Three decades ago on a printed newsletter, GEM founder Bob Evans implored anyone reading to consider an uncharted mission-field: Iceland...
It was spiritually dark and in extravagant need. The thought of moving to Iceland caught Greg and Betsy Aikins. It was a sticky thought, and God wouldn’t let it go. Without ever placing feet in the country, after two years of preparation, they gathered their three kids, bought a one-way ticket, and moved to Iceland. When they walked out of the airport and saw it for the first time, there was no questioning or debating: they were in Iceland and they decided they would make it work.
There’s something both poetic and incredibly raw about the way Greg talks about Iceland.
“It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from here,” he says.
The national website calls it "a country of sharp contrasts. A place where fire and ice co-exist. Where dark winters are offset by the summer’s midnight sun.” It’s a place that draws people, tests them, shapes them, and enchants them. It’s a place that both offers and requires so much.
The brutality of the climate in Iceland has bred a set of survival skills in its people that is more primordial than much of the modern world, and toughness is a way of thinking, not just a way of acting. Only eight generations separate the entire population, testifying to the connectedness of the island (most people are somehow related). In a space about the size of Kentucky and surrounded by a far-reaching and agitated ocean, it’s not all that surprising that few would come and few would leave.
In Iceland, old ideals and customs have stuck just as ardently as the old Viking language. These are hardworking people who have learned to ‘buck-up’ and keep going to survive. They have learned to be practical people. While an article published on The Guardian characterized Icelanders as having “loads of children, broken homes, absent mothers” and called “patchwork families…a tradition” leaving Iceland “a recipe for misery and social chaos”, it went on to positively describe how Icelanders have learned to live with these realities. What the article doesn’t share is the backstory of the misery of many lives behind closed doors where alcoholism, abuse, and relational dysfunction live. The façade that Icelandic people portray as “the happiest people on earth” is most often an image of self-sufficiency that must be upheld at all costs. A common saying of an earlier generation, “A man is enough for himself,” is evidence of this. Divorce and broken norms are common. Instead of making Icelanders resilient, their ways of coping and rationalizations are actually poisoning them.
It’s a tough place for missionaries to move to, and a tougher place for them to stay.
Decades after the Aikins’ initial move, few have come to serve with them in Iceland. Their story echoes the trials of national believers. The national church in Iceland is the Lutheran Church, but faith-leaders here are bone-weary and largely forgotten, left to serve without much of a support-system. Resources are limited as is perspective and outside help. “In my five years of being a minister here, no one has ever called to check up on how I’m doing,” confessed one pastor in North Iceland. A couple faithfully trying to serve the Lord along Iceland’s south coast echoed,
“We feel very alone here.”
This is why gatherings like the “Under 40” leaders, brainstorming, and other symposiums that Greg has been a part of are so significant. The round-table discussions they put together bring Christian leaders in the country into a room to think more about where they are in history and discuss how to begin to think differently about church. They want to answer the questions, What is post-modernism? and, What is post-Christendom? Iceland is a product of its history, recent as much as ancient, and as people react to an easy-information and ever-changing technology culture that leaves less and less room for the supernatural and mystery and glory, church leaders need to adjust too. Knowing the needs of the culture is essential to revealing Christ’s relevance to searching people.
So the leaders ask, What has changed in Iceland in recent years? What does it mean to be a Christian in the 21st century? And, What does the Church look like in the 21st century? Listening to each other, Christians from different faith traditions, set out together on behalf of their desperate country and realized the encouragement of hearing “You too?” from fellow leaders.
This year, the unity that the Lord crafted during the meeting was abundant; each leader leaving with the sense that God is doing a new thing in Iceland. They agreed on the essential objectives that as faith-leaders in Iceland, they need to stand together as people of the Gospel, be present as Christ's people in their communities, and be there for each other. These kinds of discussions with their accompanying community-building and common initiatives will need to continue.
Any missionary in GEM or any church-leader (any Christian, really) will tell you that living out God's vision is harder than it sounds – people make life messy. Sin makes life messy. But one steadfast tool and testimony of Christ that we have is His church. The Church provides that encouragement, support, community, a place to ask questions and be welcome.
Church is not a dead institution, but alive and organic and the presence of Jesus in calling; a spiritual family on mission with Christ.
Because it has been lonely and dark and difficult in Iceland over the years, it has become crucial for these leaders to determine what the Church in Iceland should look like in modernity. How does it serve its people? It’s a hard enough question to navigate in places where the Church is doing well and has resources available. In Iceland, these things are scarce. In reality, books and resources in the Icelandic language are almost impossible to find. As a result of these discussions and the lack of material, Greg has decided to write, in Icelandic, a book on organic-church and disciple-making. A book for the Icelandic people. A book that organizes these leaders’ discussions, trains leaders to think like missionaries, and challenges all believers to sow the Gospel of Christ in the lives of those around them.
Christians go where people are, not where they find a building. And it is difficult work being the Lord’s servant in Iceland, bringing faith into the cold, and to the often hard ground without the Church there for support. Greg borrows from Alan Roxburgh saying missionaries in Iceland need to serve as “poets and midwives” helping believers find the words to describe what is already going on and what God is doing, casting vision and together birthing a movement. After leaving the meeting this year, hearing from Icelandic leaders that
“God is doing a new thing,”
it was clear this is his role in Iceland: to alongside the national leaders, “follow God into His preferred future for the church in Iceland.”
As Greg continues writing this book for the church-leaders in Iceland and as they return to their communities to shepherd, please pray for their work. Pray for encouragement and God’s strong presence. Greg acknowledges the spiritual-state Iceland is in as well as the process by which God brings about His good growth, reminding us that ministry is ruled by the “law of the farm,” not the “law of the factory”. Christians there are breaking soil, planting seeds, watering, waiting, and cultivating. But growth is in the Lord’s hands and it is on His time that we'll see the harvest.
Greg says every movement begins slow, with incubation and prayers. So please pray for Iceland, its leaders, the Church, and for the anointing of this book for the benefit of the Icelandic people.
Images from Unsplash.