Following Jesus to Faithful Action in the World

Dr. Gehrz’s reflection on what it means to follow Jesus from a Pietist perspective reinforces what I believe is a critical understanding in our Respectful Conversation series – following Jesus is a lived practice that is reflected in our devotional life and engagement in the world. To call ourselves disciples of Jesus means that we take seriously His call to go and make disciples, actively exhibiting our faith in our relationships with others. I do, however, have a further point of inquiry for Dr. Gehrz as it relates to the Pietist social action in the world: does this action remain at the individual, charitable level or does it extend to efforts to create systemic change?

The Pietist focus on “living faith” echoes much of what drives the Black Church’s perspective of what it means to follow Jesus. In both traditions, being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a task that requires action – within an individual’s inner life, with one’s peers or partners – action that as Dr. Gehrz notes, from German Pietist August Hermann Francke, makes “faith active in love of others.” Just as Francke demonstrated his commitment to following Jesus by creating orphanages and schools that took in disadvantaged children, so too do Black churches co-develop programming and institutions that can support children (and parents) that are experiencing economic and social devastation. Many of our first Black churches and the pastors and congregants that established them are the result of Jesus followers who made it a priority to create schools where both clergy and laity could learn how to lead other believers, similar to Francke’s own work to build a university that trained pastors, missionaries, and military chaplains. In other words, the Black Church tradition is not new to this idea that following Jesus is done in both word and deed; we cannot follow Jesus unless we commit to facilitating work in the world that reflects the very heart, mind, and spirit of the One we profess to follow.

Such a perspective is helpful in our modern conversation about being a disciple of Jesus because too many people see the Christian faith as lacking the vigor or vitality to make a tangible impact in the world. I am currently interviewing millennials for my dissertation on millennial church engagement, and quite a few respondents have lamented that countless churches and their leadership seem to be overly focused on money and internal church dynamics rather than service outside their walls. The Pietist and Black Church traditions teach me, however, that there is a long tradition of Jesus followers that understand their faith means nothing if it does not spur them to be change agents in their communities. By using the model set forth by Pietists and those in the Black Church, we can challenge those who believe that following Jesus solely means prioritizing personal piety and others who are convinced that Jesus followers have nothing to say about social injustices.

It is important to note that Pietists do not simply act at random or without vision and guidance. Dr. Gehrz writes that for the Pietist, we often find her “seeking God by herself, practicing the solitary piety of private devotions.” To determine what type of work she should participate in, she “prays to a God who is always listening” and “studies scriptures inspired by a God who is always speaking.” By engaging in this centering practice, a disciple of Jesus can increase the likelihood that her action is one not only endorsed but also ordered by the Jesus whom she professes to follow. Jesus followers also realize that to follow Christ is something that begins in the private life. There can be no public demonstration of one’s followship unless she has made the private decision to allow Jesus to orient her thoughts, perspectives, and life goals.

I appreciate Dr. Gehrz’s acknowledgment of this reality because it means that there is no point in which a Jesus follower should be acting on her own accord. This Pietist framework helps us to understand that living for Jesus is not something we pick up, put on, and take off but rather an embodiment of His way and life each day we are graced with life. I do not mean to say that we will be perfect. There will be times when our emotions and desires get the best of us, and we disregard the things of Jesus at best, or completely forget them at worst. However, the Pietist perspective reminds us that our entire life should be structured around that question that became popular on jewelry, particularly wristbands, several years ago – What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)?

Despite the helpful resources that the Pietist life offers when determining what it means to follow Jesus, I did finish Dr. Gehrz’s reflection with one question: how does the Pietist suggest we deal with and pursue collective action to create systemic change? I can clearly see that Pietists support collective action to solve social ills – how else would Francke have been able to create schools, an orphanage, and a publishing house to aid his community if not for the help of others? But each of these efforts appears to try and address the symptom of the ill and not the cause. An orphanage can take care of children who are poor, but it does not necessarily alter the societal conditions that create poor children and the need for orphanages in the first place. A publishing house can provide affordable resources, but it does not appear to decrease the ever-increasing cost of goods that widen the gulf between the wealthy and everyone else.

I realize that systemic change is difficult. It is much easier to run a soup kitchen than to solve the problem of food insecurity or rectify a food dessert that is preventing access to healthy food options in communities. However, the Black Church tradition was founded and continues to be driven by an emphasis on the structural changes need to address the economic, social, and political gaps that exist in our society. More importantly, when Jesus flipped tables in the temple, I argue it was his attempt to upend unjust economic policies that highlighted inequalities among the people and took people’s attention from worshipping God. To follow Jesus then is to be concerned with and pursue solutions to undo the structural oppression we all live under. How can Pietists be thought partners along with other followers of Jesus in making this world more just and inclusive for all?

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