Always Reforming, Always Planting

Among other upcoming speaking engagements, I’m eager to return to Bethlehem Covenant Church in Minneapolis for a multi-day seminar (February 9-11) entitled Always Reforming: The Pietist Option for Covenanters and Other Protestants. The title comes from the venerable, vexing Protestant idea that the church is “reformed, and always reforming” (ecclesia semper reformanda est).

It’s a line I’ve used often the last two years. For example, anticipating the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses, in October 2016 I suggested that “[i]f we Protestants are ‘reformed and always reforming,’ then commemorating the Reformation should cause us not so much to celebrate the past as to renew our mission and ministry in the present.” At least my branch of Protestants, “always reforming” is as essential as the solas: “For Pietists, the Protestant Reformation was both an inspiring and cautionary tale: a religious awakening that never fulfilled its early potential…. Protestants shaped by the Pietist ethos can never — on this side of Christ’s return — regard reformation as a finished project.”

So I was struck to see that editor Mark Safstrom starts his introduction to the new issue of the journal Pietisten with ecclesia semper reformanda est. (The issue also features my “elevator talk” for the Pietist Option, plus a nice review of our book from Covenant pastor Ryan Eikenbary-Barber.) But Mark rightly pointed out that “always reforming” is easier said than done:

Mark Safstrom
Mark is teaches Scandinavian studies at Augustana College

The difficulty in seeing what needs reform in any age comes when we settle into comfortable pictures of past reformers… A new generation faces a different context, and must continually adjust their perspective on historical reform movements in order to appreciate how that heritage of reform applies today.

It’s precisely why I’ve always wrestled with the goal of seeking a “usable past” in the history of Pietism, and why I was so eager to see our book take shape not so much as a history of any past movement — but as a way to “leaven” new movements of reform and renewal whose participants will have to figure out what the Pietist Option means in their particular context. If Søren Kierkegaard was right that the next Luther “would need to be the complete opposite of the original Luther” (quoting Mark’s paraphrase), then Pietists in the 21st century shouldn’t strive to mimic Spener or Francke, or even C.O. Rosenius or P.P. Waldenström (the two Swedish Pietists who we quoted occasionally by way of Mark’s translations).

Then I’m even more glad that Mark spent most of his column reflecting on another slogan: the church must be “always planting.”

Now, “church planting” in the 21st century can conjure images of religious entrepreneurs self-consciously breaking with recent history to start fresh. I value that approach, but I think what Mark meant by “always planting” is actually closer to an analogy I once drew in a post celebrating the life of longtime Pietisten contributor Glen Wiberg, whose tenure at a series of decades-old churches reminded me

of the importance of tending spiritual gardens that were surviving scorching summers and frigid winters long before we arrived and began our plotting. As he and his generation of pastors and leaders end their days, I pray that those of us who take their places can steward God’s grace with equal faith.

Hawkinson, Anatomy of the Pilgrim ExperienceSo I appreciate that Mark turned to the late great Covenant historian Zenos Hawkinson, who once wrote about the challenge of uprooting, planting, fencing, and managing the Swedish immigrant churches that stemmed from the revivals of Rosenius and Waldenström. This analogy, Mark continues, “symbolized the alternating need to break with the past, to prioritize what to keep, to account for loss and change, and to protect fledgling institutions vulnerable to assault.”

Where we are in the life of our denomination and the larger church in America is up for debate, but Mark is no doubt right that

Successful planting and reforming both require a long-term, active commitment. So-called “slack-tivism” is really useless here. It is easy to have opinions and criticize, easy to be exasperated, and easy to uproot and dismantle…. What it takes to plant, sustain, and reform a church is a different personality, the committed churchman and churchwoman, who keeps showing up to keep the lights on and make the coffee, let alone advocate for the marginalized and make needed changes.

The challenge, of course, is that such churchwomen and men can be most fearful of the uprooting that can arise from the “always reforming” impulse. We (I include myself among their number) are tempted to make decisions not out of a transformative encounter with God’s Word or our conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit, but out of a fear of losing ground that we have inherited and tended so faithfully.

With that paradox in mind, may God grant us the prudence and courage, hope and wisdom required to be both always reforming and always planting — and his grace and mercy when we fail at either task.