After a midwinter break, Mark Pattie and I are preparing to record the next podcast in our series thinking aloud through the book we’re writing for InterVarsity Press, tentatively called Hope for Better Times: Pietism and the Future of Christianity. The structure of our book will mirror that of Pia Desideria, the 1675 booklet published by the Lutheran pastor Philipp Jakob Spener, the founder of German Pietism.
So as we move from our initial three-episode introduction into the actual outline of the book, we first come to our version of Spener’s chapter that begins with these words: (as translated by Theodore Tappert)
If, in accordance with our Savior’s admonition to interpret the signs of the times and their character, we observe the present condition of Christendom as a whole through Christian and somewhat enlightened eyes, we may well burst for with the plaintive sounds of Jeremiah 9:1, “O that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people.” Even in an early golden age of the church a dear old father could say, “Good God, for what times hast thou preserved me!” In our day we have much more reason to repeat such words, or rather to sigh them, for the greater the distress the more one is at a loss for words.
Much as Mark and I want to emphasize the virtue of hope… If we’re to follow Spener’s lead, we must pause at the outset to ask some version of his opening question: “Where is there an estate of which we can boast that it is in such a condition as Christian precepts demand?” Even if we don’t identify the same problems that he saw in 1675 (I’m sure we won’t join him in starting with an anti-Catholic invective against the “the anti-Christian Babel”), we wouldn’t be suggesting that a Pietist ethos offers individual Christians, the church, and the world “hope for better times” if we didn’t think that there was dire need for reform, revival, and renewal.
When we were divvying up the outline late last year, I signed up to be the primary author of this chapter. But I can’t say I’m all that excited to write it.
Chastened by a few blog readers who found my responses to two Christian college presidents to be harsh, self-righteous, and uncharitable, near the end of our first podcast I shared my greatest fear about this entire book project:
…we’re talking about the future of Christianity. And there are times when I wonder if that’s really a pulpit I want to climb into. It’s awfully easy to critique Christianity right now; it’s awfully easy to write a book or do a podcast saying here’s the solution… How do you do this in a way that’s appropriate to the kind of tone we want to set: that it’s irenic… it’s peaceable and it’s humble and it’s loving and it’s hopeful. And at the same time, I think there are things we need to critique…. At a certain point we’re going to have to stand in judgment on things that are happening out there in the church, in society, as Christians engage with politics and the culture wars. I’m always a little leery of taking that posture…
Now here we are, on the verge of recording a discussion of what’s wrong with Christianity in the year of our Lord 2016. And I’m still leery.
Fortunately, Mark (who is my pastor, after all, as well as my co-author) had responded to my first episode anxiety with this pastoral counsel:
It’s certainly something I think about. You talk about a vision for what we hope to accomplish, and ultimately that it would be helpful to all. But kind of scaling that all the way back to where I’m beginning and going to be living in many ways is: How can this be helpful to me? How can this be helpful… in terms helping my own children deal with a living faith in the midst of the social issues and complex challenges and polarization…? How do I help my children navigate that? How do I navigate that? How do I help our church navigate that? How do I help, to the degree I can, my denomination navigate that?
As I wrestle with those very real questions, knowing we’re not going to do this perfectly… that’s going to be my goal. I think when I preach, when I prepare my sermons, I’m always asking God, “What’s your word for me? And then, okay, what’s your word through me? What can I share with others that may be helpful, by the grace of your Spirit…?
…So even as I think about the judgment of God on the church, or as I think about what critiques we may need to speak about the church, they’ll come from that place… I’m a part of the church, I’m a part of this thing. I have that tendency, too. What is the word of judgment for me, for us?
So as we prepare to record our “What’s wrong?” podcast next Monday (to premiere on iTunes next Thursday), I’m asking God, “What’s your word for me?” Only then, once I can be honest about the present condition of Chris, should I attempt to be honest about the present condition of Christendom. Only then dare I ask what God might be speaking through me.
So pray for me, that I might be able to hear his word clearly — especially as it confronts me with shortcomings I’d rather ignore. But also, knowing that God sometimes speaks through others… Let me reiterate what I said at the end of our most recent podcast, and invite you to share your own concerns about the state of Christianity here and now. As you feel led, please leave a comment to that effect.
But let me suggest that you do so only after you yourself have first asked God, “What’s your word for me?”