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Riddle me this

Sun, Mar 25th, 2012
Posted in All Norwegian Ancestry

"It's like a fire station. People are willing to pay for it, but they don't ever want to have to use it." Can you guess what Norwegians are referring to in this metaphor? I'll give you a hint-these are the words of a Lutheran pastor, not a fire chief.

Psssst. It's the church.

This may come as a surprise because Fillmore County's largely Scandinavian population is also largely religious. I must make the disclaimer that I don't have statistical evidence in front of me, but I can safely say that church activities are a major part of small town life and most families in our area belong to a church. Despite the connections to Scandinavia, my first experience at a Norwegian church gave me some sudden insight to the way in which they approach religion.

My university hosted a student worship service at the local Lutheran church a few weeks ago, and because the pastor is also one of our professors, my classmates and I decided to attend. The exterior of the church looked very similar to the church that my family belongs to at home-a tall steeple, warm brown bricks, a stately façade. On the inside, though, things were much simpler. There were no stained glass windows, or even paintings beyond the one piece of modern art that hung above the altar.

The church itself was not the only thing that was bare-so were the pews. My classmates and I made up about half of the congregation and we were told that it was much larger than usual. Also, my friend recently attended an Ash Wednesday service with a congregation of only four people.

The service itself was very untraditional compared to what I am used to, even beyond the fact that it was all in Norwegian! Instead of an organ or choir, more contemporary music was the centerpiece of the service. A dance group performed to Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and a few individuals sang songs that were not hymns, but tunes by Joni Mitchell and Sarah MacLachlan.

Presuming that it's not only the American music that deters Norwegians from attending church, I had a conversation with the pastor to get her thoughts on it. She shared with me that people are much more reserved here, so religion is something that is deeply private. Many Norwegians would say that they are spiritual, but a divine relationship is not realized by the church but by other inspirations, such as nature.

Furthermore, another pastor I spoke with told me that churches are moreso seen as a place for meditation or a resource for counseling. Church doors are left open for people to come and pray or reflect, and one of the pastors' foremost duties is to counsel individuals, not preach to the masses. In America, churches harbor communities that are some of the most prominent social institutions; in Norway, churches are a place for people to discover more personal spirituality.

Despite the widespread aversion to regular church activities, the Lutheran church is, in fact, the state church of Norway. However, it is a state doctrine that the government must fund all other religions in the same way. Many of my Norwegian friends describe themselves as atheist, yet they are willing to give their taxes to build churches and pay clergy in all denominations-perhaps just in case of a fire.

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