In Search of the Future Church

by Anders Jonåker

“It is easier to be an honest practicing Christian with these secularized prisoners than it is in the church...”

These words came from the priest and resistance leader Dietrich Bonhoeffer.1 This letter from his prison cell came as a surprise. Today, it is an experience many can relate to. When a neighbor asks a serious question or a concerned colleague seeks advice, this sometimes comes as a more pleasant climate for dialogue than many find between the walls of a church. But Bonhoeffer was not trying to formulate any easy solutions. Through thoughtful self-criticism, he had discovered a path from a narrow Christianity to a vulnerable, but also more honest, place in the world.

At the time, Bonhoeffer was in prison in Berlin, suspected for participation in the July 20th attack on Adolf Hitler. Soon friendships had developed between both prisoners and guards. When the bombs from the Allies started falling over the city, their differences seemed unimportant. Pastor Bonhoeffer was

pondering over the situation of Christianity. The church he had experienced until then, both in childhood and also during study and work, had become a religious reserve set apart from the world. It was a cultural Protestant church where the Christian faith been reduced to just one cultural expression among others. But the issue was not primarily about going to church more. It was about realizing that faith was concerned with the whole of life. His thoughts about the church of the future gradually started to grow.

“The time has gone when one could say everything with words to people – even theological or edifying words – as well as the time of the inner life and of conscience; in other words the end of the age of religion in general. We are going to face a time of complete religionlessness.”

Bonhoeffer saw a new age open up ahead, a life that was holistic, where God and the world could not be separated. Faith and life would need to go together. This appears as a common thread throughout Bonhoeffer’s life, which is evident not least in his prison letters. This is where we encounter the concept of God in the middle of life, a religionless Christianity, as well as the coming of age of humanity.

But reality always runs the risk of being divided, not least by the church itself. Bonhoeffer’s thoughts came as a self-criticism from the inside. Church all too often runs the risk of becoming a place to renovate people’s individual souls instead of being “oecumene,” a place for the whole inhabited world. But the church does not exist for itself. We live in one single reality and therefore the church must always be present in and exist for the world. Religion had become a hindrance for the Gospel, and it was quite clear to Bonhoeffer that the church needed to be reformed.

In our time, there is sometimes talk about the return of religion. “God is back,” I read in a newspaper headline. But what kind of religion is this? What does it mean that “God is back”?

The question I ask myself is whether this includes me or if somehow I feel I am on the outside of these various discussions. With Bonhoeffer’s thoughts in mind, we could ask the question: how can the congregation be a church that is relevant to life, having matured enough to be able to talk to everyone? For this dialogue to be possible, we will quickly realize that our choice of words will need to vary. There will be no single way to talk about the Christian faith. There will be many. Does this sound vague? It is actually deeply biblical; there is not one gospel – there are four. Jesus does not give just one single, clear-as-day, dogmatic summary of Christian faith. He meets many different, real-life people. Is this the way that Christian faith will become the most alive, by being in the midst of different people?

The concept of diversity has recently become a watchword for Immanuel Church in Stockholm. I think it serves quite well in our search for a church for the future, or however we choose to define our assignment. With a diversity of worship, communities and dialogues, the congregation can try to accept the challenge for the future.

This congregation shall endeavor to do this as best it possibly can, but we also need to be aware that it may not always be inside the church that faith becomes most alive. To return to Bonhoeffer, it will be in meeting the people who can be called your “fellow man” that it may be easier to be an honest, practicing Christian. Will it be in these instances that we begin to realize that the Christian faith applies to all of life, and that this sort of frankness is an unavoidable part of the way to the future of the church?

1. Quotes from Bonhoeffer in the book A Life in Pictures by Eberhard Bethge.

Anders Jonåker is senior pastor (församlingsföreståndare) of Immanuelskyrkan, Stockholm, Sweden.

See all articles by Anders Jonåker