Churches in Transformation
Three churches in Sweden – the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden, the Baptist Union of Sweden and the United Methodist Church of Sweden – are in the midst of negotiations in order to become one church. The negotiations have been going on for a number of years but now are in full force. A referral has been sent out to the respective congregations with proposals regarding a document, which express a statement of faith, as well as a proposal for statutes for the new church and for the congregations. The process will hopefully lead to a final decision at the annual meetings of the three churches in 2011. Since 2009, there has been a letter of intent in place to build such a church, which has been signed by the three churches.
The situation for these churches is such that they, for a number of years, have been losing members. So in order to present a unified Christian presence in the local communities, the congregations have felt the need to gather their resources. The words that Jesus prays about unity have served as a guiding star; “…..that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:21)
This process is not at all simple. These are three churches with different structures. The Mission Covenant Church does not belong to a large, worldwide church family as do the Baptist Union of Sweden and the United Methodist Church of Sweden. There have been different opinions on educational issues and theology. But perhaps the most complex question has been in regard
to traditions that really have less to do with theology and much more to do with sociology. It is difficult to accept new structures and also to enter into new, cooperative relationships.
A significant issue is democracy and the role that it should have in the new church. This has historical reasons. When the religious revival that built all three of these churches initially took place in the 19th century, the people that were then empowered to read the Bible and make their own interpretations in the light of the Holy Spirit also took care of the community. They started schools, orphanages, became members in political parties and built democratic structures even in the church; one member – one vote!
Today the democratic situation has seemed to change. The old structure does not work as well as it has done in the past. The question is: shall the church accept the “spirit of time” or shall we try to preserve the democratic work in its slow structure? The process continues!
For Södra Vätterbygdens Folkhögskola (“Southern Vättern College” or “SVF”) what this means that this new church (which does not yet have a name ratified) will be the new owner of our school. This will actually not affect us that much. We will continue to try to maintain the strong links between our countries, particularly through the exchanges between North Park University (NPU) in Chicago and SVF in Jönköping, Sweden. Our exchange program between NPU and SVF is likely the single strongest link between the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden and Evangelical Covenant Church in North America. Prof. Ulf Beijbom, former president for the House of Emigrants in Växjö, Sweden, has remarked that this historic relationship – a Swedish school with a decades-old exchange program with an American school founded by Swedes – is a unique concept and is the only one of its kind between the two countries. Over the nearly 35 years that this program has been in existence, about 1,000 students have participated in the program.
The exchange program will become more important than ever in increasing the understanding of that joint history, which bears weight on both our present and our future. It is also important to note the personal development of young people who are profoundly affected in this meeting with other cultures. Even if the formal church structure may be different in Sweden, it is my hope that the College Line Exchange Program will remain strong and continue to develop.