My Visit to Messiah College

Ever since I entered the world of Christian higher education, I’ve been bumping into people connected to Messiah College. And that pattern has only amplified since I started researching Pietism. So it was perhaps inevitable that I would find my way to Grantham, PA…

It was a rich, full day yesterday at Messiah. Let me just share some highlights:

• After breakfast with my excellent host, Devin Manzullo-Thomas (director of the Sider Institute of Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan Studies), I gave an elective chapel talk to a mix of students and faculty, on “New Persons, New Church, New World: Pietism and Today’s Christian College.”

Those titular themes should be familiar to anyone who read my conclusion to our book, The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education. But I came back to them with fresh eyes after hearing our pastor preach on John 20:19-31 earlier this spring… I focused on the first and last verses:

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you”….

…these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This far into Eastertide, it’s so easy for the brilliance of the resurrection dawn to fade from our sight. Like the disciples — two of whom had seen the empty tomb; almost all of whom had heard Mary Magdalene’s testimony about meeting the risen Christ — we live as if the story ends with crucifixion. We live in fear, in the absence of peace.

But if Pietism affirms anything, it’s that the Resurrection leaves nothing unchanged. Truly, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17). And that’s got to have enormous implications for educators, who constantly straddle the boundary between being and becoming.

My laptop as people gathered for the "New Persons, New Church, New World" talk

• Lunch brought an informal colloquy with several of Messiah’s fine faculty. It was especially good to see Jake and Rhonda Jacobsen, whose appearance at Bethel in the summer of 2006 sparked this entire project of mine, and Jenell Paris, my former Bethel colleague who contributed a chapter to our book on love-learning integration. Our conversation touched on sin, holiness, shalom, Messiah’s other traditions (Anabaptism and Wesleyanism), and whether “Pietism” was a useful term (perhaps having outlived some of its negative baggage) or a stumbling block.

• Taking a break from Pietism talk for an hour, I enjoyed meeting David Pettegrew, Messiah’s ancient historian and director of digital humanities. He took me inside Messiah’s exciting Digital Harrisburg project, and we shared dreams for how DH can energize student and faculty work in fields like history at schools like Bethel and Messiah.

• Supper brought another kind of colloquy, this one featuring students, alumni, and faculty of Messiah’s master’s program in higher education. We shared a conversation that ranged from online education to the nature of community to the implications of Pietism for higher ed administration.

(I also want to thank provost Randy Basinger and campus pastor Don Opitz for taking part in this and other events on my schedule! They asked great, tough questions and listened graciously as I fumbled for responses.)

• The night ended with a public talk on Pietism and the church. I appealed to metaphors for how Pietism has “sweetened” or “leavened” traditions like the Brethren in Christ (BIC), suggested how Pietism holds promise for the future of evangelicalism, and introduced our audience to the “missional Pietists” of my own denomination.

Grantham Church
Grantham Church, a large Brethren in Christ congregation just steps from Messiah’s campus

“Does Pietism Offer a ‘Usable Past’ for Churches Today?”, asked my talk’s title. “Yes,” I concluded, “but…”

While I do believe that there is much that is distinctive and valuable about the Pietist tradition, growing tensions within my denomination have me wondering if our distinctive approach to reading Scripture and our deep commitment to “freedom in Christ” will survive debates over human sexuality and same-sex marriage.

But in any event, I appreciated the good questions and insightful comments from those in attendance — especially the Covenant pastor serving a nearby BIC church and the man in an Eagles jersey who skipped the first ten picks of the first round of the NFL draft to come hear a talk about Pietism!

Devin Manzullo-Thomas introducing my talk on Pietism and churches
Thanks again to Devin for being an excellent host!

2 thoughts on “My Visit to Messiah College

  1. Your visit was catalytic to much good thought and potential action. Sweetening, indeed. Rather than just give us facts about these admirable forbears, you embodied their wholistic ministry to us. Thanks to God, to you for coming and to Devin for arranging it.

    1. Amen! Great to meet you in person Chris 🙂 Looking forward to connecting further in the future. May God richly bless your next steps as you love/serve God with head, heart, and hands . . . flowing into love/service of neighbor as part of the Body of Christ. To God be the glory!

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