The youth of Norway dominated world headlines this summer after a lone gunman showed up at a youth camp on remote Utøya Island in southern Norway and began a shooting rampage that left over 70 dead. The horrific details shocked a country during its holiday season with a peaceful reputation built from hosting the Nobel Peace Prize and from mediating conflict negotiations between other countries.
Youth ministry is new and growing in Norway, a highly religious country where 81% of Norway’s 4.8 million people are members of the national Lutheran church yet only three percent attend services regularly. In 2003, the government gave churches the responsibility to develop a systematic and continuous religious education for all baptized children and youth. And youth ministry vaulted to the forefront of the conversation in Norway.
Morten Holmqvist and Astrid Sandsmark (Assistant Professor in Practical Theology) teach youth ministry courses at Det Teologiske Menighetsfakultet (MF, the Norwegian School of Theology). Morten is the author of one of the primary research projects on Norwegian youth culture, Jeg TrorJjeg er Lykkelig (I Believe I am Happy) while Astrid was a contributing author to Global Youth Ministry: Reaching Adolescents Around the World (2011, Zondervan/YS Academic). I recently asked them a few interview questions and I’m grateful for the time they took out of their family holiday to briefly give us an update.
Tell us a little about the response in Norway to these tragic events.
Astrid: It is still unreal. Norway is a very small country. So, many people either are directly affected or knew someone involved. Downtown Oslo is filled with flowers and candles and right now people are just concerned with taking care of each other as they grieve. And the rhetoric in media is often on how we can use this tragedy to show compassion and maintain our desire to build a safer and more loving society. In fact, our nation’s leaders response was the Norway should have more openness and more democracy!
Morten: On the third day after the shootings, 200 000 people gathered in downtown Oslo for a Rose March to show support to the families. This is almost half of the city’s population. We stood in thousands, side by side, in complete silence, raising our hands filled with roses. It was just amazing.
How are the youth of Norway reacting?
Morten: It was a political youth movement that was hit, and in many ways it feels like an attack on our young generation. The immediate reaction – together with the flowers, candles and poems – is that many young people are actually taking part in different political youth organizations, to show that this will not scare them to be involved. At the same, there is a feeling of unity and oneness right now among the generations.
In what ways do you think this will impact Norwegian youth ministry over the coming years?
Astrid: It is difficult to say. It is incredible to see how the church is so important now during this time. People are really seeking comfort and help from churches all around the country. It could be that this will be an awakening in people search for God.
I hope that this will make us more aware on other peoples suffering. I mean this is something people in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia live with every day. But I fear that two-three years down to the road it will be “business as usual” again.
Describe youth in Norway. What are they like? How has adolescence in Norway changed over the last 25 years?
Morten: Youth in Norway has grown up in one the riches and safest countries in the world. They are quite polite and very politically correct, ambitious and concerned with getting a good education. Despite the global culture, they live a kind of bubble of safety. Remember, not even the last years financial crises have had much impact on Norway. But, right now it feels like the safety bubble has burst.
Tell us a bit about your program at MF.
Astrid: We both work at a Youth Ministry bachelor program called “Youth, Faith and Culture” (Ungdom, Kultur og Tro) at MF in Oslo. This degree equips students to be professional youth workers and they are placed in local churches as they study here.
What are the pressing issues facing Norwegian youth ministry leaders?
Astrid: We live in a country with approximately 80 % as members of the Lutheran Church, but at same time it is a very secular society. It is a paradox, but an exciting one. The Church of Norway is in huge reform on religious education, with founding from the government. I guess the pressing issues is how the Christian faith can be practiced in our everyday lives.
Morten, you’re working on a dissertation. Tell us a bit about your research.
Morten: My project is part of a bigger research project called Learning and Knowledge Trajectories in Congregations in Norway (LETRA). My research will be on youth and especially on confirmation participants. About 67 % of all 14 year olds in Norway go to confirmation training in the Lutheran Church, so I will try to discover what kind of learning process are in place in various churches and how students learn Christian knowledge and theology. We understand learning as a social practice, and I’m particularly interested in how students learn through activities associated with confirmation. You can learn more at our webpage (http://letra.mf.no).
You two are not only teachers at MF, but you are married to each other. How did you two meet and tell us a bit about your family.
Both: We have both been active in Youth Ministry and met through this common passion. We are both working at MF and are also active in leading youth ministry in our local church. We are now a family of five and on Monday we are going on a summer camp with almost two hundred confirmants. It is a blessing to a family involved in youth ministry together.
Again, thanks to Morten and Astrid for taking time out of their holiday to answer a few questions today during their holiday. I will have more regarding the growth of Norwegian youth ministry in the future. In the meantime, please pray for Norway, its youth, and the church leaders. The country and its people are still in shock from the recent tragedies.
You may be interested to know that MF offers two Master’s degrees in English, including an MA in Religion, Society, and Global Issues.
 Taken from “Norway: A Church of Many Members but with Empty Pews” by Astrid Sandsmark in Global Youth Ministry: Reaching Adolescents Around the World, Terry Linhart & David Livermore, Eds., (2011, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan/YS Academic), pp. 145-147.