the southern hemisphere. Mission work has always been considered a responsibility of the whole church and described appropriately as the Church of Sweden Mission, rather than as a task carrie d out by a mission society or by dedicated people only.

When the word mission is used today the understanding is broadened; it is a way to express a self-understanding, and is also an interpretation of what the commission of the church in Sweden now is and how we look upon ourselves in relation to other churches. Mission is an essential part of the identity of the church and belongs to its very being. It is a continuation of the task given to the disciples by Jesus when he sent them into the world. God supports people in their work of mission by the continual sending of the Spirit, a Spirit which constantly refers to the picture of Jesus Christ as giving mission its root. This trinitarian aspect is crucial for an understanding of mission that is inextricably linked with what it means to be a church. The result is an ecclesiology that cannot accept any church that does not see that mission is essential to its being. Mission refers to the commission of the whole church and is consequently the sending of every parish into the world. In this regard, national and inter national aspects cannot be separated. They are interdependent and linked to each other, in the same way as there is but one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. …

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