How Do Pietists “Follow Jesus”?

For several years now, Harold Heie has been engaged in one of the more noble initiatives on the Internet, an online project he calls Respectful Conversation. A former Christian college professor and administrator, Heie found himself

appalled at the sad state of public discourse in contemporary society, including the realm of politics, the media, and many churches and educational institutions.  The engagement between persons who disagree with one another is increasingly shrill and nasty, too often characterized by demonizing the other, listening to only an echo of yourself, and holding to fixed positions without openness to learning from those who disagree.  Such broken discourse does not bode well for the future of our schools, churches, local communities and nation.  It is urgent that we take immediate steps to seek a better way to engage those with whom we disagree.

That better way is to create welcoming spaces for those who disagree with one another to have respectful conversations.  As a Christian, I believe this better way is integral to the call for Christians to love others, for a deep expression of love for another person is to provide a safe, welcoming space for that person to disagree.  That goal can be shared with all persons of good will, whatever their religious or non-religious convictions.

So he has used his retirement from Christian higher ed to convene “eCircles” whose participants would model this kind of conversation on controversial topics.

The hope is that this conversation, like several of its predecessors, will eventually be published as a book…

Having already tackled everything from Donald Trump to human sexuality, Harold is now turning his attention to a question that both unites and divides Christians:

What does it mean to “follow Jesus“?

Starting next month, Respectful Conversation will host a series of essays on that question, written by Christians from twelve different traditions. Running in rough chronological order, the conversation will start with Orthodox historian David Ford and conclude next July with Pentecostal scholar J. Terry Todd. Each month will start with a lead essay summarizing how that tradition understands “following Jesus,” followed two weeks later by responses from the other conversation partners, who will share what they have learned from that month’s tradition (perhaps as a corrective to their own).

From the Maesta Altarpiece, Duccio’s depiction of Jesus calling Simon Peter and Andrew: “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matt 4:19) – Yorck Project/Wikimedia

I’ll be serving as the representative of the Pietist tradition in the Following Jesus conversation. As I wrote last week at The Anxious Bench, that prospect leaves me feeling at once uneasy and excited:

I have to admit to feeling a bit out of my league here. While I’ve written or edited three books on Pietism, I’m not really a church historian. I’m certainly no theologian. So it’s going to feel like a let-down to spend the winter reading people as notable as Randall Balmer, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, and David Gushee writing about traditions as well-established as, respectively, Anglicans, Reformed Protestants, and Baptists to me noodling on Pietism… which is about as amorphous a religious tradition as anyone can imagine.

Still, I’m honored and grateful to be invited to join such a distinguished company for such an important conversation. I can’t think of a more foundational question for Christians than what it means to follow Jesus, and I’m glad that the conversation assumes a truth that American Christians often struggle to recognize: the role of tradition in shaping how we ask and answer questions of religious belief and practice.

In recent years, thinking about my own Christian tradition has been more difficult than it used to be. It was wrenching to go from writing a contemporary argument for Pietism in 2017 to watching the denomination that I’d called “the Pietist option in practice” spend 20182019 abandoning some of the core distinctives of that “option.”

But in the midst of the COVID pandemic, I’ve been given new chances to articulate the historical and contemporary meaning of Pietism for new audiences: from teaching an online class for the Lutheran congregation I joined after leaving my Covenant home to giving a keynote address via Zoom for a German university that emerged from a different Pietist tradition. And I continue to engage with Pietism in more academic settings, reviewing Peter Yoder’s new book on August Hermann Francke (for an upcoming issue of Fides et Historia) and talking about Bethel’s history and heritage next month with new faculty.

Tabor Hochschule was founded in 1909 by the pietistic members of the German Diakonieverband – Creative Commons (Frank Lüdke)

And while I continue to think of myself as being “evangelical” in a historic sense, the experience of the Trump years has left me feeling even more at home in Pietism than whatever passes for evangelicalism nowadays.

So I look forward to using my participation in the Following Jesus project to dig deeper into my tradition, and to learn about eleven others.

It will be several months until I try to summarize how Pietists understand Jesus and what it means to follow him… but it would help me enter the conversation if I could first hear from those of you who also identify with the Pietist tradition.

As a Pietist, what does it mean to you to “follow Jesus”?

You can respond in the comments section below, or where I’ve shared this post on Facebook and Twitter. I won’t quote anyone or mention any names, but before I write my own mind, I’d love to know how some fellow Pietists think about Jesus and what it means to follow him.

Then once we’re into the actual conversation on Harold’s site, I’ll share monthly updates — and invitations to participate. Looking forward to hearing from you!

One thought on “How Do Pietists “Follow Jesus”?

  1. I’m a lutheran from Chile and my theological view is attached to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but loving also Pietism, specially in the figure of Zinzendorf.

    Following Jesus is the meaning of faith, to be Christian. To have faith in Christ Jesus is equal to be followers of Christ, his disciples. Not Jesus Christ as a doctrine, as a moral, as an ideal, nor as the anouncer of a new Kingdom (or a social ideology) nor as a useful stairway to Heaven, but as a person who relates to you and calls you to follow Him. There is life everlasting: in His call. This call and encounter we have it in the Gemeine Jesu, centered in His Word and Sacraments. In this Gemeine, to live together an active priesthood of all believers in small groups and in mission (evangelization and works of love) is vital. So we are visibly the real body of Jesus Christ.

    Faith is living this road, this path, following this footsteps, reading the Bible together prayerfully, not to extract from it a coherent logical system of doctrine, but to hear God talking to us and guiding as in our life with all its complexity, in the path of the theology of the cross.

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