Already a known quantity in the world of post-modernism in American Christianity, Carol Howard Merritt (author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation) has just published her second book Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. Although the titles sound eerily similar, this is not a rehash of her previous work. Rather it builds and expands on it. In Tribal Church, Merritt was primarily concerned with “Where are the young people? What do they want?” In Reframing Hope, she emphasizes the need to stay grounded in the traditions of our mainline churches, while looking for additional ways to “be Church”. She encourages us to quit obsessing about the numbers decline in our denominations and instead to “shift our focus, take into account where we have been, and imagine what God is calling us to be.”
The changing currents in “technology, organizing, communication, and spirituality…deeply affect the way we minister and form community.” We can make two mistakes in dealing with this societal change. We can ignore what is coming, or we can dismiss what has passed. Both of these options will lead to our eventual demise. But we have faith that God is doing something in the world right now. It is up to us to discern what that is and what our role is in bringing it about.
Merritt discusses the opportunities available to us by redistributing authority, re-forming community, reexamining the medium (electronic communications), retelling the message, reinventing activism, renewing creation, and retraditioning spirituality. Using both biblical and personal examples and stories, she leads us to look again at our world and at our churches. As a 30-something pastor in a mainline urban church, she speaks with experience and insight into the needs, wants and desires of the world around us.
In her conclusion she says, “Looking over our pews, many of us see the faithful remnant of a congregation from a half-century ago, and we wonder whether our churches will exist twenty years from now. … Every once in a while, when we crack open our sanctuary doors…we hardly recognize the world in which we serve, because it has become so different from the one in which our churches were formed.
“Within our old frameworks, our church ministries reached out to a different family structure. Our churches catered to nuclear families. … Our congregations often relied heavily on the volunteer work of housewives and geared programming and outreach to young families. … Now, a good percentage of our households are likely to be single or in same-gender relationship. … Now, the ethnicity and culture of our nation…is more diverse, yet our mainline churches seldom reflect the diversity of the communities in which they are located.
“We struggle to communicate our faith in the midst of such pluralism and, in our worst expressions, we avoid or discriminate against those who are not Christians.
“Our message has been muted as we try to communicate from generation to generation…we’ve lost the vision to make our churches communities of welcome for our adult sons and daughters, the very people who could map out a course… but, new opportunities, tools, movements, missions, and passions cascade through the…landscape bringing vital ways of organizing faithful communities, communicating prayerful longings, and seeking social justice.”
This book, published by the Alban Institute, should be required reading for any church leader who is serious about discerning the church’s mission and vision for the future.
Disclaimer: I am a Twitter/Facebook friend of Carol and she sent me a free copy of the book to read and review. I was already familiar with the background of several of the stories she recounts, particularly in Chapter 3 and the Conclusion. I found myself again dissolved in tears when reading about Gideon’s suicide. That episode, more than anything else, convinced me – a 60-something old lady – that there is real power and depth in our on-line communities.