The Pietist Impulse in the 21st Century

Bethlehem Covenant ChurchNext weekend those of you who live in the Twin Cities can put a voice to the words you’ve read on this blog by coming to Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis, where I’ll be leading the annual Winter Seminar. In classes Friday night (Feb. 8) and the following morning, then during Bethlehem’s Sunday School hour, I’ll be leading discussion of the historical and contemporary relevance of Pietism. (I’ll also be preaching on Luke 9:28-45, following the narrative lectionary.)

I’m calling the seminar Pious Wishes and Better Times: The Pietist Impulse in the 21st Century, appropriating two phrases from the Lutheran pastor who inaugurated the Pietist movement in 17th century Germany. Here’s the blurb I wrote for promotion:

In 1675 a German pastor named Philipp Spener published a small book detailing his “pious wishes” for a more active, biblically literate laity, more holistic education in universities and seminaries, more accessible preaching from pulpits, and a more irenic spirit prevailing in a divided church. Above all, he promoted a Christianity that was experienced and practiced, not just believed and professed: what his critics called “Pietism.”

Over three centuries after Spener started this movement, we’ll consider how Pietism is attracting new attention today, and how it offers what Spener called “hope for better times,” for both the church and the world.

While I’ll give a historical sketch of German Pietism and other manifestations of the “Pietist impulse” in other times and places, I want to spend most of our time looking to the present day, asking Spener-like questions of our own time, our own churches, our own society. Saving one pious wish (for educational reform) and Spener’s concern that the world, not just the Church, experience “better times” for Saturday, we’ll spend most of our time Friday night considering whether Pietism provides hope for “better times” for the church in the 21st century.

As I indicated yesterday morning, I’m always more comfortable delivering a lecture than leading discussion, but in this case, I think open-ended conversation will provide a more appropriate start to the seminar.

So I’m going to ask readers to do something that doesn’t happen all that often at The Pietist Schoolman and comment! (here, or if it’s easier, on my Facebook page) I’m looking for preliminary responses to the following questions, taken from Spener’s Pia Desideria but now asked of the church today (particularly, I think, of evangelicalism):

Philipp Spener
Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) – Wikimedia

• Even when he focused on his own wing of Christianity (“our Evangelical church, which according to its outward confession embraces the precious and pure gospel”), Spener lamented that “we cannot turn our eyes upon it without having quickly to cast them down again in shame and distress” (p. 40). Do you find yourself having a similar response to contemporary American Christianity? What disturbs you most about it?

At the same time, Spener’s reading of Scripture left him possessing “no doubt that God promised his church here on earth a better state than this” (p. 76). How hopeful are you that the church can be reformed? Why do you feel that optimistic or pessimistic?

• Then Spener closed by “[making] bold to set down here on paper what, on the basis of pious reflection and the guidance of the Scriptures, I think is useful and necessary” (p. 86): i.e., the six proposals for reform that he hoped would “correct conditions in the church.” They were…

  1. Seeking “a more extensive use of the Word of God among us” (pp. 87-92)
  2. Engaging in the “the establishment and diligent exercise of the spiritual priesthood” (or, the “priesthood of all believers”) (pp. 92-95)
  3. Teaching that “it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice” (pp. 95-97)
  4. Taking care “how we conduct ourselves in religious controversies…” (e.g., extending “heartfelt love” towards “unbelievers and heretics” and seeking Christian unity with a minimum of “disputation”) (pp. 97-102)
  5. Reform of schools and universities so that they would serve as “nurseries of the church” and “workshops of the Holy Spirit” (pp. 103-115 — Spener was addressing the training of pastors, but on Saturday, I’ll range more broadly and suggest how Pietism can shape Christian education for the laity)
  6. Reform of preaching (“The pulpit is not the place for an ostentatious display of one’s skill. It is rather the place to preach the Word of the Lord plainly but powerfully. Preaching should be the divine means to save the people, and so it is proper that everything be directed to this end.”) (pp. 115-118)

How useful are these proposals as a basis for reform of the church today? Do one or two jump out at you as being especially relevant nowadays?

Thanks for your help! And I’ll hope to see you at Bethlehem Covenant on Feb. 8-10.


2 thoughts on “The Pietist Impulse in the 21st Century

  1. Reform of preaching (“The pulpit is not the place for an ostentatious display of one’s skill. It is rather the place to preach the Word of the Lord plainly but powerfully. Preaching should be the divine means to save the people, and so it is proper that everything be directed to this end.”) (pp. 115-118)

    This is a big one for me. Those preachers who are regarded as having the best skills tend to talk far too much and stray so far from the bible that most of us lose the connection. And in an effort to avoid stepping on toes, they couch their point so vaguely that it is lost in the murk of their erudition.

    The lecture may not be dead but it must change because people no longer have the patience for it. Educational research showed a long time ago that lecture without immediate hands-on application BY THE LEARNER is the least effective form of instruction. But the narcissists who love to be on stage will never believe the evidence, so we are stuck with waiting till they are done talking on Sunday mornings. More effective is a simple, brief and direct restatement and interpretation of the biblical text. Some folks in the congregation will feel they are not getting enough value from the pastor’s salary, but most will be delighted with a shorter sermon. We get to sing more. A preacher who can’t make his point in ten minutes does not know his trade.

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