A common idea expressed by American pastors and politicians alike is that secular European countries offer a case study on America’s future. In 20 years, it’s thought, the U.S. will become increasingly like the countries of Europe.
As a Swede living in Denmark, I was repeatedly drawn into discussions on this topic while visiting pastors in the U.S. this summer. Is America demonstrating similar patterns as the Nordics—notorious for their secularity and liberalism? Is it only a matter of time before gospel-believing Christians become the extreme minority?
Increasingly, American Christians look to Europeans for advice, to extend their wisdom and expertise on how to reach a “post-Christian culture.” While these questions are based on an intuitive premise, is it true that America will follow in the footsteps of Europe? It’s my view that the trajectory of revivalist America and high-church Europe are different, though we have enough in common to learn from each other.
I see two significant differences between the U.S. and the path of Nordic nations.
First, the U.S. was founded on religious freedom through the nonmagisterial Reformation—the Protestant Reformation that wasn’t integrated by nation-states or dictated by royal courts. In many ways, the U.S. was a place of refuge for Anabaptists and Puritans who lacked religious freedom in their European homelands. Religious freedom seems to have been written into the foundation of America in ways that are decidedly not the case in the Nordics. Of course, a country founded on religious liberty can still end up equally post-Christian, but the path to get there will look different than in those with national churches.
A country founded on religious liberty can still end up equally post-Christian, but the path to get there will look different than in those with national churches.
Second, the U.S. remains more integrated and diverse than many European countries. It’s common for those in the Nordics to look at persistent racial tensions in the U.S. as chronic and out of line with modern times. However, as Nordic societies confront the challenges of immigration from the Global South and the Middle East, it’s become apparent that leading a compassionate and inclusive society without having a strong base of homogeneity to count on is complicated. Thus it’s possible the U.S. could be better equipped to handle the multiculturalism that threatens the Christendom mindset of Europe. These sociocultural realities also put the U.S. on a different path toward a post-Christian destination.
To be clear, the intuition of American Christians may not be entirely unfounded. Looking around, it’s easy to note similarities between the Nordics and the U.S., particularly on the coasts and in densely populated cities.
First, there seems to be a critical mass of cynicism toward religious institutions throughout the West. This has long been the case within established Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran churches in Europe, as increasing numbers reject participation and membership in state-sponsored religious activities. As this trend spills into the U.S., American churches need to draw clear distinctions between the dominating religious systems, traditions, and hierarchies and true gospel Christianity, demonstrating the falseness of “cultural Christianity” or even so-called Christian nations.
Second, financial stability and cultural wealth in America have reached unprecedented levels in recent history, increasingly competing with the satisfaction offered in the gospel. One of the biggest challenges to ministry in the Nordics is that the “good life” seems to be offered freely and easily by the secular welfare state, lulling people to sleep through indulged forgetfulness of their deepest needs (Hos. 13.6). The strength of the American financial machine and technological innovations offer ease and comfort on a godless platter.
Taken together, the increasing distrust of religious institutions and the pursuit of satisfaction through materialism represent a significant challenge to Christian witness in both Europe and America.
How does the church respond in such a situation? The letter of 1 Peter is written to Christians dealing with limited cultural power, to those feeling sidelined and resisted by mainstream society. When we lack cultural power, we’re tempted to seek relevance with the world to become more effective. But Peter counsels the church in exile to lean into their call to be otherworldly and different, to embrace their identity as a unique and holy nation (1 Pet. 2:9–10).
Increasing distrust of religious institutions and the pursuit of satisfaction through materialism together represent a significant challenge to Christian witness in both Europe and America.
My Danish seminary classmates have sought to build such a community of saints through their book Kristen I Grænselandet (Christian in the borderlands). In a section on “Holy Life in Practice,” they discuss topics such as the Christian’s foreignness in the world, the genius of God’s design in sex and marriage, the goodness of moral boundaries, and how to shepherd and serve the church. These young Christians in the Nordics are calling for holiness, not relevance.
Recently, I had a call with several ladies who shared similar sentiments. They’re planning the first TGC Nordic women’s conference, which will address biblical priorities related to home, marriage, and family. Rather than striving to make friends with the culture, they want to focus on the much-maligned topics of biblical sexuality and complementarity. This wasn’t my idea, but it seems young Christians in the Nordics are calling for distinctiveness, not relevance, as the priority for gospel-believing Christians who find themselves on the margins of society. Like Peter, they believe exiles should be marked by goodness and holy living to make the gospel attractive to others (1 Pet. 2:11–12).
What the Future Holds
The Nordics didn’t become post-Christian overnight. And while we shouldn’t oversimplify the relationship between the U.S. and post-Christian Europe, there are warning signs we can heed. Based on my experience in the Nordics, I believe there are some things the American church should avoid at this time and others it should pursue.
I believe the challenges of our day call for less time bickering over policy and polity and more time locking arms with true gospel-centered churches. Less time pursuing entertainment and luxury, and more time loving and serving our neighbors. Less time defending the church’s diminishing territory, and more time working with other Christians in our shared mission. In short, we should be different.
The American church may be looking for a way to predict where it’s heading. But more than just looking to Europe, we should look to Christ, to believers who’ve gone before, and to our scriptural call to be a holy people on mission.