Warmer, greener pastures

Friday, August 4, 2023

by user's avatar image Melinda Johnstone

Wherever two or three gather, in whatever kind of pasture, or however often, there is an opportunity to go deeper and care for one another, know one another, and serve one another. And that’s what they are learning to do.


Simon Peter from Capernaum was meant to be a fisherman. Just like his father and his father’s father were before him. But Jesus called him to fish for something bigger. Espen from Norway was meant to be a pig farmer. Just like his father and his father’s father were before him.  But Jesus called him to tend to bigger pastures.

Pig in pasture

Leaving his father’s farm took him on an adventure where he met his wife and, together, they served as missionaries in Thailand for 7 years. The drawing back to Norway came, and for the last decade, Espen has been tending to the pastures of The Church of Norway in Øygarden, Hjelme and Blomvåg Parish just outside Norway’s second most major city.

Church building

The formative experiences of his youth, with connection to the natural world, and a more charismatic experience of Christianity, along with immersion in a foreign land, served to develop a unique perspective and an open warmth in Espen that would prove necessary in leading a congregation in his home land. Espen inherited a very long history of a church divided. The congregation was a place for formal gatherings—births, deaths, marriages and highly liturgical worship services. But not traditionally a place for deep and transparent connection.  

The majority of the population in Norway consider themselves formal church members of what was formerly the State Church. Being part of this formal connection to Christianity is so important that 80% of the population in Espen's area bring their children to be baptised. But the expectation of relational engagement and depth has been long missing from that structure. Much of the relational engagement had been relegated to outside the church walls.

Church choir

The “Prayer House” movement in Norway rose up and served to fill the relational gap—they became the warm and vibrant huddles of passion, prayer, and companionship. Espen grew up with connection to the Prayer House movement and the State Church alike. Despite his strong connection to the State Church in his formative years, coming back from missionary service in dynamic Thailand and being confronted with the unchanging liturgy and structure of the Church of Norway, was almost like stepping into new missionary territory. Providentially, Espen has a love of speaking and relating with others from outside his home paddock. And this is where the story comes alive.

Traditional dress

He knew firsthand the vibrancy Christianity could have because he had experienced it in another land. He knew the depth of relational connection possible because he had experienced it in the Prayer Houses. But how would he cross the divide and bring greater life to this Norwegian congregation which had inherited such a long and consistent history of nominal Christianity? In Øygarden, God, true to form, had been working in the background and Espen found brothers and sisters who shared similar values and longings as himself - those that loved God and their local church.

One such person was Ommund, an NCD Coach. With his support, Espen initiated the NCD Church Survey process in his congregation within the first year of being appointed as leader. Every year since, he has engaged in the survey process. To his surprise, from the very outset, the congregation has been open to such a process and, in simply raising the need for Holistic Small Groups and Loving Relationships, the bridge from what was, to what could be, started being formed. There is a new expectation growing that connecting deeply with one another doesn’t have to be found outside church walls but can be fostered right where they are. And people are putting their hands up, offering to lead and pave a new way forward. Small groups are growing and informal gatherings are popping up more and more.

Messy church

Another vital connection Espen finds very valuable is the connection with the two nearby Prayer Houses. One of them is also engaged in the NCD process. The three congregations join together in a show of solidarity once or twice a year, revealing that the boundaries between the Prayer House movement and the Church of Norway are being blurred, and a Kingdom hunger for health—whatever it might look like—is emerging. The people in their congregation are happy to take responsibility for the vibrancy and health of their own lives by seeking what they need across all expressions of kingdom life… “He leads me beside still waters, He makes me lie down in green pastures…” wherever the water flows, wherever the pastures provide nourishment in this township, there they will go.

Having a meal together

Because there is such flux, not knowing which of the 4,000 formal members may show up on a given Sunday to a worship service, or which ones will engage in small group life in any given week, it is very hard to gauge the true health of such a shifting community. The pandemic also presented them with many challenges. Espen had felt that perhaps they should delay their next NCD Survey. But thanks to the firm encouragement of Ommund, his wise coach, he surrendered his nervousness and they took the plunge.

“We didn’t want to do another survey because we didn’t think it would be that good! Our supervisor said it was up to us, but strongly encouraged us to take this new survey. I wasn’t so motivated and I waited some days to press the button to get the results, but then I was really amazed actually. For me as a pastor, it’s so useful to have these surveys because we can think our own thoughts and wonder what will come out of this and then find out. Of course it’s encouraging as well when we get a good result!"

NCD Survey results

Upon reflection, Espen need not have been afraid, as he had been noticing and experiencing the positive changes the results highlighted:  “I have a sense that the congregation, the core, are more relaxed. They are growing and it's easier to connect with them. Our worship service is not very charismatic and even though we could learn to do another type of service, I think our kind of worship fits the people who are coming. They aren’t necessarily coming very often to church so they are confident with our liturgy, they know how it’s done—it’s a very strict Norwegian Lutheran church with very old buildings. The Sunday School is in a very cold room and we hear their noise and they hear ours, but more and more kids are coming as well! I can’t say why, but it’s happening!”

Sunday school

Their liturgy, though quite rigid, was never holding them back. In fact, it is currently their greatest strength. It would have been very easy to misread the old ways of worship as being the stumbling block to greater health in these pastures. Espen could have concluded that more life would flow if they “got with the times” and forced his flock into new ways of engaging in worship. That would have killed their greatest asset and guaranteed a colder, darker experience of Christianity in their church and in their township. The coldness they needed to address was the connection and depth between the people. There was a scarcity of opportunities for relational connection and that was their greatest barrier. Having entrusted himself to learning the ways of the Kingdom, Espen wisely navigated his flock to a place of greater warmth and nurture. Wherever the two or three gather, in whatever kind of pasture, or however often, there is an opportunity to go deeper and care for one another, know one another, and serve one another. And that’s what they are learning to do. 

Thank you, "Farmer" Espen, for tending to the pastures where God has placed you. 

No farmer can farm alone, so thank you, Ommund, for your coaching insight, encouragement, and steadfast presence. 

And thank you to the people of Hjelme and Blomvåg Parish for your responsiveness to the Spirit of God, the Great Farmer.

More about The Church of Norway in Øygarden

About the NCD Church Survey

holistic small groups inspiring worship service

Pig in pasture Church building Church choir Traditional dresses Messy church at nursing home Having a meal together NCD Survey results Sunday school