21 June, 2015. The Rival Hotel Theater Mariatorget, Sordermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. Stockholm's Hillsong Church wasn't empty that morning. Young people of every imaginable shape and color packed the halls of the Rival Theater for something like the second time that largely nondescript Sunday on the liturgical Summer. Historic Storkyrkan, the "Big Church" in nearish Gamla Stan, was barely half as full even with the procession of tourists that ply among its priceless artifacts.
Either with giddy thrill or grim foreboding, reports of the death of Religion in the West have tended towards overstatement over the last two hundred years. A millenium of ecclesiastical overreach followed by an era of war with distinct doctrinal borders would do that. Europe saw fit to butcher its enemies in the name of Christ. Then, it didn't.
Big numbers notwithstanding, there isn't a pulpit in Hillsong Stockholm big enough to call for a Crusade. There isn't enough coercive power in its floor-to-ceiling LED screens or its robotic strobe lights to raise enough money for a new, competing Storkyrkan. Maybe that's what they mean by religion being dead in the west. No church in Europe will likely ever become the new Notre Dame de Paris or Florentine Duomo. A handful of jackasses might set fire to a mosque or synagogue but it will never again be by the orders of a Divine-Right Monarch at the behest of Rome's Pope.
Even then, there I was, hands held high alongside bearded Swedish hipsters, Kenyan exchange students, and Chinese tourists. The preacher, a bearded young man in a t-shirt and jeans, looked every bit like history's most casual viking. The Sermon was in Swedish but we understood the message - love is nothing if not active. It was an experience akin to the Tongues of Pentecost except this one involved headphones from the lobby that provided real-time dubbing.
Hillsong doesn't have a reputation for theological rigor. Not really. A financially successful international church that produces popular music probably wouldn't. Some might see their enduring popularity in Secular, Socialist Sweden as damning evidence.
Love, though, is nothing if not active. After the sermon, after the showstopper playlist of Hillsong's greatest hits in English and Swedish, aftet the announcements - everyone didn't break away at the first opportunity. They grilled burgers in the park outside. They charged for the burgers but it wasn't much. I had a burger before slinking away largely unnoticed. Introvert as I was, I couldn't just do "community" after one shared service. It was, however, as warm a Community as the summer afternoon burger-grill they congregated around. The gently rustling fountain water and the haze of golden sunlight shining over them was nearly dramatic overkill.
My first Pentecostal home church had held services from a theater too. It had been a relic of the time before mall megaplexes monopolized cinema. That was the first Church I experienced the whole religious dropping-to-the-floor-crying thing. Very often, it happened to the tune of "Still" or "Eagle's Wings," the latter song played towards the end of the Stockholm service. We were often told that these intense emotional outbursts were signs of a revival: of the Church of Christ resurgent in the world. I don't think they had that in Sweden. I've always been curious how much either of us should.
Is Religion in the West dead? Is it dead because it can no longer call for Crusades and Cathedrals? Is it dead because it would not burn with uncontrollable ecstasy? Is it dead because of shallow theology or overindulgence in thelogy? Is it dead because it seeks too many converts or too few? I'm not sure if my three months in Europe visiting Churches and attending services held any definitive answers.
Living or dead, Hillsong Stockholm was there that one summer afternoon full to the brim of active participants in worship and community. And God knows love is nothing if not active.
P.S. Hillsong Stockholm has since moved to the China Theater about a block from Kungstradgarden. They seem to have opened another church further north.