The Pietist Option in Practice: The Evangelical Covenant Church

We’re still three months away from publication, but endorsements are already coming in for The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of ChristianityFor example, here’s what Dave Kersten wrote:

Gehrz & Pattie, The Pietist OptionThis is a very helpful book, introducing and reintroducing historical pietism to the contemporary church. Grounded in history, as it is modeled after Philipp Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria, it is pastorally wise, sensitive, and missionally relevant. Pietism offers a vital faith for the head, the heart, and the hands. Perhaps this provocative and winsome book will allow us to claim a usable past to further the mission and ministry of the church today.

Dave is the dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago: Mark’s alma mater, and the seminary for our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). So while we appreciate all the kind words from endorsers, it’s particularly gratifying to hear from Dave. For if anyone knows what the Pietist option looks like in practice, it’s our sisters and brothers in the Covenant.

Last week I realized again just how deeply Pietism is woven into our denomination’s DNA, when I helped teach a Covenant history course for pastors seeking ordination in the ECC. I had to miss the first sessions, when Mark Safstrom walked students through Pia Desideria, plus a biography of August Hermann Francke and his own translations of two 19th century Swedish Pietists and Covenant forebears: C.O. Rosenius and P.P. Waldenström. But as I joined the class for discussion of more recent decades, I was struck how often Pietism had helped Covenanters navigate the troubled waters of American religious history — and how much Pietism’s emphases resonated with pastors who had been drawn, for reasons they couldn’t always understand, to the Covenant Church. Once more I thought of something that our denomination’s president, Gary Walter, wrote in 2010:

Pietism is the spiritual renewal movement out of which the ECC was birthed. In contrast to mere intellectual agreement with an externalized creed that could have no impact on a person’s heart, it recaptured the importance of a living, deeply personal, ever-growing relationship with God. Pietists are committed to both the new and ever-deepening life in Christ. This approach is intrinsic, and indispensible [sic], to our ongoing identity.

Often I hear people newer to the ECC say, “I’ve been Covenant all along—I just didn’t know it.” I think what they are really saying is, “I’ve been a Pietist all along—I just didn’t know it.” What resonates is our devotional approach to an orthodox faith more than the orthodoxy alone.

Now, the Covenant is a small denomination, but a remarkably diverse one. It’s not composed solely of churches like Mark’s and mine, Salem Covenant, a large suburban congregation that was founded over 125 years ago by Swedish immigrants and retains a predominantly European American membership. As many as a quarter of ECC congregations are multi-ethnic or composed primarily of African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, or Latinos. And the current crop of Covenant church planters is exploring a seemingly infinite number of ways of doing worship, mission, and life together, often back in urban neighborhoods like the one Salem left in 1970.

Abbey Way Covenant logoFor example: Abbey Way Covenant, a small congregation that meets in the chapel of an old Swedish Baptist church in Northeast Minneapolis, just around the corner from Salem’s former location. Pastored by two women in a denomination where that’s still too rare, Abbey Way worships in such a way that one hears both the old sounds of folk-gospel guitar and the older sounds of ancient liturgies. (When I visited yesterday, we celebrated Communion while listening to an Iris Dement song about the Parable of the Good Samaritan.)

Abbey Way is inspired by the original Benedict option, taking its structure “from the wisdom of the Benedictine tradition” and adapting The Rule of St. Benedict “to form our life together in our shared spiritual practices, corporate rhythms and intentional relationships.”

But its people also follow the Pietist option:

We are also a member of the Covenant Church with its rich pietistic tradition. Growing out of the renewal—and ultimately the reformation—of the church in the 1500s, the Covenant’s familial connections are traced to Martin Luther (1483-1546) father of the Lutherans and with the lesser known, Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705), August Hermann Francke (1663-1727) and Nicholas Ludwig: Count von Zinzendorf (1700-1760), German Pietists of Godly nobility with long reaching insight….

As a member of the Evangelical Covenant Church, Abbey Way finds affinity with the early Pietists and the renewal movement they were part of in the Lutheran Church. As passionate followers of Jesus, they discovered what it meant to worship and support each other separate from what was familiar to them. As a church plant, this willingness to venture off the known path into the the call of Jesus is part of our history also. With a desire to know and be known by others in our community in our devotion for Christ, we find kinship with the pietist impulse and the continuing history of the Covenant Church as it is has grown from the solid branches from the tree of Christ’s Church.

Then even more remarkably, it’s been refreshing to find that the Covenant’s version of Pietism resonates so strongly with congregations whose members have no historic connection to German or Swedish revivals. Indeed, in a 2009 article in The Covenant Quarterly, historian Kurt Peterson argued that Pietism helps explain how a historically Swedish American denomination could draw more persons of color:

By focusing on unity through the Holy Spirit and downplaying the role of confessional creeds, the Pietist Mission Friends who made up the Covenant created a church “as big as the New Testament” which would welcome Swedish immigrants into an ethnic community and reach the lost for Christ. It was this non-creedalism that would attract future generations of “new ethnics” to the Covenant in the 1980s and 1990s—ethnic communities looking for a denominational home that affirmed broadly evangelical orthodoxy but avoided potentially exclusivist confessions. This commitment to broad boundaries allowed the Covenant to welcome newcomers when the age of massive European immigration ended, and its church communities became increasingly ethnically diverse.

One more example: in last week’s Covenant history class, I mentioned Vox Veniae, a church in Austin, Texas that was originally Chinese American but has attracted a more diverse membership in recent years. As a 2013 New York Times profile noted, Vox joined the ECC in 2011, which “means that Vox Veniae is a multiracial church that began with Chinese roots and has recently acquired Swedish Lutheran roots.”

Sunday school in the 1950s at the Iglesia Evangelica Misionera of La Villa, Texas
The first Hispanic congregation in the Covenant formed just after World War II in La Villa, Texas (about 300 miles south of Austin) – Covenant Archives

At its website, Vox explains its affiliation with the ECC in part by emphasizing two themes that run through our forthcoming book on the Pietist option. First, the “theological humility” that stems from the non-creedalism Kurt stressed: “Since its origins, the Covenant ethos has been to hold to orthodoxy and agree to disagree on issues that others have split over. Within this larger community you will find a diversity of theological preferences. Vox shares this humble ecumenical posture.” But also, the commitment to making “faith active in love” that Covenanters inherited from Francke: “We receive love so that we can love well. One of the first expressions of the Covenant Church in Chicago in the late 1800’s were ministries to take care of the poor, orphans and the elderly. Ingrained in the DNA of the community is the reciprocation of God’s mercy.” (Which also happened to be the theme of the sermon yesterday at Abbey Way.)

So I remain convinced that Mark and I were right to write that “if you were to show people what it looks like to choose the Pietist option in contemporary America — for better and for worse — you couldn’t do much better than to show them… the Covenant.”