Given reports of declining religious affiliation and rising social tension, it’s no surprise that 2017 has offered up a catalog of books charting the future of the Western church. How can we not only survive this cultural moment but thrive as well?
In the spring, Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option tackled the question by channeling the wisdom of Saint Benedict, who established monastic life in the wake of Rome’s collapse. Evangelicals’ response was mixed, in part because Dreher’s vision carries high-church and magisterial assumptions that many evangelicals do not share.
Enter The Pietist Option, a new book by Christopher Gehrz (a historian) and Mark Pattie III (a pastor). Like Dreher, Gehrz and Pattie look to the past to figure out how to navigate the present. But unlike The Benedict Option, The Pietist Optionwill feel very familiar to evangelicals, even those who have never heard of Pietism before.
We often use the term pietism as linguistic shorthand for any inward-focused spirituality that is anti-rational or holier-than-thou. Gehrz and Pattie argue that historic Pietism is better understood as a set of instincts about the Christian life: that true knowledge of God cannot come apart from relationship with him; that the church has a divine call to pursue unity; that Christianity is both simpler and more demanding than we realize; and that the Resurrection calls us to hope.
First emerging as a reform movement within the Lutheran Church of the late 1600s, Pietism quickly spread to other churches, eventually influencing the Puritan, Baptist, Methodist, and Brethren traditions. Despite its reach, Pietism doesn’t leave a clear structural trail. “Suspicious of faith becoming too institutional or too intellectual,” Gehrz and Pattie explain, “Pietists did not generate the denominational structures or doctrinal documents that would have set up their movement for long-term survival.” Describing Pietism as yeast, they see it as a “timeless spirit” or “ethos” that brings out the potential of various traditions while leaving behind little trace of itself.
While evangelicals may not know the history of Pietism, we would quickly identify with its commitment to a personal relationship with God, biblical literacy, spiritual formation in small groups, and active lay ministry. “How goes your walk with Christ?” was a classic catch phrase of those early Pietists who believed that broader cultural change began in the hearts and lives of individual Christians.
So why Pietism now? In an age of radical individualism, wouldn’t a movement emphasizing personal faith and downplaying institutional structures exacerbate the problem?
Perhaps not. Gehrz and Pattie identify distinct parallels between current society and the milieu that birthed Pietism. One hundred years after the start of the Reformation, central Europe descended into the Thirty Years’ War, a bloody religious conflict that ultimately claimed eight million lives. In its wake, Gehrz and Pattie note that “competing churches [were] more concerned with maintaining doctrinal boundaries than encouraging evangelism, spiritual growth, or social reform.” It was into this context that Philipp Spener, the founder of Pietism, penned his 1675 classic Pia Desideria (Pious Desires).
While the evangelical church may not have resorted to physical violence, we have invested heavily in culture-warring, though with little to show for our efforts. As tempting as it is to want to pursue political or social reforms, Pietism suggests that change begins in our own hearts first, which in turn enlivens our political and social activity.
Of all of Pietism’s instincts, perhaps the most important are its emphases on hope and commitment to unity. Despite the bleakness of the Thirty Years’ War, early Pietists believed that the same power that had brought them from spiritual death to spiritual life could remake the world.
For Pietism to work, its focus on individual faith must happen in settings like mid-week prayer meetings and small groups. Here, in the intimate presence of our brothers and sisters, our personal encounters with God are confirmed (or corrected) and activated for the good of our neighbors.
Like any system of belief, the parts work in relationship to each other. Commitment to unity without a commitment to the authority of Scripture quickly leads to authoritarianism. Individual faith without commitment to unity ends up prioritizing personal needs above both Scripture and fellow believers. In this sense, Gehrz and Pattie’s thesis calls for a return to basics, embodying one of the key instincts of Pietism itself: The Christian life is both simpler and more radical than you know.
Hannah Anderson is a writer living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. She is the author of Made for More: An Invitation to Live in God’s Image (Moody) and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul (Moody).
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