Vilgot Sahlin isn’t the type one might expect to become an active churchgoer. The 15-year-old Swede has a keen interest in computers and rock metal, and spends his free time rehearsing guitar with his band “Through the Plague.”
But about a year ago, he also got involved with the Church of Sweden. Although he was the first among his friends and family to turn to faith, he quickly felt he was in the right place.
“Church feels like a second family to me. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming. I think a lot of people are looking for support from God, and the church, because the people working there make you feel very safe,” says Vilgot, who is now a commissioner of the youth association of the Protestant church.
“I think a lot of young people my age are looking for help with mental health problems. There is so much pressure that comes with being a teenager, pressure to do well in school while trying to keep up good relationships with friends. And what we see online adds to this stress because we are setting unrealistic ideals.”
Vilgot is not alone in seeking a sense of community and belonging with the Church of Sweden. While in recent decades the church has had a decreasing role in national life, it now appears to be drawing new people seeking support amid the coronavirus crisis and social distancing.
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“We see that key existential questions concerning life and death have been central during the corona pandemic. And that’s where the church is still a very strong and relevant voice,” says Pernilla Jonsson, head of analysis at the Church of Sweden.
Record support on helplines
Although Sweden is among the most secular countries in the world, the Church of Sweden – a Protestant denomination with about 5.8 million members, which translates to roughly half of the nation’s population – has long been a key part of society. That’s partly because, up until 20 years ago, it was part of the state by many functions and funded by tax money. While it’s now easier for members to leave, fees are still collected by the tax authorities.
And the drop of membership is profound. In 1990, almost 90% of Swedes were members, compared 50% today.
“We do see less and less members. But at the same time, the biggest generation pool of our members are young. Six out of 10 25-year-olds are part of the church, for example,” Dr. Jonsson says. She speculates that could be because people were automatically enrolled as members of the church at birth until 1996. Nowadays, around 40% of parents choose to baptize their babies every year, closely reflecting the number of members.
The pandemic may also be part of the inspiration that is drawing new members to the church. The Rev. Nina Sagovinter is an organizer for the church’s “on-call priest” helpline, which is called an “emergency cure of souls,” similar to a suicide prevention helpline. In general, anxiety tends to go up in times of crisis, she says.
But between March and June this year, phone calls and texts to the helpline went up by 40% compared to last year. And many of those who reached out during the pandemic were people who hadn’t looked for religious help before.
“We see that calls and texts increase whenever something happens in society. The same thing happened around the California wildfires earlier this year. So, people may not talk about the coronavirus explicitly but it likely affects general anxiety levels and loneliness,” Ms. Sagovinter says.
“We saw entirely new groups reaching out to the helpline. We also saw new groups when we went over to digital. Many people that normally would not go to church service did stream it at home. And we had record views. That may be because this pandemic has stirred existential questions on life and death.”
Loneliness and isolation
The church is putting more emphasis on helplines and “diaconic” support, a branch of theology that focuses on treating those who are sick or unwell, which the recent crisis has made apparent.
Some 10% of Swedes say that they don’t have a close friend, and 300,000 live in social isolation. Loneliness is particularly common among the younger generations; 78% of those who are between 18 and 34 years old say they feel lonely.
According to Ms. Sagovinter, loneliness extends beyond being physically alone and could signal a generation feeling lost despite being materially fulfilled. “I have experienced that there is a longing among people to talk about what’s really important in life. And now that people are forced to be alone they have more time to think, which can be very difficult for some people. It is difficult to meet your own fears especially when we live in a society that tells us to always look and be happy.”
She says that people are trying to fill an existential void without being aware of it. “That’s what makes us human beings unique, being conscious of life and death. We need to talk to others about how we reflect about these things. People today are often searching, but they don’t know exactly what they are searching for, because we have such a big selection of anything from services to beliefs, especially in big cities.”
The increase in calls may also have to do with a change in psychiatric care in Sweden, according to Åke Nordström, vicar and chief of the Gustav Vasa assembly. The church has about 8,000 members from 32 streets of a Stockholm neighborhood called Vasastan, which translates to the city of Vasa, named after Sweden’s first king who reigned in the 1500s. The church is particularly known for its diaconic efforts. Mr. Nordström said that the church has begun taking over the role of psychiatric care.
“It used to be possible to talk to someone through psychiatric care, but now [public services] don’t offer therapy for those suffering from anxiety or need to talk through things. So we go in to offer what people can no longer get from psychiatric care.”
As for Vilgot, the teen, he says that some of his friends are hesitant toward the church.
“I don’t really know why. I guess some of them think it’s not ‘cool,’” he says.
But he adds that he hopes more people will join.
“Of course it shouldn’t be forced upon anyone, but it’s fun. I think more people would like it if they would learn more about what the church really is.”
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