Beware! This place is a preacher’s graveyard.
Those were the words a former minister shared with me as I set out to plant the only doctrinally Reformed church in Iceland and the only Baptist church in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. At the time his words seemed dramatic, almost comical. After all, I was a 24-year-old fountain of wisdom who had become a Christian by listening to podcasts, and who was thoroughly equipped with the Reformed Theological Seminary app and plenty of other podcasts on his phone.
What could possibly go wrong?
Vikings, Volcanos, Chihuahuas
Iceland is an odd place—a rock in the middle of the northern Atlantic ocean, settled by vikings 1,100 years ago, now a nation of about 300,000 inhabitants.
You may have heard about us a few years ago when our volcanoes shut down air travel for much of Europe. (We remember it as the time news anchors worldwide inexplicably butchered the pronunciation of “Eyjafjallajökull.”) If you’re into sports, you may know we were the smallest nation ever to qualify for the European Football (soccer) Cup, or that Icelandic ladies recently won the CrossFit Games. If you’re into music, you may know Björk or Sigur Rós. If you’re into stats, you may know we’re the safest, the third-most happy, and the fifth-most expensive country to live in the world.
As a local, it feels the country is quickly becoming popular and receiving a disproportionate amount of attention. Much like a chihuahua, we seem to have an attitude, barking much too loud for our size. “Iceland: best in the world,” you’ll hear some Icelanders jokingly say. “As long as it’s measured per capita!”
Europe’s Most Godless Country
But when you give yourself to gospel ministry in Iceland, you begin to see a different set of stats.
Iceland tops the list for antidepressant consumption per capita. (If you’re not sure how that fits with being ranked the world’s third-happiest nation, you’re not alone.) While 85 percent of our inhabitants are supposedly Christians, we’re considered the world’s sixth-most atheistic nation. We were even dubbed “the most godless country in Europe” last year. Of course, with a such a radical worldview change comes radical cultural change. In 2014, for example, only 29.5 percent of babies were born to married parents. Iceland is now leading the world in out-of-wedlock births, as marriage becomes less and less valued.
Though Iceland is currently getting a lot of attention, as a mission field it’s hidden in plain sight. Like much of Scandinavia and Europe in general, it’s usually overlooked by churches and mission organizations. If you don’t research deeply enough, you’ll likely get the idea that the most godless European country is supposedly 85 percent Christian, and move on to seek other places who need to be reached. (This is one reason I and others put together a brief documentary called Christian by Default—in an effort to expose Iceland’s true spiritual state.)
Extraordinary Things, Ordinary People
This is the context in which, a little more than three years ago, my wife and I decided to begin this church planting journey. We would give ourselves to sharing the gospel, making disciples, and trusting God to do extraordinary things through ordinary people.
In a hyped-up culture where most things start with a bang and much doesn’t last, we prayed our church would be a testimony of God’s sustaining grace. And from the start he answered our prayers. At our first Bible study we had four attendees—including my wife and me. Things definitely didn’t start with a bang! Yet the Lord has slowly but surely built his church.
A year into the journey, as we were exhausted and in need of help, God connected us with a church in Northern Virginia. For the past seven years, this church had been devoting significant resources to send people to Iceland and were looking for an indigenous church planter to lead the efforts—and they concluded I was the guy! Along the way, the Lord has brought more partners, and now we can devote ourselves fully to this work.
As “Loftstofan Baptistakirkja” has grown, we’ve moved from our living room to a school classroom to an actual church building in downtown Reykjavík. With 20 members (and a few more on the way) and 30 to 35 adult attenders on a good Sunday, we’re not exactly a megachurch. Yet we stand amazed at what God has done.
Hidden in Plain Sight
In a country I can say confidently has fewer than five healthy churches, we’re grateful to be part of God’s work. We’re currently looking to translate theological works to train believers and reach unbelievers, and well as starting Guðfræðiskóli Íslands (Iceland School of Theology). Through present and future partnerships, we long to see indigenous pastors and church planters raised up to permeate the country with healthy, gospel-centered, disciple-making, Christ-exalting churches for the glory of God.
Please pray more Icelanders would hear the gospel, respond in repentance and faith, and become coworkers in God’s harvest in their own country.
If you’re interested in learning more about Iceland, watch Christian by Default. If you’re a leader of a church or mission organization, please consider forming a gospel partnership in places that, like Iceland, are hidden in plain sight.