On becoming a Pietist

by Tom Swanson

At one time it can be assumed there were no “Pietists.” Did the first Pietists set out to form a movement? How did these pilgrims determine their next moves? Was there such a thing as some organizational “road map” moving them forward? How could, or did, they determine whether they were making progress or success?

Another interesting thought crossed my mind. Could folks today become Pietists without ever hearing the word, or have no knowledge of what it takes to become a Pietist?

Growing up in the Swedish Mission Covenant Church [the official name when I was a kid] in Stambaugh, Michigan, I was introduced to the word Pietism at a very early age. It was always used in a very proper and complimentary manner. As Covenanters, Pietism was our roots. That is who we are, and where we came from. We were admonished to never forget. Pietism was a good word.

Attending North Park College, traveling on Covenant Youth Caravan, and on a North Park summer quartette, I had many opportunities to be introduced to many Pietists, including Karl Olsson, Tom Tredway, Zenos and Jim Hawkinson, Doug Cederleaf, and my pastor, Vernon Lund, among many others. Slowly it dawned on me that the founding ideas of Pietism were the “good news of the Gospel of Jesus” we are called to live out in our lives.

Being a latecomer to the Pietisten family, my learning curve has been steep. I started reading some old articles while staying in Pete and Lynn Pearson’s basement during our visits to North Park. It has been a journey of great insight, learning and blessing.

The latest Pietisten arrived and was devoured and very quickly. Many articles were read and reread. Something was going on beneath the surface. Every article kept creeping back into my consciousness.

“The calling you have received,” by Carolyn Poterek had me writing down phrases and ideas: “difficulty, challenge, and sometimes even suffering,” “gatherings were under attack by the established church,” “harassed, fined, arrested, imprisoned and sometimes exiled,” “scripture seen as truth to be lived out in the context of life,” “humility love and patience,” “relating to God, neighbors and community,” “we are a called people,” “living into our calling,” “pass on what we have received,” “thinking about how others would come to know of God’s love.”

I kept seeing lots of dots, but couldn’t figure out how to connect them.

“The long humiliation: Judaism and Christianity” by John Phelan had me writing down more phrases: “more concerned with life than with theology,” “how you live is more important than what you think,” “obedience to the will of God is more important than the correct theology,” “people of the book,” and “the close reading and application of the text,” “Sustained by a clear sense of peoplehood.

It slowly dawned on me that I know those kinds of people, today. We have met them, lived with them, watched them live out the Gospel in several of the countries in the former Soviet Union. We have visited them on our twelve trips to befriend, encourage and train Young Life leaders. I might assume they have never heard the word “Pietist.” They are new believers who grew up under the old Soviet system where Jesus was systematically removed from society. A few remember grandparents who talked of faith, and church, but the “good news” of Jesus was a new, life changing experience. Young Life introduced them to the “good news” of Jesus.

So how did they become “Pietists” being clueless as to the meaning of that word?

The articles reminded me of many conversations across the former Soviet Union countries. Young leaders would often bring up that they felt uncomfortable in other countries. They felt judged as different. They could tell the difference between “their kind of folks” and “those folks.” They felt like they didn’t belong and longed to be “back home.” They have become one in Jesus Christ, even with their cultural and country differences.

The joy of being with young Christians from these former USSR countries was that the “joy of the Lord” and their love for each other are both very evident. They loved being together, they laughed, cried, sang, prayed and studied the scriptures. They did not want to go “back home” but stay together. Living out their calling, they went back home celebrating the family of God in Jesus, eager and encouraged to share the “good news of Jesus” with young people in their cities and countries and to expand God’s family.

Here are some observations of the Young Life “Pietists” across the former Soviet Union:

1. They love God’s word. In every meeting and every Young Life club, God’s word is open and shared. We often would see them alone, reading their Bibles. They have a sincere desire to be taught, to know, to grow and apply God’s truth to their lives.

2. They demonstrate the “fruit of the Spirit.” It is very evident that the Young Life family is alive with the good news of Jesus. They quietly live out the fruit of the Spirit. They simply do what Jesus teaches. As an outsider, it is impossible not to see the “joy of the Lord” sustaining them.

3. They show compassion. Almost every established Young Life team reaches out to orphanage kids, to disabled and kids with challenges, to teen mothers with babies, to street kids in trouble. They really do “go” to those who need to be loved and encouraged, and be loved into God’s family. Many of these new believers have been rescued by Jesus from that kind of life.

4. They face challenges and difficulty. Across the former Soviet Union, the national or established church labels anything to do with “Jesus” a cult. Our Young Life staff has very skillfully kept under the official radar by simply loving young people with the befriending “good news of Jesus” right where they live. In one central Asian city, a leader was asked how he felt having been hassled and arrested by the authorities. He said, “I consider it an honor to have been arrested for believing in Jesus.” His senior leader was asked if they were still fearful of the authorities. His reply, “We are fearless. God has proven his love and faithfulness many times.”

5. “Keep on praying” is their lifestyle. One Young Life leader said they never do anything without praying first. It is refreshing that they want to be followers, following the leading of Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

I just finished John Ortberg’s book, “Who Is This Man.” Jesus taught and lived out what “a new life in Christ” really meant. It is about living what you really believe. “Saying so, don’t make it so!”

Let me conclude with the thought that the best of the Pietistic traditions were right on! Those founders and pioneers remained true to the very best of the teachings of Jesus. They followed the model of Jesus. Jesus daily lived out his teaching. All those who celebrate and live out the teachings of Jesus in their everyday lives are Pietists, even if they have never heard the word.

Tom Swanson and his wife Donna both grew up in the Covenant Church of Stambaugh, Mich., attended North Park College and are retired teachers/coaches living in Lowman, Idaho. Tom has a new book published, Graduation: “So What Just Happened?”

See all articles by Tom Swanson