Biblebelt feature: Let the church be visible in Sweden, says pastor Ardenfors (3/3)
Wim Hulsman, RD
Hundreds of seats are arranged around a large stage. On Sundays, the church in the heart of Jönköping in southern Sweden is well-filled. The head pastor of the conservative Pentecostal church is Marcus Ardenfors, a man without fuss but very passionate.
The city of Jönköping is the heart of Sweden's Bible belt: many churches and some Christian schools. Pentecostal groups make up the largest churches in this region.
Part 2 of a series of European Biblebelts; Part 1 was about Finland
Ardenfors enthusiastically talks about the activities taking place in his church building. Downstairs are nursery rooms and classrooms for language lessons for refugees from Syria. The church helps this group, especially now that many Swedes are critical of the Syrians' arrival.
Even a sports hall is part of the complex. "Young people can attend sports activities here, but the hall is also rented out to local schools," he said. Theology students from the preacher training college ATF are taught in another small hall. They listen via a screen to a lecturer who is elsewhere in Sweden.
In Sweden's church landscape, the Pentecostal Church belongs to the conservative section. The church is regularly criticised, especially from liberal quarters. Ardenfors: "Not long ago, there were a few critical articles about our congregation in the local newspaper. That was annoying." The church holds to the Biblical marriage between one man and one woman; the newspaper did not understand that. "Most people of Sweden no longer accept that view."
At the same time, Ardenfors received several expressions of support from the local population. He sees this as a blessing but also as a result of a positive attitude towards local society. "In the early 1970s, a minister stated that the government no longer needed the churches. The state would take care of everything." That picture tilted, says Ardenfors. It changed around the refugee influx triggered by the war in Syria. Sweden was at a loss.
"The mayor of Jönköping called me then. He had 20 young refugees for whom he could not find shelter. Touching. We cried together on the phone as grown men at the time. But I said, "We are going to arrange something." We then quickly created sleeping and living quarters in spaces under the church. Neo-Nazis were protesting in the square in front of the church at one point, but as Christians, we showed that we wanted to help these people. That was an eye-opener for the politicians here. Churches do matter."
The second time the church came to attention was during the Covid crisis. "I then sent an email to the leading politicians in Jönköping saying that we were praying for them, and I made the offer to help if needed," he says. A Covid network was then started together with other churches. Our volunteers provided help in many ways to people who were at home: a phone line was opened, we delivered medicines from the pharmacy to people's homes, and we provided babysitting for dogs whose owners were in the hospital. The church proved to be a powerful source of help."
Ardenfors was himself the youth pastor of a congregation near the Swedish port city of Gothenburg for 15 years. That came to an end due to a dispute. "I then started a business for myself, but I got completely stuck with that. After a year, the call came from this congregation. The Lord defined me by Psalm 23: there was a table prepared for me here". He laughs, "I just hope it's not 'facing my adversaries' as the psalm continues."
Ardenfors wants to be a "light on a mountain, a salting salt". "Not only for my own congregation but for the whole city," he says. "Sometimes I hope to be a prophetic voice. Daniel inspires me."
The churches have retreated somewhat in recent decades –partly because of the government's stance, Ardenfors observes. "But we need to speak loudly of Jesus again in society. We need to do that together as churches."
This article was translated by CNE.news and published by the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad on January 25, 2024
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