Our Norwegian Church

I thought that for my last blog entry I would put on my ‘anthropologist hat’ and report on my extensive field study of our local church in Moss, Norway.  This local fellowship (Evangeliekirken) has been such an important part of our Norwegian experience and, like any good anthropologist, I learned a lot from my association. It was a part of an organization of fellowships (menigheter) called Den Frie Evangeliske Forsamling (DFEF), of which there are about 25 local fellowships in Norway.

Our little church in Moss.

Our little church in Moss.

The fellowship was fairly small.- perhaps 40+ people would have called it their local church, and a typical Sunday meeting (møtet) would be between 20-35.

The fellowship was fairly old, though younger than when we lived there in 2002.  A large percentage of the people under 40 years of age were immigrants to Norway – a Lithuanian family, and a large extended family from Ukraine.  The immigrant families were Baptists, and Evangeliekirken is the closest thing to a Baptist church in Moss.  Norway was once a missionary-sending country; perhaps immigrants to Norway will now return the favor?

The fellowship was part of the Pentecostal tradition, but in the early sense of Pentecostal, meaning that the fellowship was characterized by a fervency of worship and experience.  They were not cessationist in their beliefs about spiritual gifts, but when these gifts were exercised in church they followed clear and organized guidelines.  Only one or two persons seemed to have ever exercised these gifts in church, and then only infrequently.  When someone who felt they had the gift of tongues publically exercised it in church they were immediately (and I DO mean immediately) followed by someone who felt they had the gift of interpretation of tongues, and who stood and translated this message for the edification of the fellowship.  One of the persons who publically spoke in tongues, and one of the persons who interpreted, were separate 50+ year missionaries and church planters in Brazil and France/Belgium.  When missionaries/church planters of 50+ years speak, I listen.

Stig and Åse, 50+ year career church planters in France.

Stig and Åse, 50+ year career church planters in France.

Per and Alice, 50+ year career missionaries to Brazil.

Per and Alice, 50+ year career missionaries to Brazil.

For reasons I do not completely understand the Pentecostal church is about the only conservative Christian tradition that has survived in Norway.  There is a State Lutheran Church in Norway (Statskirken), and a somewhat similar Free Lutheran Church (Frikirken) – there was one of each in Moss.  They would be somewhat similar to our ELCA – Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  There was a Catholic Church in town that mostly serviced Vietnamese and Polish immigrants.  There was also a Methodist Church in town that must have been compatible with our fellowship, as their pastor once spoke at our Sunday meeting (Debbie and I were out of town that day).

There was a second and larger DFEF church in town that may have formed following a church split with our fellowship just prior to when Debbie and I first came in 2002.  I still do not fully understand the reasons for the split, but it was still a painful experience to many of our friends.  While we were in Norway this spring our own church in Grand Forks had a bit of ‘drama’ – drama lies somewhere between peace and a church split.  It was probably good that I was not there during the time, as it allowed me time to process things more fully.  I could see from the experience of Evangeliekirken that even really good people and fellowships can experience these things.  Their split prior to 2002 was also a part of why we were so enthusiastically welcomed into their fellowship after our first visit.  Several people mentioned that they were emotionally down following the split, and when six Americans (our family) unexpectedly walked into their church and became a part of their fellowship, it was a needed breath of fresh air.  God works in mysterious ways.

The other DFEF fellowship is much younger, seems to employ more contemporary worship music, is emphatic in its teaching that you should seek a second baptism of the Holy Spirit following your first step of coming to faith, and appears to have a pronounced ‘prosperity gospel’ flavor to it.  A new and large conservative church was also built between 2002 and 2015 in a nearby community (kommune). Debbie and I went there to hear an annual concert put on by learning disadvantaged persons.  It seemed to be charismatic in flavor with a very strong prosperity gospel bent – Joyce Meyer books were on sale in the lobby bookstore – arrgh!!!!

To round out the church options there was a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Seventh Day Adventist Church, and an LDS ward (?). In typical LDS fashion it was one of the largest and nicest church buildings in town – perhaps it was built with outside money (a uniquely LDS version of the ‘prosperity gospel’)?

An actual Evangeliekirken Sunday meeting (møtet) schedule:

11:00 am – The service begins.  And I do mean 11:00 am sharp.  Debbie and I joked that you could set your watch by the time the church service began.  When the church elder leading the service walked up to the podium you KNEW it was 11:00 am sharp.  A definite Norwegian cultural trait is that they are not late for ANYTHING.  In the list of unforgiveable Norwegian sins I believe being late is definitely in the top five.  We soon learned this, so when a Norwegian friend said they would pick us up in their car at 12:30 pm, we knew we had to be down on the street by 12:20 pm.  We were rarely there first. The fellowship did not have a regular pastor, but was led by a very strong, talented, and faithful group of elders.  Each service was led by an elder.  There was usually a guest speaker that had been invited to speak. This rotated among about five persons; on occasion one of the elders or a career missionary would speak.  The speaking schedule was lined up about six months in advance – I am not kidding you, SIX MONTHS IN ADVANCE.  I am not sure that the paid staff at our church has the schedule worked out five weeks in advance.  This, too, is a Norwegian cultural trait – quiet and extremely competent.

Greeting: The elder first greets the church.

Song: The elder then asks the congregation to sing a song from a songbook – called Schibboleth.  They ALWAYS sing all of the verses for each song. I liked that – make life simpler by reducing the number of decisions you have to make.  We sing ALL of the verses, period! The songs were accompanied by Magnus on piano [he has been the main piano guy for nearly 50 years]; if Magnus was out of town, a couple of people would lead the songs on guitars.  Debbie and I knew about a third of the songs, either because many of our hymns are of Scandinavian origin, or because the American/English/German hymns were translated into Norwegian.  I do not have a strong stance on the ‘worship style wars’ that many American conservative churches have gone through.  I do like many of the newer songs, but I also like many of the older songs.  The 600 songs in Schibboleth had a strong melodic basis and simple but powerful lyrics.  The advantage of always using a songbook is that the congregation, over time, builds a strong experience base with the songs. They mean something to the fellowship because they have been sung together so many times, and there is so much shared meaning.  I will never forget once when we were on the seventh verse of a song from Schibboleth – remember, they sing ALL the verses, that I looked over at a friend in church (I will not name names, but his name sounds like ‘auto’) and he, let’s call him Auto, was singing the seventh verse from memory!  I am not sure I can even sing the second verse of Amazing Grace from memory.

Our friend, 'Auto', and his lovely bride of 51 years, Grethe.

Our friend, ‘Auto’, and his lovely bride of 51 years, Grethe.

Our friends, "Auto" and Grethe, serving on Syttende Mai.

Our friends, “Auto” and Grethe, serving on Syttende Mai.

Song: Another song from Schibboleth.

Congregational Prayer: The congregation stands and the elder leads in prayer. They ALWAYS stand when they are going to pray.  People in the congregation could also, if they wanted, join in public prayer, taking turns.

Song and Offering: Another song from Schibboleth, followed by the offering.  The elder who collected the offering then stood in front of the congregation and lead in a short prayer of blessing over the offering.

Song: A duet sang a song; often these two men would be from a group of up to five men that Debbie and I jokingly called the ‘Ole Gaither Five’.  They were typically Norwegian – very good and unassuming.

The "Ole Gaither Five"

The “Ole Gaither Five”

Song: A solo song sung and played on guitar by Grethe.  This was very well done, and especially powerful as Grethe was a recovered stroke victim who had to relearn how to sing and play the guitar.

Song: Per, a career missionary to Brazil, sang a song in Portugese, and then spoke a few thoughts (tenker) from his heart.

Song: Another song from Schibboleth.

Sermon: Stig, a career missionary/church planter in France/Belgium, gave a 30-minute or so talk from Habbukuk.  They do not call what he does preaching (preker), but speaking (taler – the word used to describe a long extended discourse).  Again, when 50-year career missionaries speak, I listen.  The ‘sermons’ were humbling to hear.  Norwegian ‘sermons’ were not delivered by persons intending to impress you with their knowledge; there was a nice balance of knowledge, lived experience, and personal piety (in the best Pentecostal tradition).

Song: When Stig completed with his talk, there was a final song from Schibboleth.

Thoughts: On this particular Sunday Alice, Per’s wife, came and gave some closing thoughts from her recent visit to the church plant in Brazil.

The Sunday meeting starts at 11:00 am, but who knows when it ends? Some meetings ended as early as 12:05 pm, some as late as 12:40 pm.  Most ended by about 12:15 pm. No one, however, begins to clear their throat or fidget at 12:05 pm.

Editor’s Note: On the two occasions we had communion, we broke pieces off from a loaf of bread (et brøt) and had real wine (vin) (!). Imagine that.  No one complained about the possible germs.

Communion at church.

Communion at church.

On a somewhat regular basis someone might bring cookies or a flat cake (bars to those of you from North Dakota) for after the church service.  The interesting thing is that almost no one leaves after the service if this occurs.  Everyone stays and drinks coffee, eats cookies/cake, and visits for at least 30-minutes.

My Norwegian improved to the point where I could probably follow about 80% of a church meeting since I had become so familiar with many of the ‘church words.’ Singing a hymn in a foreign language was also a wonderful experience (assuming you can pronounce the words).

Random observations and thoughts:

The Norwegian church declined significantly in about a single generation.  The most likely cause is indifference to the Gospel due to nearly universal affluence.  Nothing is so deadly to spiritual growth and vitality as sustained materialistic affluence.  People with no physical needs tend to believe they have no spiritual needs.  The Christian church is weakening in those countries with the highest standards of living and thriving in countries where suffering is common and physical needs must be met on a daily basis.  There does not appear to be hostility to the Gospel in Norway, just indifference.  A similar prosperity-driven weakness of faith may have happened in America.  Perhaps what I think will be a coming persecution of sorts from the rising militancy of the Thought Police and the ‘Gaystapo’ will help to refine the church?

Our church had two short phrases written in black lettering on their interior front wall.  To the left was ‘Gud er kjærlighet’, and to the right was ‘Vandre i kjærlighet’.  Kjærlighet is the equivalent of the Greek word for love (agape) that Christians invented to describe the love of God.  Vandre is the imperative (command) form of the verb ‘to wander’.  It is a great word whose meaning in American English has largely been lost. Perhaps sojourn carries a similar more modern meaning.  The two phrases mean that God is, in His essence, love, and that that love should characterize the outward interaction of all Christians with others in society.  Scripture says that we are to love the Lord God with all of our mind, soul and spirit, and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  Pretty simple stuff, but we often fail in this regard.  Our Norwegian church friends seemed to love others outside the church well.  I think this is a much better model for how our faith should guide our public interaction.

Although most of our Norwegian church friends were, I believe, to the right of center politically, I do not believe I ever heard them speak about politics in church, and rarely in private conversation.  I am sure they had opinions on various social issues but they were never voiced in church.  There is a great lesson here – the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not the main thing, it is the only thing.  The Gospel – the Good News of Jesus Christ – is not about your thoughts on global warming, gay marriage, taxes, or immigration.

The church had two primary foci – community and missions.  Again, in keeping with keeping things simple, the local church should be a loving community that comes together and loves one another, and that reaches out to the lost, poor and suffering with the love (kjærlighet) of Christ.

Our local fellowship seemed to be much more ecumenical, in an orthodox sense, than many churches in America.  Minor theological points of disagreement were overlooked if there was agreement on the essentials.  The major division is between us (followers of Jesus Christ) and them (those who do not follow Jesus), rather than between us (Christians of our theological persuasion) and them (Christians of other theological persuasions).

Finally, our friends kept margin in their lives.  Debbie wrote of this in a previous blog entry.  We tend to be so busy in America that we do not have the capacity for spontaneity. Good things happen when we can respond to opportunities immediately at hand.

Our Norwegian church family.

Our Norwegian church family.