When I was first asked to write an article of what I’ve learned about the Finnish Lutheran Church over this past year, my initial reaction was “that would be great!” But after about a dozen starts, revisions, and scrapping full articles, I’m left with a different reaction – “why did I agree to this?” The reason this has been more challenging than I ever imagined is simple – how does a person condense everything they have learned over a year down to one short article? You can’t. Or rather I can’t. There’s just so many things I have learned over this past year that it is impossible to summarize it into one nice, neatly composed article.
So instead of trying to share everything, I’ll share with you three observations I’ve made during my time here.
Context is important – in fact, it is vital to understanding. It means not trying to take something that works in one place and transplanting it into another assuming that it will work there also. When we try to do that, we forget the most important part of the equation – people. Understanding the context of a given culture ultimately means valuing the people.
As I continued my research about the Finnish Lutheran Church I found that people wanted to talk about the church. They have many opinions and ideas about the church, its role in society and why the church exists. They know the challenges the church faces, but they aren’t quite sure what to do about them. They see a decline in church membership as inevitable, but they have faith that God is at work in this.
The Lutheran Church of Finland has its challenges – I don’t think anyone would deny that. Based on the conversations I have had, people told me there are three main challenges the church currently faces. First, the church is challenged with being relevant. In an age where so many are wealthy, self-reliant, and question the existence of God, the church has a challenge to proclaim the Gospel message to a changing society – to comfort those hurting, to accompany those seeking purpose in life and to be a place of refuge for those whose life is not what they thought it would be.
Second, the church is challenged with being approachable. Gone are the days when the church and its representatives would be able to say something authoritatively and people would respond. To be approachable means being with people as they ask questions, to focus on pastoral care and to move to the other side of the communion rail to be among the priesthood of believers.
Third the church is challenged with being enjoyable. People aren’t talking about church as an entertaining show. But they know that church shouldn’t be boring. If church truly has the best news in the history of the world – the Good News – then it should show in the way it is communicated.
Over this past year, I have been to numerous masses that do just that and people are attending. The pastors who preside at these masses believe what they are preaching and it shows. In these services worship is no longer a spectator event, but true liturgy – the work of the people. There are pastors, church workers, youth workers and lay people who know that the message the church proclaims is needed just as much now as at any time in history. They are sharing the same Gospel message, but updating the delivery method to reach people where they are today.
Not everything I’ve learned would be considered great news – watching a church in decline is never a happy thing. But I know this much, the conversations I have had with people have been very uplifting. God is at work in the church here in Finland. There are challenges, but we have been promised that Jesus will be with us until the end of the age. We just weren’t promised how – which sometimes gives us the feeling like things are out of control and hopeless. And that’s ok. We can acknowledge that and be honest about it. Being out of control, much like struggling to write a nice short article on what you’ve learned over the past year, is a reminder that it’s not about my actions, or your actions, but God’s action in the world. I am grateful for all that I have learned about the church here. I have hope for the church in Finland and am eager to see how God works in and through the church here.
is a second career ELCA seminarian at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, USA. He is the scholarship holder from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland where he has been continuing his theological education at the University Helsinki for a year while also researching the church in Finland. You can follow his travels and theological thoughts at www.laceduplutheran.com.
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