It is the Pietism That Brings Faith Alive: A Baptist Response

Reading Christopher Gehrz’s essay about pietism, I was once again reminded of my primal Baptist experience, a bit of which I have narrated in an earlier post. His essay helps clarify for me that pietism was alive and well in that Baptist congregation in northern Virginia in the late 1970s. I was taught that the Christian life was definitely NOT mainly about doctrine, or about ritual, or about tradition, and certainly not about politics, but instead about a vital, living relationship with Jesus Christ.

We too were taught to come to church not just to learn things but to draw near to Jesus, to feel that spark of connection, to sense the “sweet, sweet” Holy Spirit descending on the community and on the individual Christian heart. We too were taught to get up every morning, read Scripture and pray fervently. A day could not begin well without that practice. We too were invited into (multiple) small group experiences every week. And we too were instructed to demonstrate this vital, loving, heartbeat of faith in our daily interactions with others.

I continue to be struck by the legacy of pietism in one of the most crucial and distinctive primal Baptist practices that I experienced. It was not uncommon — indeed it was quite common — to be asked to speak extemporaneously in a Bible study, Sunday School class, or even public church service, to narrate “what Jesus was doing” in our lives, how he “showed up” this week, what the Spirit was teaching or telling one or more of us. We learned so much from this practice, including the very fact of it — Christians were just the kinds of people who could offer such storytelling at the drop of a hat.

Even in more formal settings, such as ministerial ordination councils or job interviews for academic posts, often the very first inquiry looked like this: “Would you please share your testimony with our committee?” And that did not mean testifying under oath, but instead telling the story of how one came to enjoy a vivid personal relationship with Jesus and what it meant today. Think about that. The first question was not about an academic c.v., publishing history, or point of doctrine, but whether we could offer a pious testimony.

Such testimonies could not be evaluated objectively. But evaluating was going on nonetheless. I would say that testimonies were tested primarily for feelings such as passion, vitality, and devotion. The sisters and brothers needed to get to, or near, the “heart” of the candidate, to sense a kind of shared heartbeat, a resonance of devotion and Spirit. They wanted to be able to “sense” that this person was a “true Christian.” That was essential before the newbie could be admitted into full, trusting participation in the community. And the expectation was not just pious feelings, but a pious life. A devout person living a devout life, not just by churchgoing and praying but through high standards of morality.

This background, filtered through Brother Gehrz’s essay, helps me clarify why I find coldhearted, coldblooded, doctrinaire, politicized, and sometimes amoral Christian folks — so visible in our context and this moment — to be so completely befuddling. You see, I was taught that being a Christian was a matter of the heart, of the Spirit, and the spirit, of the LIFE. And that a healthy Christian community could only be sustained when this expectation of true heart-religion, lived religion, was expected of everyone. Being a Christian is certainly about more than affirming orthodoxy, voting for the right party, and owning the libs. How did so many so badly lose their way?

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