Sweden is one of the most secular and individualistic cultures in the world. I’ve often been asked, in a setting like Sweden, whether church membership is even wise. Won’t it simply turn people away?
Other articles in this Journal provide compelling arguments that church membership is biblical. In this article, I hope instead to show why church membership matters in places mired in secularism and individualism. Hopefully these reflections will inspire you to remain faithful to Scripture, even as you seek to practice church membership in contexts that, at least to some degree, might mirror my own. Even in Sweden, church membership is not obsolete but provides the necessary framework for Christian growth and formation.
UNDERSTANDING SWEDEN’S SECULAR INDIVIDUALISM
As Charles Taylor has noted, Western society is currently living in “The Age of Authenticity”—an age of expressive individualism. As Taylor explains, in this era of Western history, each individual creates his own identity and destiny:
Each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and . . . it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority. 1
This assessment rings true of both America and Europe. In Sweden, however, this ideology has reached its zenith.
According to the World Values Survey, Sweden is by far the most individualistic, self-expressive, and secular society in the world. Why?
In the early 1800s, the liberal poet and historian, Erik Gustaf Geijer, expressed Swedish identity when he described the Swedish Viking as “characterized neither by bourgeois egoism nor by ancient republican virtue, but by stubborn individual sovereignty.” 2 Geijer said that freedom meant “not being subordinated to any other man, but to be without master like the Vikings of old.” This commitment to throwing off all authority has created a disastrous understanding of independence among Swedes and among Western Europeans in general.
In 1972, the Social Democratic Party presented their manifesto “The Family for the Future,” which was part of a successful political endeavor to liberate the individual from all forms of subordination and dependency. Wives would no longer be dependent on their husbands. Children would be liberated from their parents, and the elderly from their adult children through professional—and due to virtually mandatory taxation—institutional care. The ideal family, they argued, is composed of fundamentally independent individuals. The only true and meaningful relationships are completely voluntary.
Swedish historian Lars Trägårdh calls this “a Swedish theory of love.” He points out that in most countries, mutual dependency is seen as intrinsic to love and intimacy—the ties that bind. As most cultures understand, giving up radical sovereignty makes us truly human. Love, the fundamental social virtue, is characterized by unmediated and absolute duty toward one’s fellow man. Sweden, however, does not share these convictions. More from Trägårdh:
In Sweden—and perhaps in the Nordic countries at large—[…] the premise is the reverse. Rejecting the idea of love as constitutive of unequal and hierarchical social relations and basing instead the ethos of love on the principles of egalitarianism and voluntarism, the Swedish theory of love posits that all forms of dependency corrupt true love. Only mutual autonomy can guarantee authenticity and honesty in human relationships, turning them into free and voluntary associations. 3
Swedish officials and leaders have implemented this ideology efficiently and successfully. More than any other country in the world, Sweden is the utopia of individual autonomy. Each citizen, with a little help from our friend the State, has detached from any dependence on other humans and from any form of covenant relationship. Sweden represents the endgame of secular individualism.
The ramifications of this ideology are both far-reaching and devastating. Sweden is not only the most secular and self-expressive society in the world but also the loneliest. Almost half of Swedes live by themselves—the highest rate in the world. Every fourth person dies alone, with nobody by their side. In fact, many deceased often lay in their apartments for months before neighbors complain about the smell. Every tenth person lacks any close friends.
CHURCH MEMBERSHIP IN AN INDIVIDUALIST CULTURE
How has the church responded to these cultural and ideological challenges? Regrettably, I’ve not witnessed much meaningful resistance to this rampant individualism, even from the church. Many of the same values prevalent in society also permeate Swedish churches. They aren’t merely saturated with consumerism, they also harbor a deep aversion toward all kinds of authority-claims. As a result, preachers who expound the Bible prescriptively and call for repentance are regarded as oppressive and viewed as violating an individual’s dignity and autonomy.
In this context, how can the Scriptural call to repentance and faith ever find a hearing? How can we do discipleship, where the call to crucify the flesh is perceived as the essence of authoritarian oppression?
Mere preaching, crucial as it is, is not enough to turn the tide. The 20th century proves this point. During this century, European churches retreated from biblical ecclesiology. Many of the most gifted preachers could draw a crowd, but those crowds never formed into healthy churches. Local church ministry was exchanged for a century of counting heads and hands. Instead of faithfully teaching on the character of true repentance and the cost of discipleship, preachers merely asked if their listeners would ask meek and mild Jesus into their lives. These ecclesially anemic practices led to the utter devastation of Swedish evangelicalism.
WHAT SWEDEN NEEDS
Churches in highly individualistic cultures like Sweden need church membership. Without it, they will wither and die. Biblical membership leads to meaningful discipleship and discipleship is the lifeblood of the church (Col. 1:10; 1 Jn. 1:3–4). Discipling includes not only encouragement, but teaching and reproving. After all, how will we ever grow as Christians if we’re never contradicted by the Word? If I only commit to a local faith-family as long as it lines up with my personal project of realizing my humanity, I am, as we say in Swedish, cutting off the branch I’m sitting on. Membership is the only antidote to Sweden’s self-destructive individualism.
Healthy church membership provides the covenantal (as opposed to consumerist) framework necessary for the Christian life. Much like marriage, church membership is constituted by a solemn agreement involving vows. In marriage, we covenant to love and be faithful to one another. In church membership, we covenant to obey everything Jesus has commanded (Matt. 28:16), specifically the Scriptural imperatives to “one another” within the Christian community.
This covenantal framework is what Swedes and Western Europeans need to break the seemingly unconquerable consumerist and individualist paradigm that reigns in our culture. As in marriage, we can’t simply walk away when we’re hurt or contradicted. Our covenant commitments force us to stay and work through whatever tensions emerge either because of my sin or my brother’s or sister’s sin. In the local church, we can challenge one another’s autonomy, individuality, and self-expression—not by someone we can simply withdraw from, but by someone who has solemnly vowed to carry my burdens and speak the truth in love for the sake of my spiritual good. Within the covenantal framework of church membership, I’m finally exposed to real fellowship and, by God’s grace, subject to Christian growth.
* * * * *
1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 475.
2 Lars Trägårdh, “Statist Individualism: The Swedish Theory of Love and Its Lutheran Imprint,” in Joel Halldorf and Fredrik Wenell (eds.), Between the State and the Eucharist: Free Church Theology in Conversation with William T. Cavanaugh (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2014), 33.
3 Ibid., 27.