Normative Pietist Worship

by Todd Johnson

“Worship” and “Wars” are often paired these days on the covers of theological journals and ecclesiastical magazines. From low-church Protestant to high-church Catholic and Orthodox, lines are drawn in the liturgical sand over issues of ritual propriety and worship. The Covenant Church is certainly not exempt from this stream of controversy as the recent resolution on baptism and “re”baptism indicates. Ultimately, the search in these debates is for liturgical bedrock–for norms which define the boundaries of a tradition’s worship. Are there such norms for those who claim a pietist heritage?

What I offer here is a working draft of my research on worship in the tradition of Lutheran pietism. The subjects of my analysis are P. J. Spener’s interpretation of worship and the reforms he implemented to foster liturgical renewal. To the extent that Spener can be considered, as K. James Stein suggests, the “Pietist Patriarch,” what were his liturgical norms and are these norms still operative–or even relevant–today? My goal ultimately is to see if I can define distinct tenets of pietistic worship within the Lutheran tradition.

Worship in Spener’s Germany

The period immediately after the Thirty Years War was for continental Lutheranism a period of both frequent church attendance and indifferent piety. Attendance was high because it was mandatory, required by magistrates. The piety of the people, their understanding of liturgy, and their faith generally, however, was low. According to Spener, these characteristics were even found among some clergy. Nonetheless, the liturgy and the doctrinal system of Lutheranism were intact. The result was a scholasticism in theology and preaching which, while maintaining a mechanical opus operatum view of liturgy and the sacraments, was devoid of personal application. Those interior elements which Luther had fought to centralize in the church had been peripheralized, if not lost by this time.

The picture is not pretty. Spener’s Pia Desideria was written to counteract the prevailing belief that one’s baptism, regular exposure to preaching, frequent absolution, and communion were enough to meet the requirements of the Christian Faith. Internalized faith and spiritual growth, according to Spener, were given little attention. Some parishes had compulsory confessions. These were not private one-on-one encounters in a confessional. Instead, people often gathered en masse in the courtyard outside the church on Saturday nights to received absolution from a priest standing in a church balcony. No evidence of repentance was necessary–forgiveness was pronounced ex opere operato.

Sunday morning worship had just as little personal engagement. The Lutheran mass in Spener’s day has been described as a work of art. It was performed with solemnity and pristine craftsmanship. The music was excellent, but it had been removed from the voices of the people and placed in the hands of professionals. Although people would come to worship and listen to the mass, there was little room for their participation. Even listening was difficult as sermons were long and labyrinthine resulting in disinterested listening and frequent conversations among the congregants.

Addressing the Issues: Spener’s Liturgical Program

The prevailing view of liturgical and sacramental efficacy in Lutheranism at this time was juridical: worship and sacraments were things done for, or to, you. Spener sought to replace this with an organic or biological view. This was a move from a static or passive faith to a dynamic faith which emphasized spiritual growth. His understanding is best seen in the German term, Weidergeburt, which means rebirth or new birth. It is often used in the sense of a “new person.” Weidergeburt is not an event, but a process. New life is not merely a threshold one passes over, as “born again” Christians today might assume. Rather, it is a path of spiritual growth nurtured by the Word and the Sacraments. Spener’s famous line–”I have hope for better times in the Church”–shows he believed there was a spiritual power available for those who experience and live Weidergeburt. These people, like leaven in dough, can foster a renewal within the church. Renewal from outside does not work.

Weidergeburt defines Spener’s understanding of worship in three ways, echoed in Vatican II’s call for worship that is “full, conscious, and active.” First, worship is efficacious when it is “full,” that is, intentional and assimilated into one’s life. Spener argues that worship was lacking faith because people neither sought to offer God praise nor gain spiritual nourishment. They simply thought attending was acceptable in the eyes of God in the same way it was for the local magistrates. In contrast, the spiritual nourishment in the liturgy must be willfully internalized.

Second, much of the reason the liturgy was devoid of meaning for Spener was that it was not “conscious.” He points repeatedly to the fact that most worshipers are ignorant of the meaning of the liturgy and the sacraments. To correct this, Spener implemented a systematic program of catechesis. This catechetical program was found within the liturgy by preaching on the Epistles rather than exclusively preaching from the Gospels in the lectionary readings. Beyond that, catechesis was found in an increased emphasis on the exposition of other texts in weekday preaching, personal and family Bible study, and the study of Luther’s catechism in the conventicle. The key to engaged, conscious worship for Spener was knowledge of the Faith as understood in terms of the Bible and Luther’s catechism. Such knowledge provides a foundation for prayer. Spener advocated education about the liturgy rather than changes to it.

The third element in efficacious worship arising out of Weidergeburt is active participation. Spener believed that all could fully participate in the Lutheran liturgy. For him, the Lutheran mass was gift. Unfortunately, a gift of which most were ignorant or ill-informed. The only liturgical reforms Spener advocated, beside more use of the Epistles, was reinvesting the laity with the gift of song and insisting on personal confession before the granting of absolution. As Christian Bunner observes, the hymns that came from the Pietist movement were those which the common people both could sing and would desire to sing. He wanted to return hymnody to the voices of the congregation. Spener generally follows Luther’s own program.

Defining Pietistic Worship

In a day like ours, when worship services provide a variety of options for a variety of tastes–not unlike the theater in the local mall–Spener reminds us of the significance of the traditional two-fold pattern of Word and Sacrament. Deficiencies in worship today, one could argue, are due more to the level of understanding and engagement than to the traditional liturgy as such. Although we have in the last fifty years witnessed significant corrections in liturgical practices and texts that invite and encourage greater participation in the worship of God by clergy and laity alike, many liturgical reforms have yet to be assimilated at the grassroots level.

Piety is sometimes confused with subjectivity. The model of a “user-friendly” worship service designed to appeal to the tastes and preferences of “target audiences” and rooted in individualistic consumerism, must be distinguished from Spener’s model. Pietism is not rampant subjectivity, it is rather the subjective appropriation of the objective offer of salvation from the pulpit, font, and table, nurtured by the priesthood of all believers.

According to Spener, pietist worship should have three components: First, the Sunday morning service in which the Gospel and its relevance are clearly proclaimed and the frequent, if not weekly, celebration of the Eucharist. One reaffirms one’s baptismal pledge at the Table. Second, a supplemental service–Sunday evening or midweek or small groups–where congregants are invited to express their faith in God to one another in hymns, personal testimony and spontaneous prayer. Third, the lifelong process of education in which the seed of faith, which is planted at baptism and is nurtured and brought to fruition in confirmation, continues to grow throughout one’s entire life. Worship is central in the process.

Spener’s Model for Today?

How are we to judge the viability of his model for our worship in the new millennium? Though some may find Spener’s view historical romanticism, the evident success of various aspects does create discussion. On the one hand, models which stress liturgical education for children (Catechesis of the Good Shepherd) and adults (The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) and their success in Roman Catholic churches and some Protestant churches, argues for relevance today. On the other hand, the history of pietistic worship is not entirely favorable. The subjective appeal of the conventicle has lured people primarily, and at times exclusively, away from the objective foundations of worship: God’s grace offered to us in Word and Sacrament.

Spener describes proper interiority of a faith in Pia Desideria:

One should therefore emphasize that the divine means of Word and sacrament are concerned with the inner man. Hence it is not enough that we hear the Word with our outward ear, but we must let it penetrate the heart .... Nor is it enough to be baptized, but the inner man, where we have put on Christ in baptism, must also keep Christ on and bear witness to him in our outward life. Nor is it enough to have received the Lord’s Supper externally, but the inner man must truly be fed with that blessed food .... Nor, again is it enough to worship God in an external temple, but the inner man worships God best in his own temple, whether or not he is in an external temple at the time.

The transformation of the interior life along the lines Spener suggests may well be the norm of pietist worship today.

note1. 1. Glenn Anderson demonstrates that Spener's use of confession in the conventicle follows Luther's theology of penance.

note2. 2. Theologian Paul Tillich contends that Spener shows the way to an essential interior Christian faith.

Todd Johnson teaches history at Loyola University in Chicago.

See all articles by Todd Johnson