Missions and Experiential Christianity
Two of the biggest influences on North American Christianity were the Pietists and Methodists. The leaders of these movements shaped much of how we live out our Christian lives today. Equally shared, and emphasized, by the Pietists and Methodists was the experiential nature of salvation, which in turn fueled missions.
Pietism is generally understood as Christianity based on experience. Olson in The Story of Christian Theology quotes Ted A. Campbell as saying, “Pietism stressed personal religious experience, especially repentance (the experience of one’s own unworthiness before God and of one’s own need for grace) and sanctification (the experience of personal growth in holiness, involving progress towards complete or perfect fulfillment of God’s intention).” (Olson pg 474) It was an encounter with God that brought someone salvation, along with an ongoing process of personal reflection in comparison to God’s will. In fact there was such a strong belief in an encounter with God that, “Personal experience of God, then, was the Pietist’ focus and emphasis…A change of life called conversion must take place at some point at or after an age of awakening of conscience, and it must be accompanied by a transformed heart—a new set of affections for godly things—or else it is not genuine and authentic Christianity does not exist in that person.” (Olson pg 475) Through these new feelings and life one would begin to believe the right things.
The man who started Methodism, John Wesley, had a profound experience of God, which led him to propagate experiential Christianity. After having been formally trained for ministry he still knew there was a lack of spiritual fervor in himself. It was not until his personal experience that he went onto found Methodism. As he recorded, “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (Olson pg 511) Here Wesley’s experiential Christianity and a zeal for the lost was born.
Through these personal experiences of the Pietists and Wesley a great push for missions was born. No longer was the status quo of basic orthodoxy used as the measuring stick for a Christian, instead how one lived out their life was emphasized. Previously many people had been left in the ditches along side the road of Christianity because of the orthodoxy practiced by the church. Olson says, “Wesley preached conversion and holiness to the masses who felt excluded from the formal atmosphere of the state church.” (Olson pg 511) The grip legalism had/has on the church began to loosen. While people in the Pietists, movement such as August Hermann Francke, made great strides in helping the poor, “He moved easily among both the rich and powerful and poor and downtrodden and had a heart for the latter even though he curried the favor of the former in order to gain their financial and political support.” (Olson pg 482)
It was through the emphasis on experiencing God and having him change one’s life that led to missions. No longer was just having the head knowledge enough, action was to be taken, and the heart must be affected. Christianity has the Methodists and Pietists to thank for taking Jesus out from just the schoolrooms and into the streets.