Yearning for God

What would a modern pietist revival look like?

Jun 6, 2016 by

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If asked, “Are you pious?,” most Christians wouldn’t claim to be. Reverence is a virtue, but piety suggests excessive religiosity. The pious, we think, are self-righteous, solemn, sanctimonious. One definition says they are “marked by sham or hypocrisy” — like the pretentious Pharisee on a street corner, angling for admiration. He has already received his reward in full.

But piety is unfairly maligned. When we show loyal reverence to God and devotion to worship, we are pious. When we fix our thoughts on what is good and spend our time on sacred purposes, we are pious.

The virtues of piety come to mind as we note the passing of a pair of Anabaptist leaders who happened to be brothers: D. Ray Hostetter, a former president of Messiah College; and C. Nelson Hostetter, a former executive coordinator of Mennonite Disaster Service.

The Hostetters were members of the Breth­ren in Christ, a branch of Anabaptism known for its pietism. Along with the Mennonite Brethren, whose history was also shaped by pietism, the BIC tradition represents a model of faith other Anabaptists can learn from.

Pietism was a renewal movement that began in 17th-century Europe among Christians disillusioned with rationalism and rigid orthodoxy. They sought a spiritually minded faith and a deeper personal devotion to God — warmth for a religion gone cold. In the 1770s, when the pietist movement caught fire among Mennonites and others in Lancaster County, Pa., outsiders nicknamed these enthusiasts “River Brethren.” Along with peace and simplicity, the believers who would come to be known as Brethren in Christ emphasized a heartfelt faith and a “new birth.”

What might a new pietist movement bring us today? Each of us can identity what kind of revival we need. One whose faith is focused on practical responses to social concerns might need an infusion of heart-warming pietism. Another might need to channel an inner spiritual intensity into a motivation for ethical action.

No matter what we lack, change begins with admitting our spiritual deficit. It means giving up our pride. We have to be willing to say, “I am poor and needy; may the Lord think of me” (Psalm 40:17). Jesus said we should hunger and thirst for righteousness. We should feel our spiritual needs as intensely as a pang in the stomach.

In his book, The Soul of the Brethren in Christ, D. Ray Hostetter identified a key part of BIC soul as “a deep thirst, a yearning for God and for godliness.” This suggests a contemporary definition of pietism: a hunger for a connection with God. This hunger fits our postmodern time. Today, people may not believe God can be proved, but many are open to the possibility that God can be experienced.

The River Brethren, then, were ahead of their time. They rejected modern religious rationalism more than 200 years before it went out of style. In its place they nurtured a living faith that flows from the heart as well as the mind. They found that in a profane world, people yearn for the sacred, and pietism speaks to the soul.

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