You can drop in at a hairdressers without an appointment for a quick haircut. Or at a clinic for a check-up. But what about a religious ceremony like a wedding or a baptism?
You can in Sweden.
The idea came to Jerker Alsterlund, a pastor in the city of Västerås west of Stockholm and an vintage-car enthusiast, when he attended the Power Big Meet American car show near Västerås in 2008.
“A couple had asked me to marry them there, which I did,” he explains. “But when I was there, another woman asked me if I could marry her and her partner too. I said, ‘that’s not how it works; you have to be prepared.’ But afterwards I realized that it’s the church that’s not prepared. And I realized that there are lots of couples like them.”
Before returning to the Power Big Meet the following year, Mr. Alsterlund let car magazines know that he would be offering drive-in nuptials. Sixty couples turned up to get married, and Alsterlund had to enlist nine other pastors to assist. “If they say that they love each other and want the church’s blessing of their relationship, it’s my obligation to marry them,” he says.
At first church representatives were aghast at Alsterlund’s cavalier treatment of the ancient liturgy. But soon other pastors – primarily in the Church of Sweden – picked up the idea, performing drop-in weddings in their own churches, and in short order drop-in baptisms followed.
Though the Church of Sweden doesn’t collect statistics on drop-in weddings and baptisms, research by the Monitor shows that drop-in weddings and baptisms are now offered in churches in every major city along with many smaller towns.
Indeed, after initially being chastised for his uncouth nuptials, three years ago Alsterlund received the Church of Sweden’s Innovator of the Year award. “He has found formats that meet [Church of Sweden] members who don’t belong to the parish core,” the jury wrote.
And the drop-in sacraments continue to be popular. On one Saturday in April at the medieval cathedral in the southern Swedish university city of Lund, some 45 couples, some with guests and some without, turned up to get married. The cathedral supplied pastors, musicians, even witnesses.
“We’ve had drop-in baptism days before, with between four and 17 children baptized each time,” reports Josefin Andersson, a pastor at the cathedral. “We thought, if 20 couples turn up to get married it’s excellent. But then 45 couples turned up. We almost thought we’d not be able to accommodate all of them.”
But Ms. Andersson and her colleagues managed to get all the couples married. As planned, each couple had a 20-minute pre-marriage talk with one of the pastors and got to choose two hymns and a song, and off they went to one of the altars with the pastor and the musician for their 20-minute ceremony. “It gets really condensed this way,” Ms Andersson says. “You get to the important parts straight away.”
Restoring church ties
The Church of Sweden struggles with the same problem as many other mainstream denominations in Europe, especially those that are state churches or have been so (like the Church of Sweden, which was separated from the state in 2000). While they may have a large number of members, the number of active members is often tiny.
Last year 63.2 percent of Sweden’s residents belonged to the Church of Sweden, down from 86 percent in 1995. But during the same time, annual service attendance has more than halved, from nine to four million. With Sweden’s population currently at 9.9 million, that means that the average Swede attends church less than one time per year.
According to Magdalena Nordin, an assistant professor the sociology of religion at the University of Lund, the Church of Sweden has no choice but to try new strategies.
“The church has to do something,” she says. “It keeps losing members. This way more people will get married in church, and will get baptized. And in a small intimate ceremony people pay more attention to what is being said, whereas a large ceremony means the couple is often very nervous because it’s such a big social event.”
With the drop-in ceremony boom a relatively recent phenomenon, the Church of Sweden has not yet measured whether it has resulted in the couples and families remaining involved with their parishes. But Alsterlund has made his own observations over the past eight years.
“I get a lot of emails from the couples and families,” he reports. “Around three quarters of them stay in touch. Many tell me about their parishes at home, what they think of the pastor. And many do get involved in their parishes.”
Indeed, as Alsterlund sees it, drop-in weddings and baptisms are a way for the Church of Sweden to create a connection to the millions of people who are members but don’t participate in their parishes’ services and other activities. “Otherwise they start thinking, why should I be a member anyway?” he explains.
And Ms. Nordin, who studies religious participation, argues that drop-in ceremonies don’t necessarily mean that the couples and families take their marriages and baptisms less seriously.
“Perhaps some take it lightly, but I’m not sure that people with large ceremonies take the religious aspect more seriously,” she says. In fact, pastors who have performed drop-in weddings and baptisms report that the ceremonies, stripped as they are of all the social attributes that usually surround church-related milestones, mean the couples and families sign up for them for the right reasons. As a result, the pastors say, such couples are more likely to remain involved with the church.
And, counterintuitive though it may seem, drop-in ceremonies may focus couples’ and families’ attention on the Christian aspect. “Drop-in sounds very superficial, sloppy, like an assembly line,” admits Alsterlund. “But drop-in weddings and baptisms are helping us rescue Christian ceremonies from the commercial powers that have taken over our ceremonies and redefined them.”