So my fellow Swedes are turning churches into yoga studios. Live from the world's most atheist nation, the report from Swedish public broadcaster SVT adds to an ever-expanding list of houses of worship being turned into something else: sport centers, conference halls, art galleries, even camping sites.
Each time, critics lament the temporary or permanent, er, conversion as a troubling sign of the times, of the "undermining of the Christian faith." Some conservative lawmakers are now saying that repurposing churches might in fact violate laws on cultural heritage.
For my father, a Protestant priest in the Church of Sweden, swapping Jesus for yoga is indeed a sign of the times — and perfectly natural: "When societies become more pluralistic, we can't expect a faith making all-encompassing claims to speak to everyone."
Indeed, even before the pandemic, 80% of churches across Sweden drew 20 or fewer congregants on average for Sunday Mass. In the last 50 years, baptism and Christian marriage ceremonies have dropped by roughly half, while more than a 100 churches have either been consecrated and sold, or simply demolished.
Gunnar adds, however, that the Swedish church has also colluded in its own demise, with sermons too often consisting of biblical recitals that have little bearing on the hopes and anxieties of people today.
Inside a church in Uppsala, Sweden — Photo: Jonas Ekstromer
That brought a memory from a London summer Sunday, a few years back, when I was roaming the city anxiously waiting for the verdict of one particularly unnerving medical exam. Sweaty and neuralgic with test-result dread, and my head already hot with half-a-dozen coffees, I walked into a church to find some shade. The priest was recounting that two of the congregation's oldest members had recently died, and that both it turned out were veterans of the battle of D-Day. Some things were said about God, but mostly the priest spoke about what the two men were fighting for back on that fateful day in 1944 — and especially, what's still worth fighting for today.
In societies of shrinking ideological conformity, the power of Christian narratives, Gunnar says, are being stress-tested: "If they stopped worrying about the prestige and dogma, and took care of people's needs instead?"
Still, there's a paradox. Even in Sweden, where most people say they don't believe in God, the majority confess to praying from time to time. In other words, while the incumbent faith of Christianity might be in steep decline, the need for hope and guidance from some other source is not.
So returning to the practical question of churches turning into places to stretch your limbs or see a sporting event or art exhibit, how will we secure the physical spaces to confront the perennial questions about meaning, life and death? All over the West, the evangelical right is growing in proportion to the decline of more sound Christian doctrines. Perhaps, meditation and yoga can offer some alternative path, but in a world where our worries are shared more publicly than ever, each to their own private yogi or self-help book might not be enough.