Thanks to Mark Pattie for sharing these reflections on the 2016 Bethel Colloquium on Pietism, held earlier this month at Bethel University. Mark is senior pastor at Salem Covenant Church in New Brighton, MN and my co-author on a forthcoming book about Pietism in the 21st century (stay tuned for more details in the New Year).
“A living faith” is a phrase I heard repeatedly at Bethel University’s recent Colloquium on Pietism. Looking back at it from the vantage point of Christmas, I am reminded that God seems often to be working in our world by offering unspeakably wonderful gifts, so worthy of celebrating in the moment, yet still needing to be nurtured, protected, encouraged, loved, and raised up to fulfill their God-given potential. Like the Christ child himself, our faith is such a gift. I was grateful for how the colloquium’s presenters and the conversations surrounding the event offered insight into how to nurture it.
A living thing like our faith is affected by the circumstances in which it lives, something Dr. Mark Granquist made clear. It was fascinating to hear about the cross-fertilization across nations and continents that took place in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Not surprisingly, there were different influences, different challenges, and different ways the living faith developed in each century and in the various parts of the world in which it grew. Migration, mission work, the sharing of hymnody across borders and oceans, war and the insights of prisoners of war returning home — all this and more shaped the spiritual awakenings of each century and the Pietists who were a part of them. In our day, it seems many are inclined to think that Christian faith, understanding, and practice should be static and never changing. It is well worth noting that the faith of our forebears was lively, dynamic, and ever responding to the challenges of life and the varying perspectives brought to the table by the larger body of Christ.
Dr. Mark Safstrom spoke about how the Pietists nurtured their living faith through Bible reading. Seeking to “read like Luther,” Pietists such as C.O. Rosenius and P.P. Waldenström sought to read the Scriptures intensely and thoughtfully, wrestling with them and asking existential questions. They encouraged people to read the Bible personally, with their families, and in small groups (conventicles). This is, of course, one of the places the Pietists were challenging the current order of things, as many of these small groups met without clergy present. Safstrom pointed out that such a challenge to authority was also present in Waldenström’s proposal for a different understanding of the atonement than that generally held by the church. Again, for me, looking to these forebears of our faith encouraged the thought that leaving room for differences of opinion and the inevitable challenges that come with them is necessary for a living faith to stay alive, healthy, and growing. [Ed. – Here’s a sneak peek at Mark’s own chapter on Scripture in our forthcoming book.]
That our living faith must bear fruit was the theme of Rev. Efrem Smith’s presentation/sermon.“Missional Pietism is when what is happening in your soul goes public,” he emphasized. Looking to Allan Boesak, Efrem warned against a quiet pietism of the kind that allowed apartheid to continue despite the deep personal faith of so many. At the same time, Efrem made it clear that the active engagement in the mission of God must be grounded in life-giving intimacy with God. Reminding us of Martin Luther King Jr.’s experience of encountering God late one night at his kitchen table when he was ready to give up, Efrem urged us to nurture our personal experience with God and allow it to overflow into how we live and serve.
It was this call to live and serve in the midst of a broken world that Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom encouraged us to take up. She looked to the small groups, or conventicles, that the Pietists championed as a model for how we can engage in reparative justice. Giving several examples of clergy and lay people who led the way in gathering people to read the Scriptures together, she noted how the conventicles were spaces in which rich and poor, men and women, educated and those less so could meet together on level ground. Giving the contemporary example of classes she teaches for North Park Seminary students and incarcerated inmates at a state prison, she spoke of the mutually powerful and transformative experience all participants have as they meet together. “We meet as a kind of conventicle group,” Michelle shared. Reading God’s Word, we “allow it to enliven our faith together.” In humility together in Christ and before the Scriptures, all have a voice, and every voice is important and listened to. In the space of the conventicle, the power dynamics and social rankings of the world are flattened, unity in Christ rather than in human sameness is celebrated, and conversion, personal transformation, and the common good are sought. Further, reading together in conventicles encouraged people, whatever their social status, to put the principles they talked about in the group into practice in the world.
The final portion of the colloquium was a preview of a film documentary Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and Mark Safstrom are working: God’s Glory, Neighbor’s Good: The Story of Pietism. It was a great way to cap our time together and I look forward to seeing the finished product.
What I walked out most excited about, though, was something that ultimately won’t be finished until Christ’s return. It is the living faith we kept talking about: one that is not afraid, but rather ever-hopeful, adventurous, patient, and, in the words of Galatians 5:6, “expressing itself in love.”
There is so much more I’d like to share from the experience, but maybe the best I can offer is encouragement to take a look and listen to it yourself. The presentations are all available to watch online and are well worth checking out. My thanks to Bethel University and all who were a part of a great event.
– Rev. Mark Pattie
Click here to read another reflection on the same event, by Tim Johnson.