Stavanger, on Norway’s westernmost coastline, is the nation’s oil capital servicing the drilling rigs in the North Sea, making it the most expensive city in Norway, perhaps in the world.
Before oil was discovered in the 1960’s, Stavanger was chiefly a herring port. Old Stavanger, today a picturesque township of white wooden houses and quaint cobbled lanes, was originally populated by fishermen, some of whom arrived in the port by rowboat towing the bundled logs of their cabins behind them.
Stavanger however has another heritage: a Christian history of over a thousand years. Ancient stone crosses testify to the presence of Celtic monks who first brought Christianity there. The twelfth-century Norman-style cathedral, built by an English Catholic bishop, is still in daily use. Revival movements dating back to the start of the nineteenth century produced a range of missions to people groups on all continents. Stavanger, with the nation’s first prayer house, is known as the missions capital of Norway, which over the past century reputedly produced the most missionaries per head of population of any nation.
Maintaining this rich tradition, a group of young aspirant church planters preparing to leave their homeland for continental Europe invited Romkje and me to spend Pentecost weekend with them talking about Europe as a mission field.
In response to their eager questions, we cautioned them about making the church plant itself the goal, committing new members to all sorts of weekly church activities. Rather, seeking God’s kingdom first meant developing a vision for the transformation of the neighbourhood, in each sphere of society: family, education, health, local government, businesses, street life, the places of entertainment. What were God’s purposes for each of these spheres? What could that transformation look like? How could the neighbourhood change? If Jesus was mayor of the town where you were going to work, what would he want to change?
We talked about church plants as pilot projects of the coming kingdom, small communities demonstrating something of the quality of relationships of heaven. In short, fleshing out shalom.
We stressed the importance of finding out who your allies were; who was already at work in your target zone. And about how to build trust relationships with other churches and agencies, not the competitive spirit which can result from making church planting the end goal.
We suggested that the crises facing many places in Europe today could actually open up opportunities for new ministries if our approach was to ask what the unmet needs of the community were. What can we bring to those who are vulnerable, hurting, needy?
Two more important questions we proposed were: what has God done here in the past, and what is he doing there today? To illustrate, I recalled something I had read in a local tourist publication about a park in Old Stavanger named after an eccentric character who had championed children and young people in the town. Lars Hovland Lende would dress in colourful clown costumes to attract the children, and engage them in playful activities, while also teaching them trade skills, and creating jobs. He started a mechanics workshop to teach young boys mechanical skills. He bought ponies to take children on treks in the mountains. He let his hair grow on one side and cut it short on the other. ‘All for the children’ was the motif by which he lived. Once he even earned the support of the King of Norway after an audience in his clown costume. ‘I may be crazy on the outside,’ he told people, ‘but I’m straight on the inside.’
Although the elite never really accepted his unorthodox methods, he won his way into the hearts of the ordinary townspeople who honoured him after his death in 1971 with a park and several bronze sculptures. I asked the young people what they thought had motivated Lende. My guess was that there was a story of Christian influence somewhere. Sure enough, more googling revealed Lende’s Salvation Army background, which helped explain his love of unorthodox methods.
Europe, I’m sure, would be a better place with more eccentrics like Lende prepared to act outside the box to flesh out God’s shalom.
Till next week,