How can we conserve and promote true piety within the lives of the Christians in our churches? Phrasing the question differently reveals the size of the task: how can we teach our people to love God rightly? This is the bulk of the task of ministry, so it is certain that a blog post can only scratch the surface. Since my focus is local churches, I will narrow my attention to some practical matters of church life.
While piety must be taught, it is mostly caught. Christians learn to love God ordinately by observing other Christians doing so. It is as Christians worship, serve and dwell together that younger believers learn what a life of love for God is. This leads to several points that church leaders can give attention to.
First, corporate worship is central to the development of piety. I’m not sure if this quote is original with Mike Riley, but I noticed his post, “Corporate worship is the catechism of the affections.” Corporate worship does more than offer worship to our worthy God, it also trains believers how to respond to God. If corporate worship treats God flippantly, that much is taught as a response to God. If corporate worship is relaxed and rests lightly on the consciousness of the worshiper, he learns that he should respond similarly to God throughout the week. If corporate worship contains a mixture of reverence, joy, contrition, thanksgiving and hope, the worshiper comes to expect something similar for his own devotions. Corporate worship communicates volumes regarding how we address God, how we imagine Him, what we expect when we encounter Him. Each corporate worship event in a local church’s life is concentrated demonstration of how that church imagines God. And as Tozer said, what comes into your mind when you think about God is the most important thing about you. For this reason, church leaders ought to consider each occasion of corporate worship as formative for the Christian affections of those participating. Everything admitted becomes some kind of endorsement, everything practiced becomes a model to follow.
Second, a church ought to encourage the kind of discipleship relationships we spoke of previously in this series. These relationships allow one believer to observe and learn what love for God looks like in the milieu of life by watching another believer. This is simply catechizing the affections through lifestyle worship, instead of corporate worship.
This is the best reason for churches setting up ‘fellowship events’ outside of corporate worship. The goal is for believers to share their love of Christ with each other in settings beyond formal worship. It is another opportunity for example and exposure to have its effect on the affections. Too often, churches set up fellowship events without this in mind, reasoning that if people are simply thrown together often enough over some kind of meal or dessert, they’ll inevitably be closer. While a superficial closeness may indeed grow, only if what unites believers – Christ – is shared each time they gather, no real fellowship is taking place.
A third form of example and exposure is to encourage church members to spend time with the church of the past, by reading their writings, hymns and prayers. In so doing, they are exposed to the piety of Christians outside of their current Christian culture, which is by itself enough to cause some cognitive dissonance. Spending serious time with the piety of historic Christianity tends to make most of our worship and piety seem clownish by comparison. Of course, some caveats will have to be supplied, but the doctrinal errors to be navigated are small in comparison to the massive benefits of being exposed to pious Christians. What follows is a starter list of suggestions of books and collections which could be introduced to a church’s library, referenced from the pulpit, or otherwise put into the hands of Christians.
Confessions – Augustine
On Loving God – Bernard of Clairvaux
The Imitation of Christ – Thomas A Kempis
Revelation of Divine Love Julian of Norwich
Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
The Practice of the Presence of God – Brother Lawrence
Spiritual Progress – Francois Fenelon
A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life – William Law
Communion With God – John Owen
Religious Affections – Jonathan Edwards
Hymns of Gerhard Tersteegen
Hymns and Psalms of Isaac Watts
Hymns and Poems of Frederick Faber
The Pursuit of God – A.W. Tozer
In the next post, I’d like to suggest some ways that the teaching ministry of a pastor can urge true piety in the members.