Carol Howard Merritt (blog)has written another book. Fans of her last book, Tribal Church, will like this volume as well. It has the same style, passion, and pastoral sensitivity as Tribal Church. For those of us who enjoyed that previous book but could not use it (My context is an affluent suburb. There are few people under the age of 40 to be found.), this book is a welcome addition.
Reframing Hope is not about the Emergent Movement. It is about how the cultural shifts that our country is experiencing effects mainline Protestant churches and how we might best respond, as she suggests, with hope. Surely things are changing, but that does not mean our institutions must limp along, struggle or worse, die. They need to reframe things. Merritt says:
â€œThe act of reframing acknowledges the need for a new view at the same time as it recognizes the strength in our traditions. It allows us to look at the past with fresh eyes. Instead of slipping into value judgmentsâ€”setting up dichotomies between the old and the new, the elder and the younger, the stable and the adaptableâ€”reframing allows us to recognize possibilities simply because we are looking at our situation from a different perspective.â€
So much of the conversation around generational theory, congregational change, and leadership can involve judgment, blaming, and various false dichotomies. She tries to lead us past these while at the same time naming the real changes that have come about and naming the need for traditional mainline churches to change, no, reframe the way they work. Its a helpful perspective.
In the first chapter, she writes about authority and how it is more communal or â€œflattenedâ€ than it once was thought to be. Leadership, too, will thus change. There is still leadership, but it functions differently as leaders relate differently to those in their churches.
The diffusion of authority is sweeping like a wind over our landscape. In the shifts that are taking place, we feel the breath of the Holy Spirit, blowing through conversations, relationships, and connections.
More simply, we move from a pyramidal authority structure to a network structure. Real leadership happens in relationship and shared discovery.
Chapter two is about how community then is reshaped. Mentoring and sharing in the journey of faith becomes more important in the network that is a congregation. There is no desire of the expert to come and proclaim. No, the new generation wants someone to walk with them, to share what they know and discover the will of the Holy Spirit together. She also does an excellent job reminding us that there has not been a dwindling interest in community. It just comes about differently. In an increasingly technological world, an increasingly fragmented world, people are in deep need of life giving community. A congregation may be uniquely prepared to offer such community. It is a way of witnessing to Christâ€™s own hospitality to the stranger. Those of us in older congregations need not fear a loss of community. We simply need to respond in ways that younger generations recognize. We must walk with them. Even our denominational structures can assist in this though they too may need to refocus and reframe things.
Chapter three is about the tools we use to make community, to communicate with one another. In a congregation with various age groups, we may find that we have to use a variety of means from physical visits to Facebook comments. A pastor, a community for that matter, must be flexible and mindful of what means of community reaches whom. Itâ€™s also important to recognize that age is playing less and less a role in this as 60 year old professionals are texting their young grand children with the handheld computer they now need for their businesses. Technology is changing the way ministers structure their pastoral time. and can change the way congregational members connect with one another. The institutions in some cases have â€œgone wireless.â€ There are, as she well enumerates, dangers to this. Information, even if incorrect (perhaps especially) travels at the speed of Twitter. Again, mindfulness is the key here. Still, this should not stop us.
In spite of its dangers and the divide, being a part of the online conversation is an advantage for many of us. In the years to come, as our congregations shift, as we engage a younger generation of members who are more conversant with technology and used to the ubiquitous nature of the Internet, then the network may become more of an expectation. Right now, this is a wonderful opportunity for us to reach out. We can engage in the dynamic conversation, learn to use new tools to connect in a new time.
If these first chapters are about how community is formed and reframed, or how communication happens in the life of a congregation, then the next four chapters are about what we communicate and where that story leads us. The message, says Merritt, is essential. Chapter four she speaks of the power of our personal stories of faith, the power of testimony.
The best journalists, sociologists, environmentalists, and other bearers of fact and information often present their ideas within the warm, comfortable robe of a story. This gives the reader not only the details of a situation but also a setting in which to imagine it. She has a chance to smell, touch, taste, and listen to the information, and with those base senses engaged, she is more able to connect with the raw data, and more likely to remember it. The same dynamics are true in our congregations. Narrative is important for creating change, communicating faith, and building community.
In short, we must embrace our authentic experiences and tell the stories. We can step beyond our denominational quarrels and allow our own stories to change us. Merritt does a wonderful job of reminding us of the power of the Biblical narrative and invites congregations to add their own stories of redemption, grace, salvation and Godâ€™s own revelation to the mix. This will change the way we read scripture and even, perhaps, in how we preach.
In chapter five she reminds us of the truth of Christâ€™s proclamation in the synagogue and the here-but-not-quite nature of the Kingdom. The internet, she says, is fraught with examples of people trying to live out a call for justice. Movement after site after blog exists for the purpose of making the world a better place to be in. Itâ€™s not that people are not speaking of justice. Itâ€™s simply that we need to enter into the conversation. Itâ€™s good news! Throughout this book Merritt reminds us that these realities are opportunities. It is good news and we simply must find ways to participate. People want to do something.
With this increased knowledge comes a heightened sense of responsibility. It is part of the epiphany of the face: when we come face-to-face with another human being in need, we see God in that person, we understand we are traveling together, and we are compelled to reach out to her.
One of the greatest gifts our churches can pass along to a new generation is our long tradition of commitment to social justice that is best encapsulated in this notion of the reign of God.
We can partner with the new efforts to shape the world. We can embrace new technologies and ways of communicating. We can participate. Itâ€™s that simple. Itâ€™s a choice.
Chapter six focuses on ways that our congregations can rediscover our own liturgical and spiritual traditions the wonders and value of creation. Environmentalism, green economics, sustainable technologies are more than simply a fad, but are needed innovations to protect the future of our planet. Congregations can, as she demonstrates, discover powerful ways to participate and support these efforts. We can rediscover natural theology, an embodied spirituality. It doesnâ€™t stop there. How we use our buildings, refurbish them when we can, are also witnesses to Godâ€™s call for the faithful to be good stewards. Again, this is a way of participating in the movements already afoot in our world. What are we waiting for?
Finally, Merritt comes to the subject of spirituality and the disciplines of the church. It can be challenging to rediscover the various disciplines and practices of prayer and meditation, scriptural study or lectio divina but in a world craving spiritual nurture, a way out of consumerist culture and struggling to find embodied ways to connect to our souls, these disciplines and practices are welcome and needed. People are seeking direction and our congregations have much to offer.
â€¨Again and again Merritt shows us how the changes that we face in our present context are opportunities. We will have to reframe how we do things, finding a new way to see the connections that already exist. She writes:
The landscape has changed all around us. To some it feels like a desert - dry and barren, inhospitable, unable to sustain the next generation. Yet our common biblical story reminds us that we have a God that brings salvation to people who wanted in the driest deserts. With a bit of divine imagination we will see the wells full of living water, as Hagar and Ishmael did. With a bit of divine imagination, we will see the milk and honey flowing all around us.
This is a wonderful book. Carol Howard Merritt has given us a treatise on how a congregation can perceive these times optimistically. These are not threatening times for a congregation. These are opportunities for the life of any church that is willing to have Hope.