The seventh common motif of Pietism according to Roger Olson and Christian T. Collin Winns in Reclaiming Pietism: Retrieving an Evangelical Tradition is Christian life lived in community. Pietism does not promote spiritual individualism. On the contrary, Pietists value church and Christian community beyond the church. Conventicles, ecclesiola in eccleia (smaller communities within the larger church), small group meetings beyond the more formal gatherings of the church are an essential part of Pietism.
In these smaller gatherings faith was nurtured, relationships strengthened, discipleship was fostered, accountability encouraged. Relationships mattered: connecting to Christ, and connecting to each other. The Pietists in Sweden who would become the Evangelical Covenant had the nickname of “Mission Friends.” Together they were on mission with the good news of Jesus. One of the Mission Friends formative verses was from Ps 119: “I am a companion of all who fear thee.”
But this is not always easy. In the past I have written:
I believe in the church, but I am not naïve about the church. I have seen the church at its best, and the church in some of its more trying moments as well. Eugene Peterson speaks of the church as one part mystery, one part messy (Yancey, Church: Why Bother? p. 45). I understand this description. The church is the Body of Christ, chosen from before time to engage in mission in the world. That is mystery! The church is also ordinary people with issues and less than pure motives who come together as a local congregation. That is messy! This church—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—is not perfect and sometimes the church is far from it!
How many times have we said: The church would be great if it weren’t for the people! And yet we know that church is people, messy, unformed, on a journey, sometimes doing well, sometimes failing, people. The church is the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Spirit. All of these terms imply that we are together. We are friends together in worship, in discipleship, in service. There are no isolated Christians. We do this work together. AJ Swobada says: Isolation is the geography of heresy. Isolation breeds a theological and practical contempt for any truth that’s bigger than I am (A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension between Belief and Experience (p. 193).
When two or three gather…. We are community.
One of the most important books of the twentieth century is Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. His experimental seminary where students lived and studied and worshipped together grew out of Bonhoeffer’s theological sociology that he articulated in his first doctoral dissertation: Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church (all good church practices are rooted in theology). This is a book worth reading over and over. It is worthwhile for us in the church to consider anew what is the essence of church. We get lost in programs and budgets, and strategies and schemes. At core we are people, changed, renewed, on mission, together in Christ.
In Life Together Bonhoeffer says: A pastor should not complain about their congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and man (sic). How many times have I complained! How many times have I said, if it weren’t for the people…
Nadia Bolz-Weber holds a regular information meeting about her church: Church for all Sinners and Saints in Denver. At that meeting she reminds them: This community will disappoint them. It’s a matter of when, not if. We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings. I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.Welcome to House for All Sinners and Saints. We will disappoint you (in Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (pp. 54-55).
Reality is: we are called together, we are bound together. In Christ we are the church. The Pietists got this…and did life together. We can to.