Copenhagen, Denmark is a wonderful capital city. Located just 207 miles from Hamburg and 27 miles from Malmö, Copenhagen is situated with easy access to both the rest of Scandinavia (Sweden and Norway) and Southern Europe. Copenhagen is very easy to navigate by mass transit (trains and buses) and people are always willing to assist visitors with directions. As with any major western city, Copenhagen is a bit expensive, but that is a price many are willing to pay for all the things the city has to offer. I recently returned from a two week stay in Denmark, much of which was centered in Copenhagen and fell in love with the country and people. I found the people to be welcoming and hospitable, well educated, and quite willing to share their culture.
Copenhagen is an historic city. Founded in the 10th century as a fishing village, its current population exceeds 1.2 million. To put Copenhagen’s population dominance in perspective, the second, third, and fourth most populated cities in Denmark (Aarhus, Odense, and Aalborg) do not equal half of Copenhagen’s population combined. According to the most recent census (and some of the sources have slight variance), over seventy-seven percent of Copenhagen’s population is ethnically Danish, however there is a steadily growing presence of both western and non-western minorities. This growth in immigration has raised some concern in Denmark, so much so that it was a major talking point in recent elections.
Copenhagen is rich in academia. The city has just under one hundred thousand students enrolled in its universities with The University of Copenhagen as arguably the most prominent. Copenhagen is Denmark’s political, economic, and cultural center. There is also an abundance of museums, galleries, and theatric halls throughout the city.
The state church in Denmark is Lutheran and has been that way since 1536. In fact, the Constitution of Denmark solidified their Lutheran standing in 1848. Thus, the church is financially supported by the state but church membership is voluntary. Although the Danish Lutheran Church enjoys state status, church membership has been in decline. Over the last thirty years, the percentage of church membership (in relation to population) has decreased from ninety-two percent to seventy-eight percent. What is more striking, however, is it is estimated that only two percent of church members attend weekly worship with any regularity. This means that the overwhelming majority of Danes affiliated with the Luther church do so out of tradition and not because of any real connection. Of course, this lead me to ask, why? Why has the church declined in a country that once experienced the Reformation? Here are five reasons, given to me by Danes themselves, as to why the church is in decline:
1. There is struggle in Danish culture to believe in what is unseen.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1
Men Tro er en Fortrøstning til det, som håbes, en Overbevisning om Ting, som ikke ses. – Hebræerne 11:1
This is not an uncommon challenge for people and is as much an issue in the United States as it is in Denmark. People have difficulty placing hope and trust in someone they cannot see. Perhaps even many Christians who experienced conversion in adulthood can resonate with this challenge. Even they can recall a time when having faith in the unseen seemed to be crazy, but the Spirit has ways of transforming people’s hearts and minds. Empiricism rules in Denmark and there is a tendency to view faith and science as polar opposites. Again, this is not an unusual perspective to have but it does reveal a misunderstanding of how faith and science relate.
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, – 1 Peter 1:8
ham, som I ikke have set og dog elske, ham, som I, skønt I nu ikke se, men tro, skulle fryde eder over med en uudsigelig og forherliget Glæde, – 1 Peter 1:8
2. Equating extremism with anything religious.
By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. – John 13:35
Derpå skulle alle kende, at I ere mine Disciple, om I have indbyrdes Kærlighed. – Johannes 13:35
When people in Denmark see the effects and atrocities of religious extremism, a growing disdain and distrust for anything religious takes root. Denmark had a long history of military conflict with Sweden and witnessed the ravages of Nazi Germany, so naturally they want peace. If organized religion represents itself as anything other than peaceful, it will have no place in Danish culture. That is their perception and Christian missions will have to address it if there is any hope for the gospel. The promising thing is that Danish people are still willing to have conversations about this issue. Many people I spoke with are still open to discussions about faith and life. The door has not been sealed shut.
3. The Church is disconnected from and does not understand the culture.
So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. – Acts 17:22-23
Men Paulus stod frem midt på Areopagus og sagde: “”I athemiensiske Mænd! jeg ser, at I i alle Måder ere omhyggelige for eders Gudsdyrkelse. Thi da jeg gik omkring og betragtede eders Helligdommen, fandt jeg også et Alter, på hvilket der var skrevet: “”For en ukendt Gud.”” Det, som I således dyrke uden at kende det, det forkynder jeg eder. – Apostelenes gerninger 17:22-23
Sometimes I think there is an overemphasis in Christian missions on highlighting cultural differences and an underemphasis on matters of the heart that transcend culture. I do not offer that as a sharp criticism, but only to say that it seems people are far more alike than they are different. People in Denmark die of cancer, worry about their children, have struggling marriages, and deal with various addictions – just like everyone else. They have fears and hopes and dreams like everyone. The pressures and trials of life are as evident in Denmark as anywhere. So the question becomes, how does the church shepherd? Does the culture sense that the church cares about their trials? Is the church ministering in word and deed?
4. The Church’s history of using guilt to draw people into church.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9
I kende jo vor Herres Jesu Kristi Nåde, at han for eders Skyld blev fattig, da han var rig, for at I ved hans Fattigdom skulde blive rige. – 2 Korinterne 8:9
“Jesus is going to get you if you don’t come to church.” That is the recollection of a woman’s childhood in the church. She told me that priests would often strike fear in parishioners as a means of getting them to come to church. This woman, who by my estimation is in her sixties, still remembers the guilt. I could see it in her eyes as she told me the story. The guilt still hurts.
This type of guilt not only does not work – it is not biblical. All one needs to do is read the apostle Paul to see how the mercy and grace of God through Christ is the only means for drawing hearts to the gospel. The call to worship is appropriate because Christ made himself of no account. He gave everything of himself, through love, so that his people would enjoy communion with God. He took sin upon himself and was stricken, smitten and afflicted, yet by his wound we are healed. This is why the church is so beautiful – because Christ has made her such. So, it is not about Christ “getting” you, but giving his life for you. Perhaps if this had been the priests message she would be in the church today.
5. Life is so busy that there is no energy or motivation to give Sunday morning to worship.
But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. – John 4:23
Men den Time kommer, ja, den er nu, da de sande Tilbedere skulle tilbede Faderen i Ånd og Sandhed; thi det er sådanne Tilbedere, Faderen vil have. – Johannes 4:23
This is an interest and revealing statement on many levels, and probably far too much to address in this post. I am certain that there all kinds of nuances at play and plenty of blame to be shared, but again, the answer to this trend is the gospel in Christ alone.
In spite of these challenges, Denmark is not out of God’s reach. The people are extremely thoughtful and caring. They enjoy good, sincere conversation and are willing to listen to other perspectives. I found the people to be very insightful, and I think most I spoke with were sensitive to the importance of the gospel in their culture. I departed Denmark with terrific fondness and a sincere longing to return.