On January 13, today, in 1635, a German was born who would influence the future of the Christian church. His name was Philip Spener (Philipp Jakob Spener). He revitalised the German Lutheran Church and paved the way for many Christian movements, including American Evangelism.
A quote of his I came across was:
“Let us not abandon all hope before we have set our hands to the task. Let us not lay down our rod and staff if we do not have the desired success at once. What is impossible for men remains possible for God. Eventually God's hour must come, if only we wait for it.”
This was encouraging in terms of our work in our local Church, where many labour long, and labour hard, but do not always see the outcome. Yet, we know, in our hearts, that God's work is bearing fruit, and many times not in ways that we might expect or even see. Our desire is to see Christ and the message of God brought to as many as we can influence or touch, and we become impatient for results, sometimes to the point of rejecting a perfectly good ministry because the numbers don't add up.
Yet there is still a need for ministry pruning, and redirection, from time to time. In times like these it is good to get "back to basics", so to speak. To think about what is really important, and in terms of mission, to think about who is really in control.
I was brought back to the messages of Philip Spener after researching more of his life, and noting his "getting back to basics" approach. You probably have not heard much about Spener, if anything at all, so a bit of his work is summarised below, as I think it is helpful to know where our Christian faith has travelled in the centuries since Jesus and the apostles walked this earth.
Philip Spener wrote the 'Pia Desideria' - translated literally 'Pious Wishes' , or Pious Desires, or more loosely 'Spiritual Longings'.
The Pia Desideria or “Heartfelt Desire for God-pleasing Reform” is considered the classic statement of Pietism. First published in 1675 it is both a devotional work and a textbook on church renewal.
How is this relevant today? You might be surprised (or not so surprised) to learn that some of the problems facing churches then are still problems that need to be faced today.
Spener’s writings emphasise personal transformation through spiritual rebirth and renewal. Spener wanted to strengthen and renew the church through the development of more knowledgeable and devoted members.
He had a focus on individual devotion and piety in his writing that makes him known today as the of 'Founder of German Pietism' although he was not himself a pietist. His emphasis on practice rather than doctrine made him unpopular with those debating doctrine, however Spener made no apology for thinking that preachers should live what they preach in a time when some Christian leaders, while very learned and concerned with the structure of the church, were not living their lives in a way that reflected repentance and renewal. Many Christians around him appeared to be taking their calling and the gift of God's grace for granted.
Philip Spener believed more Church reform was necessary. Ordinary Christians had not been given many opportunities to serve in the Church, and their care and development was not being fostered by the standard method of preaching from the pulpit once a week.
While the Church had a "captive audience" in the sense that the parishioners were required by law to attend, the congregation were put to sleep by what was being preached! That is hardly the effect that God is after - the message of God should be transforming, not boring! Spener thought about ways to make the messages relevant to people, and by small groups, dedicated leadership, and better messages, he believed that the stagnation could be turned around.
Church leadership of Spener's day was often engaged and divided in doctrinal discussion, much of which he believed to be unnecessary and unproductive. Spener wanted the Church to get back to a focus on holy living, and to focus on practice rather than head knowledge only.
Through his book Pia Desideria, Spener had 6 proposals for getting the Church back on track.
He believed Church reform needed the following:-
1) More sincere effort to spread the word of God. Scripture accessed through study groups and readings not only preaching.
2) The ministry of ALL believers should be emphasised
3) The cultivation of spiritual life should have more attention, i.e. putting into practice faith and knowledge of God
4) Establishment of truth through repentance, humility and holy living, not controversial debates and disputes
5) Ministry candidates trained through small group devotional life and personal bible study - so that they were both well-educated and pious (but be practical teachers not picky intellectuals)
6) Sermons that produce the effects of faith in ordinary believers, be edifying - and not be designed to demonstrate the knowledge and learning of the preacher.
Although Spener was unpopular for his approach and his suggestions, his vision and practical direction have been an inspiration for much evangelical work and Church renewal in modern times and through the ages since the 1600s. While some may have thought these changes were new and innovative, the example of Spener's work shows they are not, and indeed Spener's efforts were to return the Church to practices of the early Apostolic church. Many churches today, GCI included, have an emphasis on the ministry of believers, and seek to involve their members in nearly all facets of Church government, preaching and Church programmes. Small groups - where the participants can share their lives, encourage one another, and study the Word of God - are no longer a new thing, but integral to Church life and individual Christians' daily lives.
Spener taught that, "believers are not passive in spiritual matters, but have a responsibility for building one another up in the faith."
In our local Church it has been wonderful to see the benefits of including our members in preaching and teaching through our "3 Speakers" programme. Our usual single sermon time is divided into three to allow members of our congregation to speak on topics or concerns that they feel would edify other members, or encourage us. As a result, we have seen deeper learning and personal study, as the speakers often read more proactively and research their subject, and in putting this into words are able to take their learning from head knowledge into considering how it applies in our lives. Confidence in speaking, confidence in Christian beliefs, and being able to share these and our personal journeys has been an added benefit of involvement in this programme. It has truly been one way we feel we are "living and sharing the gospel" as we aim to do.
". . .when we awaken a fervent love among Christians--first for each other, then toward all mankind--both of which (love of bothers and love of mankind) must follow one another (II Pet. 1:7) - and bring it into practice. . then almost everything we desire is accomplished." (Spener in Pia Desideria)
So , what are the possibilities for your Church, and what are your desires? Are they desires for God? How are these spiritual desires being fulfilled? Are you nurturing the seeds of possibilites?
NOTE: Spener's book was not written to be a standalone book, but was intended to be a preface for a publication of sermons by Arndts. However, his words were considered important and influential enough to later publish them on their own. It is a short book of less than 150 pages. I have not been able to find a free online, digital version of Spener's work in English, but paperback translations can be purchased via Christian bookstores, and through Amazon which also publishes a Kindle version. The English version is translated by Theodore G Tappert, and published by Fortress Press in 1964.
Amazon has this in their blurb: "This classic work, first published in 1675, inaugurated the movement in Germany called Pietism. In it a young pastor, born and raised during the devastating Thirty Years War, voiced a plea for reform of the church which made the author and his proposals famous. A lifelong friend of the philosopher Leibnitz, Spener was an important influence in the life of the next leader of German Pietism, August Herman Francke. He was also a sponsor at the baptism of Nicholas Zinzendorf, founder of the Moravian Church, whose members played a crucial role in the life of John Wesley."
Espinosa, Benjamin D 2015, ' “Pia Desideria” Reimagined for Contemporary Theological Education', Asbury Theological Seminary, The Asbury Journal 70/1:140-156
Maschke, Timothy 1992 “Philipp Spener’s Pia Desideria.” Lutheran Quarterly 6: 187–204.
Spener, Philip J. 1964 Pia Desideria. Trans. By T. Tappert. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
Prout, William C. "Spener and the Theology of Pietism" 1947, Oxford University Press, Journal of Bible and Religion, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 1947), pp. 46-49
Christianity Today; Christian History 1986, Issue 10 :The Pia Desideria (Pious Desires)