Saturday, June 14, 2008
Keeping with the “isms,” the second fallacy that keeps the evangelical church from embracing their God-given responsibility to the poor is Pietism. This may seem unlikely, since aspects of pietism within the church of America during the 19th century actually inspired Christians to serve the poor and take on injustices such as slavery. Nevertheless, in the 20th century, when the diabolical twins of modernity-reason and science, were at the zenith of their dominance within Western civilization, the American church responded by adding some traditional dispensationalism (which cares little for the social world of today) and some platonic dualism (which treats the physical world as separate and subordinate to the spiritual) to their piety. Before we identify pietism's potential poison of today, let us explore a little of the historical context of this religious phenomenon.
The roots of Pietism go all the way back to seventeenth century Germany when certain church leaders such as Philipp Jakob Spener and August Hermann Francke, tired of cold, stifling, faith of the Lutheran church, began to emphasize pietistic activities such as Bible study, prayer, and religious experiences as a way of reigniting a passion for Jesus Christ. For the next couple hundred years, pietism spread throughout Europe and America, influencing a variety of the protestant groups such as the Mennonites, Moravians, Brethren, Covenant, Puritans, and Methodism.
Fast forward to the early twenty-first century, pietism in its most popular form, mutated into a Purpose-Driven-Life formula, emphasizing five purposes that drives a Christian. According to best-selling author and pastor, Rick Warren, our five purposes in life are worship, fellowship, discipleship, ministry, and mission. Regrettably, Warren did not look to Genesis 1 and 2 to discover who we are as humans and what purposes God assigned the first humans as a foundation to PDL. He might have discovered the multi-dimensions of imago Dei and the creation mandates given to God’s image bearers. Maybe Warren would have viewed this earth as more than a “dress rehearsal” for heaven, which provides very little motivation to help the poor here and now. Maybe Warren would have realized earlier our God-given responsibility to the poor, which finds its roots in the cultural mandate. Even with its emphasis on fellowship, this form of pietism leads to an individualistic, otherworldly gospel that divorces loving God from loving our neighbor.
For instance, growing up in several fundamentalist-Baptist churches, my spiritual formation revolved around piety activities such as studying, reading, and memorizing the Bible, praying, fellowshipping, and evangelism. Never once was I ever encouraged to reach out to the poor. Never once did our youth group ever serve at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, nor did I hear anything taught from the Bible that mentioned the Christian’s responsibility to help the poor. Yes, I understand that today’s fundamental and evangelical churches do try to include a service project to a soup kitchen now and then and maybe a short-term mission trip that reminds them of how blessed they are here in America. But by in large, the pietistic practices of prayer (including all-night prayer meetings), singing praise and worship songs in church or at Passion worship events, Bible study, revivals, and evangelism that takes place today are not inextricably practiced together with sacrificially loving the poor and oppressed. Hence, the body of Christ appears to be primarily a mouth without any legs and arms.
Thankfully, in the case of Rick Warren a trip to Johannesburg, South Africa caused him to rethink his purposes. After visiting some of the shantytowns and connecting with churches that were housing widows and orphans from AIDS victims, Warren began to reexamine the scriptures in light of the poor and oppressed. “I found 2000 verses on the poor. How did I miss that? I went to Bible college, two seminaries, and I got a doctorate. How did I miss God’s compassion for the poor? I was not seeing all of God’s purposes.” Now am I holding up Rick Warren as the prototype example for evangelicals to follow? No and Yes. I prefer that he communicate a more robust gospel, taking the foundation of creation more seriously (read Wittmer’s Heaven is a Place on Earth) and calling more attention to the devastating consequences of the fall and our depravity as humans (read C. Plantiga’s Not the Way it’s Supposed to be). This leads to a larger view of redemption (including people and all creation), with a response of repentance and belief in Christ (rather than Warren’s “whispering a prayer that will change your life” of “receiving and believing”). Why do I even mention Warren’s view of the gospel? Since he is on the front-lines attempting to equip an army of Christians from all over the world to help solve global poverty and hunger, a PDL surface view of sin, depravity, and evil will never get at the root causes of poverty. Without addressing complex structural systems of evil as well as the deep-seated sin within the hearts everyone, including the poor, the oppressed, and the oppressors, all of our efforts to make a dent in the battle against global hunger and poverty amounts to be as Ballington Booth once said, like trying to “bail the ocean with a thimble.”
Nevertheless, we also need to commend what Rick Warren is doing as well. For instance, by putting the majority of his millions that he made from the sales of Purpose-Driven-Life into charitable foundations that address global poverty and hunger issues, he is living out the apostle Peter’s command to “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Our pagan culture is taking notice, having a difficult time arguing against all of the good that Rick Warren and Saddleback church are doing for the poor and oppressed. This can only lead to enhancing the reputation of Jesus Christ. 21st century piety is a mixed bag, but can overcome its faults by embracing a full-bodied gospel of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration which can only lead to the Lordship of Christ in every aspect and arena of our lives. May our sacrificial service to the poor and oppressed also compel non-Christians to pronounce, "Soli Deo Gloria!"