As I’ve explained with my first trip to Scandinavia, Christianity in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland has two tracks: the state churches (which are confessionally Lutheran, have a liberal hierarchy, but many conservative pastors) and the Mission organizations (which carry out evangelism, conduct Bible studies, and sponsor ministries to specific groups, such as children, youth, and the elderly). Inner Mission works within the country, and Outer Mission works overseas.
These mission groups were founded back in the 19th century and grew out of the Pietist movement. With their Mission Houses in nearly every city and town, they have become a fixture of Scandinavian culture. Today, they represent conservative Christianity–indeed, conservative Lutheranism–in supposedly secularist Scandinavia.
I have been invited twice now to speak at various Inner Mission activities–to lecture at a Danish university, sponsored by the conservative theological faculty endowed by Inner Mission; speaking at a Bible school, where Christian young people are trained before going off to university; and giving a series of addresses to an all-Scandinavia Inner Mission youth ministry leaders’ conference in Norway. I just came back from giving a series of lectures on vocation to a conference of all Inner Mission staff members in Denmark.
They tend to think this two-pronged Christianity is just the way it is. “Don’t you have anything like Inner Mission,” I was asked, “in the United States?” But I’ve gotten very interested in how these folks conduct their work, particularly in the very difficult context of European secularism. And yet, they have some impressive success stories, such as their work in converting Muslims to Christianity. I was curious how Inner Mission does evangelism.
In the United States, with our individualism, evangelism is one-on-one “witnessing”; that is, explaining the Gospel in individual conversations with other individuals.
Inner Mission brings non-Christians into small groups, where they meet Christians and get involved in each other’s lives. They hear the Gospel as they study the Bible together and get drawn into the spiritual life of the Church.The groups are led by lay volunteers, who are given training and curriculum by Inner Mission staff. They meet in the Mission Houses, of which Denmark has some 350 throughout the country, as well as individual homes.
This emphasis on small groups comes, of course, from the Pietist tradition, dating back to the 18th century. One criticism of Pietism by confessional orthodox Lutherans is that such “conventicles” created churches-within-churches apart from Word and Sacrament ministry.
Today’s Inner Mission, though, seems aware of the danger. They make a strong, intentional effort to work with pastors and local congregations, as long as they can find some that are conservative enough. “We deliver whole confirmation classes to pastors,” I was told. Some of these consist of young people who are drawn in the faith by the youth ministry, and some are adults, including Muslim converts.
Inner Mission has pastors in its top leadership positions. And the Mission Houses work closely with local congregations. Many pastors were once active in Inner Mission and so are very supportive. Though Inner Mission meetings have, for an American, an evangelical vibe, with testimonies and praise songs, when it comes time for worship services, they are led by a pastor and are liturgical.
I wonder, though, if the Inner Mission strategy for evangelism might be effective in the United States. Yes, we are individualistic, and one-to-one conversations about the Gospel have an important place. But today’s Americans, for all the postmodernist talk about the importance of community, tend to lack community, instead being unconnected, isolated, and often lonely. The Church has a community that it can offer those who need a community. (All right, some congregations need to work on this.)
Other Christians can exert a strong influence and can address a whole range of personal needs. This can’t just be a social club, of course, but they can help each other, including their non-believing friends whom they invite into the group, to come to grips with their sins and to realize the magnitude of Christ’s redemption.
And the small groups can lead seamlessly to the larger group of the congregation as a whole, especially as the non-believers see the importance in the lives of their new friends of the Word and the Sacraments.
Do you think this would work here? Has anyone tried an approach like this? In your own spiritual pilgrimage, didn’t other Christians play an important role?