Pastor makes gains in postmodern Iceland

While honoring its traditional heritage, Iceland has embraced postmodernism. (IMB photo by Charles Braddix)

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REYKJAVIK, Iceland—Baptist pastor and church planter Gunnar Gunnarsson lives in a world of opposites and extreme contrasts.

His country, Iceland, is known as the land of fire and ice—home to some of the world’s most active volcanoes and largest glaciers. The island’s spectacular beauty attracts more than a half-million visitors a year.

iceland coffee425Scandinavian and Nordic countries lead the world in coffee consumption. Iceland is a member of that elite group, with cafes abounding in Reykjavik. (IMB photo by Charles Braddix)Proud of its traditions and pristine environment, Iceland and its tiny population of 320,000 have embraced a postmodern stance reflected in its architecture, literature, art, social norms and even religion.

“Most Icelanders are well-educated, broad-minded and tolerant,” said Sigurdur Holm Gunnarsson, one of Iceland’s most outspoken atheists, in comments indicative of a postmodern culture. “This is apparent from the widespread, general support among Icelanders for gay rights and great tolerance for various forms of cohabitation. Very few people doubt a woman’s right to abortion, and I have never met a single person in Iceland who thinks that creationism should be taught in public schools as science.”

At the same time, 90 percent of Iceland’s population say they are Christian. However, 10 percent or less go to church regularly, read the Bible or can articulate what being a Christian actually means.

Research suggests Iceland may be one of the most Christianized nations in the world, while being one of the least actively Christian.

iceland reykjavik425Seen from a hill above the city, Iceland’s picturesque capital Reykjavik holds most of the island country’s population of 320,000. (IMB photo by Charles Braddix)The Church of Iceland, which is Lutheran, is a state church, and the government builds its buildings and pays its pastors’ salaries. Icelanders are proud of their small, quaint, picture-perfect churches—even if they never step foot inside them.

In this Christianized postmodern world of contrasts, Gunnar Gunnarsson, the only Icelandic Baptist pastor in the country, has a vision to start a church-planting movement.

“Most of our nation is really spiritual. They’re open to spiritual things,” he said. “But if you are a Christian who actually reads the Bible or prays or lets your faith affect the way you live, then they will quickly label you an extremist or a sectarian in a way.”

In Iceland, “normal Christians” don’t do these things, Gunnarsson said. Being a Christian means one is registered with the state church and believes in some type of overarching deity.

He serves a small Icelandic congregation of about 20 that started in 2012 as a Bible study, then eight months later moved to a Sunday service. It represents the first church plant in Iceland in the last 100 years “that has not been a split from something else,” Gunnarsson said.

“Now we’re kind of slowly growing. But I like it growing slowly, because I think we really need to make disciples, not just get people to come to services. Hopefully within three years, we can plant another Icelandic church,” he said.

iceland homemeeting425Baptist work in Iceland is new, with emphasis being given to discipleship. Here members of a house group meet to determine what their spiritual gifts are. (IMB photo by Charles Braddix)“I really want to be the kind of church that starts other churches. I would rather see five churches of 100 than one church of 500, especially if they all have the same goal of planting more churches.”

Work in Iceland is slow because of Iceland’s prevailing postmodern culture, calling for evangelism that goes beyond passing out tracts and conducting mass campaigns, Gunnarsson said. It’s based on relationships and walking alongside people daily.

“Most of the stuff we have done has been relational,” Gunnarsson said. “When I’m at work, when I’m at school, whatever I’m doing, when I’m around my friends, my family, as I’m going out, as I’m living my life, I should be making disciples.”

Southern Baptist mission work in Iceland began at the initiative of Stafford Baptist Church in Stafford, Va., in 2005. Bill Jessup was pastor at Stafford Baptist when the church glimpsed the vision to reach Iceland. The church formed a partnership with the International Mission Board that resulted in the Jessup family locating there.

In 2005, Stafford Baptist began praying for an Icelandic church planter. The same month the church started praying for a national leader, Gunnarsson was on his way to the United States to attend Bible school and begin training for ministry.

iceland prayer425Baptist pastor and church planter Gunnar Gunnarsson and Bill Jessup of the International Mission Board pray at a multi-denominational prayer meeting. Weekly, the group intercedes for Iceland and God’s activity there. (IMB photo by Charles Braddix)Later, after completion of school and returning to Iceland, Gunnarsson started listening to podcasts about church-planting movements by Larry McCreary of Upstream Collective. It was through these audio recordings that Gunnarsson caught the vision for a church-planting movement in Iceland.

He contacted McCreary, and McCreary put Gunnarsson in touch with the IMB and Stafford Baptist Church. Stafford Baptist saw Gunnarsson as the answer to their prayer and believed God had been preparing him for it from Day One.

Reflecting back, Jessup said: “We started seeing Gunnar’s passion for wanting to plant a gospel-centered church that was going to be reproducing. All of a sudden, it was sort of like a light came on. The person we had been praying for, this person that we had longed for back in August of 2005, maybe this was our guy.”

It happened at a small-group Bible study Jessup and Gunnarsson both attended. As they talked, Gunnarsson began sharing his story and how God was leading him.

iceland planning425Bill Jessup of the International Mission Board and pastor Gunnar Gunnarsson go over ministry plans for the week at popular café in Reykjavik, Iceland. (IMB photo by Charles Braddix)“It dawned on me that he was the guy that we had been praying for. I looked over at him, and I said, ‘I had no idea that you were the guy that we had been praying for for eight years,’” Jessup said. “It was just one of those God-centered moments.”

Now the IMB is initiating an “exit strategy,” where its personnel pull out and turn the work over to local leadership. Jessup, however, prefers to call it a “where-do-we-go-from-here” strategy.

He plans to encourage American churches to continue to be involved with missions in Iceland, making volunteer trips, investing in the spiritual development of Gunnarsson and his wife, Slava, and encouraging planting more churches.

“The ongoing strategy will be to continue to pour into what God has already started,” Jessup said.

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