Loading

Health, Happiness, and Hygge How contentment can be a barrier to Christ

It was late morning as we walked down what seemed to be one of Copenhagen’s main streets, in search of our apartment. The plastic wheels of our luggage clicked rhythmically along the damp cobblestone and echoed down the narrow street. We must have sounded like a lazy stampede, but none of us noticed. All eight of us walked with necks craned upwards, taking in the foreign architecture of the buildings, remarking on how different everything looked compared to home. The pale grey sky couldn’t hide the intricate details of the brick and stone that adorned the buildings. After clumsily dodging some bicyclists, we noticed the very clearly marked bike lane in which we stood while gawking upwards. Embarrassed, we hustled out of the way as more bikers dinged their bells, urging us to move. We crossed the street towards the apartment we would call home for the next ten days. Within two hours, we were gathered around a giant wooden table, candles flickering next to a wooden platter of cured meats and cheeses. For a group of complete strangers in a new country, we were already starting to feel right at home. We would only have two days before beginning our task of helping the happiest people in the world discover Jesus.

Until the summer of 2017, Denmark was considered the happiest country in the world. It was only recently dethroned of this title by Norway, but just barely. In fact, Scandinavian countries occupy the top six spots on this list, with Canada and New Zealand trailing just behind them. You might think that happiness is a difficult thing to measure and rank, but The UN has found a way. The World Happiness Report uses six different metrics to help rank the happiest countries in the world: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and trust. According to this report, Danes are generally considered happy people because they live in a country where most of their needs are met. We decided that we wanted to hear firsthand what makes Denmark the happiest country in the world, so we asked some Danish students what happiness meant to them.

“Danish people are confident, reasonably happy, and there’s a sense of trust in society,” explains Pastor Niels Eriksen. “These things are good, and a blessing... but [they] also disguise the fragility and vulnerability of human life."

One word you’re bound to hear when talking about the happiness of Danes is “hygge” (pronounced hoo-guh). “Hygge is doing small things in your everyday life to make it more enjoyable,” explains Nermeen, a Communications and IT student at the University of Copenhagen. “Like drinking hot cocoa and talking with friends, it’s taking time to make life more cosy and comfortable.”

Oliver is another student at the University of Copenhagen, and says that for him happiness comes from a lack of stress in your life. “If I lose my job, I’m not going to have to leave my home immediately. I have several factors that can help me. That’s a big part of it.”

“People are very secure,” explains Jacob, another student at the University of Copenhagen. “I think it’s great that I can study whatever I want without having to pay for it. I don’t believe in purpose or meaning in life in a spiritual way -- just in doing whatever you enjoy and not being stressed.”

The most common sentiment was that friends, family, security, and a lack of stress are the biggest factors that contributed towards the happiness of Danes. If health, happiness, and hygge is all they need, is there any room left for Jesus?

“Danish people are confident, reasonably happy, and there’s a sense of trust in society,” explains Pastor Niels Eriksen. “These things are good, and a blessing... but [they] also disguise the fragility and vulnerability of human life. It makes us forget that we’re going to die one day.” It is for these reasons, says Eriksen, that when the gospel is being preached to the Danish ear, it sometimes sounds too radical to accept.

Eriksen has been a pastor at Apostelkirken (which translates Apostle Church in English) for 12 years, and was raised in a Christian home — an uncommon occurrence in the predominantly secular country of Denmark. But Eriksen is quick to point out that, though the kind of Christian household in which he was raised is rare, there are other kinds of homes in which God is working, though perhaps in different ways.

“As a pastor here, I sense that there are many homes out there where people pray with their children, sing an evening song with them, and where the seeds of faith are put out into the children’s hearts and minds,” Eriksen says. Though Danes may be secular, they are more closely tied to Christianity than one may think at first glance.

"Let me hope that my life never gets to the point where I have to go there and actually ask for help from the pastor, or need to go there on a regular basis…’ That’s a danger of the spiritual environment of Denmark, I would say. That there is a risk that the church becomes a kind of spiritual insurance company.”

This, in part, is the paradox of Christianity in Denmark. Though largely secular, the country is reluctant to give up entirely on their Christian heritage. Unlike their Scandinavian neighbours, the majority of Denmark’s population are members of a church. One possible explanation, according to Eriksen, is that belonging to a church is almost like buying insurance.

“It’s good that we have hospitals. Let’s hope we don’t need them soon. So in the same way, it’s good that we have churches,” explains Eriksen. “Danes may think, ‘I want to remain a member. Let me hope that my life never gets to the point where I have to go there and actually ask for help from the pastor, or need to go there on a regular basis…’ That’s a danger of the spiritual environment of Denmark, I would say. That there is a risk that the church becomes a kind of spiritual insurance company.”

This complicated relationship between Danes and the church is one Eriksen has thought deeply about. Though Eriksen thinks it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to meet families during weddings or baptisms, he wonders how effective these opportunities are at helping people find faith.

“What role is [the church] actually playing in the lives of these people? Are we helping them to really consider the fragility of their lives and the fact that they’re going to die and meet their God, or giving them a deep gratitude for what they have received from God?” Eriksen muses. “It’s really difficult to handle or to tackle in a spiritually mature way, because that is a spirituality that is not really following in the footsteps of Jesus.”

"Are we helping them to really consider the fragility of their lives and the fact that they’re going to die and meet their God, or giving them a deep gratitude for what they have received from God?”

The historic roots of Christianity run very deep in Denmark, which in part explains why a secular country is so reluctant to ditch Christianity. The seventy to eighty per cent of Danes that belong to the church voluntarily pay them a portion of their taxes despite a resistance to the central doctrines of Christianity. And though Danes are resistant to the core beliefs of the church, you’re unlikely to find them combative or antagonistic when it comes to faith.

“Danes are generally reasonably polite people,” says Eriksen. “There may be an element of fascination,” he explains when asked how people respond to what Christians believe. “Like, ‘Wow, how can you believe that in this world and in our time.’”

"There’s a lot of work to be done in our country to bridge the gap and communicate a Christian faith in God as a creator in relation to the scientific narrative of the development of life.”

Particularly in neighbourhoods like Vesterbro, where Apostelkirken is located, doctrines are not popular. The neighbourhood is composed mainly of young actors, artists, painters, filmmakers, and creative types in general. Eriksen notes that while this demographic can appreciate some of the beauty in the stories of Christianity, they don’t see them as anything more than that.

Eriksen recounted a conversation he had with someone with a theatre background who wanted to get baptised because he loved the myth of Christianity.

“I asked, ‘What do you mean myth?’ He said ‘You know, all about the man dying and rising again. It’s beautiful! It’s like spring. Things die and rise up again.’ So I said to him ‘Listen, there is a historical element to our faith and the resurrection. It’s not just a myth… It’s something that actually happened. And if [the resurrection] didn’t happen, it is no longer Christianity.’ He asked me, ‘Do you really want me to believe that this is actually true? If I don’t believe that, can I not be a Christian?’ I said ‘If you can’t believe in the resurrection, then I don’t think you can [be a Christian].’”

During this conversation Eriksen could see the sincerity in the man’s eyes, and the pain it caused him that he could not accept the resurrection as truth. “But that was the moment when I realized just how difficult it is for people living in this kind of spiritual atmosphere to really take in the gospel. There’s a lot of work to be done in our country to bridge the gap and communicate a Christian faith in God as a creator in relation to the scientific narrative of the development of life.”

The challenges of evangelism in Denmark is something churches regularly experience, but it can be even more jarring to a student flying in for a week as part of a mission trip. In fact, Eriksen believes that short-term missions trips to Denmark won’t work unless there is partnership with the local churches and fellowship, and a desire to invest long-term in relationships with Danes.

“I think this is the one of the characteristics of the Danish population, that they don’t want to be preached to,” Eriksen notes. There is the belief that “whoever comes and wants me [to] believe what they believe, they are imposing themselves on me and we don’t like that. I think [it] is surprising for foreigners coming to Denmark trying to evangelise because very often they feel rejected.”

But Eriksen disagrees with the notion that this experience means the spiritual climate in Denmark is particularly bad, because that is not the whole truth. What is needed is an attitude of cultural sensitivity, and the understanding that patience is the key word when it comes to evangelism in Denmark. When someone comes on a short-term mission trip, the hope is that a long-term vision for the country is caught, and that the short-term experience inspires people to pray about how they can invest more deeply in helping Danish students discover Jesus.

Churches like Apostelkirken have realized that Danes are particularly receptive to engaging with faith when there are opportunities to give practical help to those in need.

“If you go back 10 years ago, there would be an attendance of about 50 people or probably less in this church. Then we [developed] this ministry that was focused on prisoners, ex-parishioners and asylum seekers and refugees, and we saw Danes start coming in greater numbers…” says Eriksen. “It becomes more easy for Danes... they feel it’s easier to come sit here on the same bench as an asylum seeker. If a fellowship is inclusive for vulnerable people, it also by default becomes inclusive for the Danish people as well.”

Many mission trips go to regions of the world where socio-economic challenges and lack of material wealth are evident. The gospel seems to particularly resonate with people who have experienced things like suffering, displacement, and a lack of material needs because it provides context and meaning to those experiences; there is hope, justice, and redemption in the midst of suffering and hardship. This is partly what draws asylum seekers and refugees to churches like Apostelkirken.

Being from an affluent country, Danes have very different barriers to the gospel than those living in countries with a much lower standard of living. Our team had an opportunity to wrestle with how to share the gospel with people who felt no need for it. As we heard from several students we spoke to, Danes have many of their basic needs provided for, and they do experience a sense of happiness. When sharing the gospel in this context, Eriksen warns that we mustn’t frame the gospel in a way that suggests their happiness is “wrong,” or that it’s something we must eliminate in order to truly experience Jesus.

“We need to be able to represent the gospel in such a way that we don’t need to take away the joy of people before we give them Jesus,” says Eriksen. “There’s something lacking in the ministry if you can’t preach to the happy people.”

Part of the task is being able to distinguish between forms of happiness. There is a difference in the happiness that comes from having our needs met, and a deeper sense happiness that comes from understanding and experiencing how God created us to be, explains Eriksen.

“We need to be able to represent the gospel in such a way that we don’t need to take away the joy of people before we give them Jesus,” says Eriksen. “There’s something lacking in the ministry if you can’t preach to the happy people.”

Denmark is full of happy people, and has a vibrant history and tradition of faith. Apathy towards Christianity cannot be overcome by a transactional conversation and a quick reading of “Knowing God Personally.” Reaching Danish students with the gospel requires time, patience, and showing through example that there is a happiness that is deeper and longer lasting and more satisfying to the soul, because that is the kind of happiness that we were built to experience.

Sometimes, it takes the eyes of a stranger to show you the beauty of what’s been in front of you all along.

In a small city twenty-five minutes west of Copenhagen, twin spires of a giant red-brick cathedral reach up confidently towards a cloudy sky. At over 850 years old, the cathedral stands as a towering monument to the history of faith that so deeply entrenches Danish culture, despite its paradoxical embrace of secularism. Within the ancient walls, ornate tombs of Danish monarchs fill almost every room. Next to the tombs, plaques detail the complicated and messy history of Christianity and Denmark. Yet amidst the messiness, the beauty of Christ permeates the fresco paintings, sculptures, and architecture of the building. The tourists who streamed through the cathedral, all strangers to this place, seemed to appreciate the magnitude as well.

Though the structure was filled with people, it commanded a silent reverence that was innately understood by the many observers taking it all in. I began to realize how familiarity might numb the sense of awe that struck me as I wandered the cathedral. Sometimes, it takes the eyes of a stranger to show you the beauty of what’s been in front of you all along.

“I think it’s about realizing that we are all strangers in this world,” offers Eriksen. “Sometimes when I have people visiting from other countries, I notice when they walk through the streets that are my daily routines, they see things I don’t see. They see the beauty of the city in ways that I have forgotten. And that’s exactly because they are strangers. I think we need to develop that glance in our city because we are strangers. We belong to a different city. And there is a burden in that, in not belonging... But there’s also a beauty to it.”

“Sometimes when I have people visiting from other countries, I notice when they walk through the streets that are my daily routines, they see things I don’t see. They see the beauty of the city in ways that I have forgotten. And that’s exactly because they are strangers. I think we need to develop that glance in our city because we are strangers. We belong to a different city. And there is a burden in that, in not belonging... But there’s also a beauty to it.”

For more on Power to Change - Students, Denmark, and our other international partnerships please visit:

Author: Patrick Erskine

Reporting by: Erin Ford, Alexandria Ramoutar

Photography by: Mark Christy, Bowen Lu, Benjamin Ng, Danielle Sum, Adrian Tamminga, Gabriel Ting, Deborah W

Designer: Deborah W

© 2017 Power to Change Ministries. All rights reserved.

Created By
Power to Change Students
Appreciate

Credits:

Mark Christy, Bowen Lu, Benjamin Ng, Danielle Sum, Adrian Tamminga, Gabriel Ting, Deborah W

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.