In many ways, I represent the most unusual member of this gathering of Christian traditions. So I hope you’ll understand if my version of the lead essay seems atypical as well.
Please join me in imagining a week in the life of a Pietist seeking to follow Jesus.
The Power — and Limits — of Corporate Worship
Let us first follow her to worship on Sunday morning. Immediately, we notice that “Pietist” is not found in the name of her church. If she worships with a congregation of the Evangelical Covenant Church, we might overhear some reference to those Christians’ heritage as “missional Pietists.” Something similar is possible, but still less likely, if we find ourselves in a Converge (Baptist), Evangelical Free, or formerly Augustana Lutheran church, since those are historical cousins of the Covenant, fellow offshoots of a mid-19th century revival in Sweden whose leading periodical was called Pietisten. Or if it’s a Methodist, Moravian, or Brethren congregation that’s particularly attentive to its history, we might happen to hear how John Wesley, Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, or Alexander Mack took inspiration from a now-defunct movement in early modern Europe called Pietism.
None of those instances is probable. For unlike every other participant in this year-long conversation, the Pietist Tradition has no ecclesial shape or institutional structure. And the number of Christians worldwide who identify as Pietist is vanishingly small.
Yet theologian Roger Olson claims that Pietism “became the main form of Protestantism” in North America (The Story of Christian Theology, p. 491). For if there is no Pietist movement, we might nonetheless discover what Olson calls “the Pietist ethos” in Lutheran, Wesleyan, Baptist, Anabaptist, Reformed, and other churches represented by other participants in this conversation.*
But if we’re to recognize that ethos this Sunday morning, we first need to keep in mind what Pietist forefather Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) wrote in the pivotal passage of the original movement’s founding text, Pia Desideria: “It is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.” So while our Pietist might repeat the words of a creed or nod along with the theology presented from the pulpit, she has come to church this Sunday primarily to experience God through practice, not just to have her belief in God reaffirmed.
To put too fine a point on it: she is here to meet Jesus, not just to think about the idea of Christ.
So even if she frets that she is participating in a version of Christianity prone to anti-intellectualism, she might admit that the most important part of the service is a simple hymn. Perhaps one by Lina Sandell, the greatest poet of the Swedish revival. Tears well up as our Pietist sings softly of a God who resembles both the heavenly father who gathers his children close to his chest and the mother hen who spreads gentle, holy wings around her chicks, a God who makes mercies known “day by day, and with each passing moment.”
As that music fades and the preacher begins the sermon, our Pietist hopes not so much to hear an erudite exposition of Scripture as what Spener begged of his fellow Lutheran clergy: “plain but powerful” preaching that touches “the inner man or the new man” — or inner/new woman — “whose soul is faith and whose expressions are the fruits of life.”
Of course, our Pietist may also encounter God through other means available in any Christian worship service: prayers, readings, and sacraments or ordinances. But in all these practices, she might find herself unable to shake the spiritual dissatisfaction that has always energized Pietism, for better and for worse. She might reproach herself for suspecting other Christians of going through the motions of rote repetition. Still, she worries that right belief too easily decays into a “dead orthodoxy” that makes no discernible difference in how believers live. Most of all, she longs for a Christianity more “authentic” than a religion of custom and culture.
She might then start to admit that Spener’s critics weren’t wrong to coin “Pietist” as a pejorative for Christians who seem to think themselves more pious than their neighbors. But our modern-day Pietist can’t shake her desire for something more: the new life that starts with new birth; grace that doesn’t just declare sinners just, but regenerates and sanctifies them.
The Devotional Life
And she has long since decided that Pietism’s “living faith” depends on practices and experiences other than corporate worship led by a member of the clergy. So as Monday (or any other) morning dawns, we find our Pietist seeking God by herself, practicing the solitary piety of private devotions. She prays to a God who is always listening; she studies scriptures inspired by a God who is always speaking.
In the pages of the Old and New Testaments, our Pietist seeks transformation, not information; relationship, not rules. For the Bible, as the Covenant Church has taught, is above all “an altar where we meet the living God.” “Pietists loved the Bible,” explain Roger Olson and Christian Collins Winn, “not because it contains propositional truths about God to feed the mind, but because it is the principal medium for the Christian’s relationship with God” (Reclaiming Pietism, p. 99). In God’s written word, our Pietist meets the living Word and walks alongside him — traveling her own version of the Emmaus Road until Jesus’ teaching leaves her heart burning within her.
But just as Cleopas did not walk alone, our Pietist knows that her relationship with God through Christ must intersect with her relationship with other followers of Jesus. The next evening she repeats the same spiritual disciplines, but now in the company of a few others. By meeting weekly with her small group, she repeats the oldest, most influential innovation of the original Pietist movement. Even before Spener published Pia Desideria, a lawyer named Johann Jakob Schütz convinced him to convene collegia pietatis outside of their larger congregation — little churches within the larger church (ecclesiolae in ecclesia) whose members worked through prayer and study toward a closer connection with God and each other.
While that idea went back at least as far as the early years of Martin Luther’s reformation (or the late medieval Brethren of the Common Life), it was the German Pietist movement that established small group Bible study as a staple of modern Christianity. Like much of the Pietist ethos, that kind of collective practice has become so pervasive as to seem mundane. Yet “inoffensive as [Spener’s conventicles] might sound,” explains historian Alec Ryrie, “they marked a decisive shift in religious power” (Protestants, p. 162) — from the clergy to the laity, from the church hierarchy to the common priesthood. When my Swedish ancestors — like their Haugean counterparts in Norway — met in their small groups, they were breaking laws established in protection of state churches that jealously guarded those institutions’ right to control the meaning of God’s word. The very existence of the small group underscores that, for Pietists, no single person and no single understanding of Scripture has the authority of the Bible itself, whose interpretation requires multiple perspectives, lest old error maintain itself against the correction of new insights.
Of course, that doesn’t happen if the small group simply clusters like minds together. But if our Pietist’s version of the collegia is anything like Spener’s original, it spans the theological and political divisions of its time. It serves as an enduring witness to the original Pietist desire that Christians cease their “angry polemics” and “needless controversy” and restore something of the unity that Jesus prayed for and Paul exhorted.
Making Faith Active in Love
At the same time, such devotional practices also highlight a danger inherent to the Pietist Tradition. Mennonite scholar Robert Friedmann, for example, scorned Pietism as “a quiet conventicle-Christianity which is primarily concerned with the inner experience of salvation and only secondarily with the expression of love toward the brotherhood, and not at all in a radical world transformation” (Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries, p. 11). As she heads into the second half of her week, our Pietist might worry that she’s being “too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.”
But after she wakes up the next morning and continues her regular daily routines at work, home, and elsewhere, she may be conscious of the other great legacy of German Pietism: August Hermann Francke’s commitment to make faith active in love of others.
For Francke (1663-1727), personal conversion to Jesus Christ sparked social action: the creation of an orphanage and schools that took in poor children, a university that trained pastors, missionaries, and military chaplains, a pharmacy that healed illnesses, and a publishing house that churned out affordable Bibles and devotional literature. But even if our Pietist doesn’t work in education, health care, or what we’d tend to think of as Christian ministry, Francke would tell her that Christian faith can be made lovingly active in a myriad of ways. Whatever her vocation and wherever her setting, advised Francke, the Pietist should carry out her “calling joyfully and cheerfully to the glory of God and his neighbor’s good without greed.”
As the week continues and these God-glorifying, neighbor-loving practices repeat, our Pietist lives out her new life in Christ as the Covenant theologian Don Frisk defined it, following Jesus by following him into the world:
Whatever form conversion takes it will be characterized by entrance into freedom — the freedom which comes through the presence of Christ in one’s life — and by involvement in Christ’s mission to the world. To be converted to Christ is always in a sense to be converted (turned) to the world. It is to see the world through the eyes of Christ, to share his compassion, to perceive his will for the world, and to strive to follow it.
* Olson even claims overlap with Pentecostalism, his home tradition. Precisely because the Pietist ethos leavens so many different versions of Christianity, it would be a waste of scarce words to sketch all the differences. I’ve tried instead to emphasize what Pietists might have in common. To give some specificity, I’ve leaned most heavily on my own branch of Pietism, that stemming from the 19th century renewal within Swedish Lutheranism that — after migration to the United States — gave rise to my home denomination (the Evangelical Covenant Church) and my employer of nearly twenty years (Bethel University).