“Generous, Humble, and Free”: A Pietist Vision for the Church

It was a year ago now that the annual meeting of my home denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, voted to oust First Covenant Church of Minneapolis, its senior pastor, and another ordained pastor for their affirmation and blessing of LGBTQ participation in the church. “As a Pietist,” I wrote after the annual meeting in Omaha, “I believe in hope for better times. And I pray that Pietism will yet renew the Covenant Church from within — even as the original Mission Friends sought to call the Church of Sweden back from dead orthodoxy to living faith. But my best evaluation at this point is that the Covenant has — inevitably, maybe necessarily — become an institution, and institutions find it easier to fear the loss of the familiar than to love the potential of the unknown.”

A year later, I’m feeling pretty detached from the Covenant. I hope that’s not a permanent state, but for now, I’m learning to live as a Pietist among Lutherans. But I’m grateful that there are those within Covenant churches — in and out of the denomination itself — who are actively seeking renewal, and I want to do whatever I can to support and publicize their work.

So let me encourage readers of this blog to read the essay currently posted at the resources page for the Covenant Collective, a group that seeks to “help maintain the original vision of Pietism for pastors, churches, and anyone from any denomination or group that is drawn to that vision.” I don’t know who all contributed the essay (save that I’m sure Jay Phelan had a hand in it), but I highly recommend that document as a powerful summary of three instincts central to the “vision of Pietism” that I saw in my experience of the pre-Omaha Covenant Church: freedom, humility, and generosity.

Freedom should be least surprising. Until the Omaha vote (and actions leading up to that decision) called it into question, “freedom in Christ” was clearly the most distinctive of the six Covenant affirmations, and one deeply rooted in the history of Pietism. “The way to maturity, truth, compassion, generosity and love is through God’s gift of freedom in Christ,” argues the Covenant Collective essay. “Regimentation, sameness, unthinking obedience appear less risky.” This hearkens back to the founding impulse of German Pietism: to seek after authentic Christian experience, recognizing that it may not be found in religious institutions that (again) “find it easier to fear the loss of the familiar than to love the potential of the unknown.”

“It would be easier not to grant such freedom,” I conceded in a July 2018 sermon at a Covenant church in Massachusetts. “It would be easier to leave those with whom we disagree, or to kick them out. But except in absolute essentials discerned patiently as we read the Bible together, that is not the Covenant way.” Or the Pietist way.

Humility is the theme that the essay connects most explicitly to Pietism: “To be a Pietist is to be humble.  It is not to know all the answers, but to be perfectly aware that we do not know all the answers. And perhaps ironically, to be humble is to live and love boldly because we cannot wait until we have all the answers to do God’s work.” While the humility we have in mind is rooted in the broader story of Scripture and the larger Christian tradition, the kind emerging from Pietism is “not the humiliation imposed by the powerful, but the humility rooted in our common humanity: to acknowledge that however many gifts, talents, and accomplishments we have, we are imperfect and limited human beings.”

Finally, Pietists certainly live out generosity through Christian action in a world badly in need of compassion, mercy, and justice. But there is also a generosity of spirit and belief, which the essay explains well:

A generous spirit enables another person to speak, to be heard. A generous spirit acknowledges its own ignorance and is open to learn. A generous spirit even permits the other person to be wrong. This does not mean that differences of opinion do not matter and should not be confronted. This does not mean that we do not seek to persuade the other of the justice of our position. It rather means that a spirit of generosity leaves the space open between oneself and the other person, the person who differs. The generous spirit does not close off conversation or shut out opposition. The generous spirit is willing, even eager, to hold the contended space open in love and hope that a way to live and work together may be found.

You can read the full essay here, and learn more about how you can participate in Covenant Collective and support its work here. Tomorrow it will hold an online workshop at 10am CDT on “The Freedom to Speak from the Margins.” Email the organizers to learn how to take part.