The Pietist Option for a Multiethnic Church

My denomination has its share of problems, but two things about the Evangelical Covenant Church make me hopeful for its future. First, it has generally done better than any other American church body at living out the “Pietist option” that Covenant pastor Mark Pattie and I sketched last year, in a book by that name for InterVarsity Press. Second, the ECC has generally done better than most historically European American churches in becoming the “multiethnic movement” that it calls itself. It’s not just that there are more and more ECC congregations where people of color make up the majority of members, but this summer, two more African American pastors will move into positions of denominational leadership, as Lance Davis becomes Executive Minister of Develop Leaders/Ordered Ministry and Catherine Gilliard succeeds Robert Owens as superintendent of our Southeast Conference.

Lance Davis
Lance Davis – New Covenant Church (Dolton, IL)

Sometimes, these two distinctives converge. Here’s how Davis explained his appreciation of the Covenant in an interview conducted earlier this year:

What I love most about the Covenant family is the people. I appreciate both clergy and lay who have helped in further shaping me as a leader but also accepted me as a brother and friend. I love the fact that we are traditional but not rigid, congregational yet not independent, and biblical but not doctrinaire. I talk about the Covenant wherever I go, and I generally speak on our pietistic roots and heritage and how that’s being played out in contemporary society.

But too often, I fear, talk of “pietistic roots and heritage” in the Covenant comes across as being synonymous with “Swedish roots and heritage” — reducing Pietism to a legacy of an immigrant past that white Covenanters like me are tempted to see through the haze of nostalgia. And I’m not sure that our book did enough to dispel this assumption, since it was written by two white authors who primarily quoted other white authors — and were endorsed by still more white authors.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough before publication to address this problem. Right away, I should have done more than mention that the influence of Pietism spread to places as far from Germany and Sweden as India, the Caribbean, and West Africa. I should have done more than allude to the work of scholars like Valerie Cooper, Peter Heltzel, Mark Dixon, and Jon Sensbach in connecting Pietism to the history of the black church.

Most importantly of all, I should have explained why aspects of our “Pietist option” may resonate most strongly with the historical and contemporary experiences of Christians who are not of European descent.

So let me suggest three reasons why the Pietist option is especially relevant for those seeking a multiethnic church.

1. Pietism is experiential Christianity, primarily concerned with making faith active in love

• …what we believe matters… Intellectual propositions are needed. But they’re not enough. Before we attempt to make theological sense of God and after intellectual certainty gives way to mystery and paradox, we experience life in, with, through, under, and for God. Christians who lose sight of this, who crave the certainty of fixed propositions, risk sliding into what Pietists call “dead orthodoxy.”

• It’s one thing to have the propositional faith… It’s another thing to actually be walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death and have to call on the Power of God.

Shelton & Emerson, Blacks and Whites in Christian AmericaThat’s me in the first quotation, introducing one of the basic instincts of the Pietist ethos to readers of our book. Then the second comes from a black Pentecostal minister interviewed by sociologists Jason Shelton and Michael Emerson (another Covenanter) for their 2012 book on Blacks and Whites in Christian America. For Shelton and Emerson, the first of five “building blocks of black Protestant faith” is that it is “active and experiential… less concerned with precise doctrinal contours than is white mainline or evangelical Christianity.” Or as the late James Cone told them:

Without your works, faith is dead, and blacks believe that. So they believe faith and how you live it is inseparable from the ethics, how you treat others. Whites don’t look at it that way. They look at it by what they believe. Their faith is defined by their beliefs—believe in the Trinity, believe in this, believe in God the Father, God the Son, believe in that.

This “active and experiential Christianity” should sound familiar to anyone who identifies with Pietism. For example, in ch. 5 of The Pietist Option, Mark took inspiration from Philipp Spener’s insistence that “it is by no means enough to have knowledge of the Christian faith, for Christianity consists rather of practice.” Mark didn’t mean to devalue the intellectual side of faith (and Shelton, Emerson, and their subjects all emphasized that they were engaging in generalizations), but he affirmed “what we are offered in Christ and called to do for Christ is all that and much more… A living faith—one that is continuing to grow according to God’s formative power—bears fruit. It shows up in how life is lived, in what the hands do.”

Yet such an integrated, living faith is rarer than we’d like to admit. The Pentecostal pastor interviewed by Emerson and Shelton thought that blacks look at white evangelicalism and “haven’t necessarily seen a consistency of behavior with that belief… you can proclaim to believe something, but if your action doesn’t conform to that belief, that portrays the fact that you really don’t believe whatever it is that you say you believe in.”

Which just made me think of my oft-repeated line that the Pietist option is not simply to believe in the Resurrection, but to live as if you believe in it — making that intellectual faith come alive in practical acts of love towards God and neighbor.

2. Pietism values Christian unity more than doctrinal precision

Precisely because they tend to be “less concerned with precise doctrinal contours,” I suspect that the experiential Christians studied by Emerson and Shelton would understand well what I called “Pietists’ dismay [that] Jesus’ call to unity [in John 17:20-23] has often gone unheeded by Christians who can’t agree with each other about propositions…. that failure has dire implications for Christian witness and mission…”

Gideon Tsang
Gideon Tsang – Vox Veniae

In an earlier post on the Pietism and the Covenant Church, I shared the story of Vox Veniae, a multiethnic church in Austin, Texas founded by a Chinese-American pastor named Gideon Tsang. That congregation chose to join the ECC not only because of the denomination’s longstanding commitment to make faith active in love of neighbors (“We receive love so that we can love well… Ingrained in the DNA of the community is the reciprocation of God’s mercy”) but because Vox shares the “humble ecumenical posture” of a denomination that has always tried both to hold “to orthodoxy and agree to disagree on issues that others have split over.”

In fact, Covenant historian Kurt Peterson has argued (in a 2009 article in The Covenant Quarterly) that this pietistic instinct that we are “better together” has helped the ECC become more multiethnic:

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.

3. Pietism has no interest in preserving a white American “Christendom”

In Blacks and Whites in Christian America, Shelton and Emerson hear from a Baptist preacher in Cleveland who “feels that beginning with slavery, many whites have remained committed to a particular set of evangelical beliefs that they often violate in practice.”

Why have white Christians in America so often violated in practice their stated beliefs? Fundamentally, it’s because such actions are often necessary to preserve their version of what’s often called Christendom: a hypocritical artifice that takes the name of Christ but often acts in un-Christ-like ways, robing desire for power — and fear at the loss of power — in the sound and sight of piety.

But Pietists have no use for a nominal Christianity that has resentment, anxiety, and conformity at its core. As I wrote in an earlier book:

Pietists at all times and in all places seek a more authentic Christianity: not inherited or assumed, coerced or affected, but lived out through the transformative experiences of conversion and regeneration.

Far from being nervous about the dying of what Robert Jones has called “White Christian America,” Pietists should welcome its decline and hope for better times for the church.

So yes, the Pietist option is especially relevant for those seeking a multiethnic church.

In fact, I think I’d go a step further and say this:

The multiethnic church is the most likely to live out the Pietist option

Adapted from a talk given at First Covenant Church (St. Paul, MN) on April 29, 2018.