The Challenge: I experienced a challenge in my concept of urban mission when I attended the 1990 Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education (SCUPE) Conference in Chicago. I realized that most of what we were doing in our cities in Norway, was not relevant in reaching the goals of both being a real neighbor in an inner city environment and delivering the gospel. When I returned home, this situation was on my mind in my position as leader of the Home Mission in the Norwegian Lutheran Mission (NLM).
The Norwegian State Church: About 90% of Norway's 4.2 million inhabitants are nominal members of the Church of Norway. Between 80-90% of the population is baptized and confirmed in the church. These numbers seem to reflect a very Christian country, but the population has become increasingly secular. Only 15-20% of the population would call themselves committed Christians or believers in a more personal, involved way.
Norwegian Church Life: To understand Norwegian church life one has to have in mind a two-fold model of official and voluntary structures within the church. The roots of the independent Lutheran movements within the church of Norway can be traced back to revivals and home cells formed by lay preacher Hauge's traveling ministry around the year 1800. In spite of opposition from the established church, the lay people insisted on meeting together. They formed their own small societies and groups and later began building their own meeting halls--the prayer houses.
Mission Abroad: The lay movement has released much spiritual energy into evangelization and mission both at home and abroad. Their strength is the freedom to organize and move when necessary, and the possibility of having fellowships within the church which focus especially on mission. Norway has now more than 1,700 missionaries abroad, most of them from the societies that originated from the Lutheran lay movement. For such a small country, this is quite unique. Today there is a good relationship between the church and the lay movement. The organizations have been some kind of a committed opposition and reform movement both on doctrinal matters as well as in challenging the broader and less committed sections of the church to mission and evangelism.
Home Mission in Norway: The main concern of Home Mission in Norway has been to communicate the gospel. Among the changes we see in Norway that influence this communication, two of the most crucial are urbanization and decline of .the state budget.
In 1946, 30% of the Norwegian population lived in urban areas. Today, in 1994, the figure is 76%. This is one of the reasons why the lay movement today has a communication problem. The lay movement has its roots in rural Norway, and has developed its style and form in that context. An adaptation into urban culture has not really happened.
At the same time Norway's welfare-budget has reached its limit. For a generation or two, we have become used to thinking that the welfare state takes care of people in need. Now we see that the needs are growing faster and faster, but the welfare budget can not follow anymore. As a consequence, the government is more open now to cooperate with private organizations than they have been for many years.
Norwegian Lutheran Mission (NLM) is a lay mission organization with work in ten countries all over the world. In Norway, it has traditionally had a strong position in the rural areas. The need of being better represented in the urban areas and an awakening awareness of the challenges the cities are representing have caused NLM to try to find a new approach to our cities.
Sagene Background: When I returned home from the SCUPE conference in 1990, we started to rethink what we were doing and how we we doing it. Meanwhile one of our promising mission students, Gunner Braathen, attended the SCUPE Seminary in Chicago for one year. When he came back, we put him into service in a new project in the inner city of Oslo. In this period we had a very valuable consultation with Ray Bakke in Oslo which catylalyzed the process. We first analyzed the city's needs with an open mind. We asked ourselves, the city government and the Holy Spirit how to move forward. As a result, Sagene Neighborhood Center was established in Oslo.
I feel the Sagene Project is one of the most important parts of my field as leader of Home Mission and we want to duplicate this concept in other big cities in Norway. We have excellent co-workers in this project and I especially will mention Gunner Braathen and Hanne Valen. In addition, to holding Norwegian degrees, they both graduated from SCUPE in Chicago.
Sagene: Sagene is traditionally a working class area with a high number of unemployed people, public housing, immigrants and single-headed families. The percentage of elderly people in this neighborhood is large compared with the rest of the city. This of course also contributes to the statistic which puts Sagene among those who have most people receiving disablement benefits. Many of them have a very poor network around them. The density is high, and because of the small apartments; many of the young people and families, move out after only a few years to areas with larger apartments. Sagene is among the four neighborhoods with most people on welfare. (Oslo has 26 neighborhoods.)
Project Methods: To achieve our goals, we started a neighborhood center at Sagene. In a centralized corner location with large windows and everything at ground level, we opened our doors June 6, 1993. Here we have a coffeeshop, a volunteer station where we coordinate social ministries to the community, and also gather for worship and Bible studies.
The Coffee Shop: The coffee shop is open from 12:00pm to 4:00pm Monday through Friday. Tuesday we are open until 7:00pm when our worship and Bible study starts. Unemployed people and senior citizens use the center a lot, as do children and young teenagers. We serve coffee and waffle-cakes at a very reasonable price. But the point is, of course, not the food. We want people to get in contact with each other, and in that we have succeeded. People who met each other at the center have started to do things together outside of the center too. Different groups and activities have their base at the coffee shop. Some only lasted a short time, some still go on, and some have just started.
Worship/Bible Study: The worship time, Tuesdays at 1900 (7:00 pm) has the longest tradition. Gradually, more people have come to these gatherings. Most of those who now join us at worship first dropped in at the coffee shop; when they feel "safe" and at home, they often start to attend our worship/bible study. The gatherings are quite informal and relaxed.
The Children: Homework Clubs that we started in our localities, now meetin a nearby library. Together with staff from the library, our volunteers help children from first to sixth grades with their homework four days a week. We also have started a children's' group at the center, one evening a week. In that way, we can still be in touch with children who have to go to the Koran school, and therefore cannot go to the Homework Club at the library (which is earlier in the day). At the children's; group we teach from the Bible, we sing, do crafts and play. Those who have homework can get some tutoring after the Bible teaching. Ten to twelve children attend , mostly immigrant children of Muslim background. Some of them know quite a few Bible stories from the Old Testament, but for others the Bible is a closed book and God is hardly more than "something up in the air," to quote one child.
Learning Spanish: The latest activity is Hispanic lessons. A Peruvian QuechuaIndian teaches a group of interested people of all ages and learning abilities. Everybody seems to have fun, including the teacher.
Other groups and activities have been closed down because of lack of interest. The Neighborhood Center is an easy context to start something new when you see a need for it or try out something new. And if it turns out that there is no need for the group/activity, it is just as easy to close it down. We appreciate this kind of freedom.
The Volunteer Station: Many people who want contact are either not able to or not interested in coming to the Center. To accommodate their needs we have established the Volunteer Station. People report their needs to us: anything from help changing a light bulb to someone to be their children's "grandparent" or simply someone to come and keep them company in their loneliness. The largest group of these are elderly people with a weak network around them, and with disabilities that keep them from getting out and meeting people.
The volunteers themselves are less homogenous. Everybody from senior citizens to six year-olds are registered with us. And everybody decides for themselves what kind of volunteer work they want to contribute, and how much time they are willing to share. Among the volunteers are four seven year-old boys who are quite proud of being "members", as they call themselves. They get to serve coffee when they come to the center, but mostly they do nothing but one very important thing: to liven up the center and the lives of those who come there by their very presence and playfulness.
The Volunteer Station gives us the opportunity not only to be needs-oriented, but also to look for the neighborhood's assets and resources.
Expansion Plans: For NLM, the Neighborhood Center is a new way of doing Home Mission, and it is also used in the training of students from our school of mission. After getting some more experience from the research and work at Sagene the plans are to use the Neighborhood Center as a model for similar ministries, preferably in the biggest cities in Norway.
Quite a few, both in NLM and other organizations have shown an interest in this kind of work, and come to visit and get information at the Center. A group of five people, representing NLM at different levels, meet with the staff at Sagene every second month to evaluate what is being done.
Participation and Support from the Local Church: Sagene Parish, of the Church of Norway, is letting us use their localities for arrangements that take more room than we have at the Neighborhood Center. The senior pastor has been very supportive during the whole process, and the church has recently hired a parish deacon who is already working closely with us. The Young Adult Bible group in the Church is having their meetings in our localities, which strengthens the connection between the church and the Neighborhood Center.
The Neighborhood Council: The neighborhood council (city government) and administration have always had a positive attitude towards us, and supported us financially. They also came to visit us for a first hand look when some of their colleges from Stockholm, Sweden, came to study how we do things in Oslo.
The Body of Christ in the City: We see that there is more work to be done in Oslo for the body of Christ than just preaching. We are used to thinking of both "mouth and hands", evangelism and social ministry, when it comes to mission in third world countries. In Sagene, we have learned that the "hands" are also needed in Norway. Professor of Social Medicine, Per Sundbye, recently stated that there has been a major shift in the main challenge for Norway's health care system. For many years, heart-related illnesses have been the most significant health problem; today it is what he called "frustration illnesses," problems relating to stress, loneliness, broken relationships, etc. We have learned at Sagene that a ministry that takes this situation seriously is very much needed. We have also experienced that a ministry that responds to peoples different kinds of needs gives many opportunities for evangelism.