Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Reframing Hope: a book review

Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Merritt Howard, reviewed by The Rev. Terri C. Pilarski

When I first began reading Carol Howard Merritt’s on her blog, Tribal Church, I found much of what she had to say echoed that which I had already read, thought about, or was implementing at my small church. I wasn’t sure why there was so much excitement about her and what she was saying. In Reframing Hope Merritt has synthesized the ideas brewing around church dialogue and concerns about the shifts of a postmodern world and its impact on church life. Reading this book was exciting providing me with a focus for the questions I’ve been asking myself for years. She addresses many of the questions I’ve pondered about what it means to be church today and how we build dynamic communities of faith without losing our denominational identity. For example she says this:

“Church leaders are often told that in order to reach out to the image driven MTV generation of Christians, we need to be flashing photos on big video screens and using PowerPoint in every service. This new generation has an attention span of no more than two seconds, we’re told, so we need to keep them entertained at all times in our services. I would never want to disparage the creative innovations that are taking place in many faith communities—from writing interesting new music, creating engaging visual art, and drawing inspiration from their own time and place. Yet I hate for small congregations that cannot afford the flashy images to become frustrated and feel that vital ministry in a new generation is out of their technological and budgetary reach. Because even as many of us put ourselves under considerable strain buying expensive equipment, uploading images, and finding just the right songs, words, and photos to make our services exciting and compelling, members of the MTV generation are leaving our churches, grabbing their mats, and flocking to yoga studios in order to get some peace and quiet.” (page 116)

There occasions when I do not go to church on Sunday morning and instead head off to the local fitness center for a yoga class. The yoga class is always full. Based on the conversations I hear going on around me, the participants are mostly mothers of young children. Why, I wonder, are these women here instead of with their families in church? Merritt begins the book by considering what it means to be church in a world where women work full time jobs outside the home and no longer have the time or energy to devote to volunteer work in the church. She considers the sociological reality that we have shifted our understanding of “authority” from institutions to individuals to communities.
The second chapter,” Reforming Community” is perhaps one of my favorite chapters in the book. This chapter offers some of the clearest thinking I’ve read on the significance of maintaining denominational church structure while at the same time forming community in new ways. For some the unstructured worship of the emerging church concept may speak deeply into their need for God, community, and a spiritual life that helps make meaning out of life. But that does not mean that for Christianity to survive we throw out our churches and our structure. After several decades of mega church charisma, with their shopping mall buildings and movie theater presentations, people are beginning to seek smaller churches that offer a quieter spiritually richer approach to faith. Here is one way she frames this:
“Does it make sense to create a counterculture that simply imitates culture? I ask this question not as a person who is against popular culture but as someone who has found that church people do not often copy pop culture well, if that is their main intent. We can try to make our music and presentations appealing to a new generation by imitating what they are used to, but there is a growing longing for something else. For wired women and men, people who live constantly alert to incoming e-mail and flashing images, there is the hope for a bit of time when we might unplug.” (page 116)

Merritt offers a quick summary of the sociological dynamics of the generations from the Great Depression, to WWII, the social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s, and the reality of self-destruction through nuclear power, and how they have influenced who we are today. She talks about the movement from a modern worldview based on the assumption that there is answer to every question to a postmodern world where there are more questions than answers, a world where our security in institutions and voices of authority are replaced by an emphasis on the individual. Then, acknowledges that a lingering unhappiness prevails which is leading people to find community. She writes:
“Which brings us to our current religious milieu. We retain the cynicism that remains wary of institutions yet we are weary from radical individualism. Many of us became tired of bearing our own burdens in congregations where we were not allowed to question or wrestle with our faith. A new generation is longing for authentic community, a place that nurtures our spiritual lives and develops deep concern for one another. We look for groups that understand the need for both individual responsibility and communal action. We seek religious communities where our salvation is not dependent on a litmus test of belief or adherence to a particular code of behavior. We seek communities of faith that will hold us, communities within which we submerge ourselves into a river of sacred traditions centuries long.” (page 34)

This is a shift from “isolation to belonging” with a heavy dose of innovation and entrepreneurialism. We are living in a time when people are taking things apart and putting them back together, and this includes our churches:

“In the midst of this yearning, we see new movements rising and converging all around us—new monasticism, postevangelical emergents,the multicultural church, the outlaw preachers, and those Phyllis Tickle calls the “hyphen-mergents” (Presbymergents, Anglimergents, [D]mergents, Methomergents, etc.) who mingle the sensitivities of the emergent movement with their own long-standing denominational traditions. I tend to refer to these men and women as loyal radicals, because Tickle’s terminology suggests that those us in this group will eventually have to choose between our denominational structures or the emergent church.10 Unless we are kicked out of our denominations, most of us have no intention of leaving—yet we fully realize we are a part of a shift in ecclesial thinking. We feel comfortable with the tension of working in a denomination, even with the reality that we live in a postdenominational culture.” Churches that are effectively reaching out to new members and the younger generations are able to bridge the gap between maintaining all the best of our denominational identity while opening up and becoming better at being sharing, networking, and conversational communities.

Merritt builds on this thought in the third chapter which she calls, Reexamining the Medium. As human beings our relationships are crucial to our wellbeing and health. To be in relationship we need to spend time with others, hear and share stories, grow to love and care for each other. Crucial communication no longer takes place only through the spoken word, much of it is also happening through the written word and in short sound bite comments. There are losses in this, time not spent with others in living rooms or on porches, lingering over a cup of coffee, a physical presence and the spoken word, are lost. But those losses do not mean that community is lost altogether. How we build community and share stories has expanded with the advent of social media networks. Rather than diminishing community these networks are forming the bridge for vital community to form.

In chapter four she talks about, Retelling the Message. Not only is it important for churches and church leaders to utilize social networks, but it is also important to have a story to share. Storytelling is a powerful tool for building community.

Living as we do in an age where people have to work 80 hours a week to support a household there is little time or energy for spending time with friends and family and sharing stories. Stories are most powerful when shared in person, where we can use all of our interpersonal cues, especially observing facial expressions. Still a social network is arising through blogging, Facebook and other personal pages, and twitter, where stories are shared and community forms, through short shared phrases that build a story over time and through longer stories shared on blogs, even as many of the participants may not know each other in real life. Merritt writes:
“Since it often takes eighty hours of work instead of forty to support a household, our social lives have been cut short. We are not able to gather with friends or connect through civic organizations as we once did. Our chance to talk to one another has diminished. Yet in a new generation, an astonishing movement has occurred. In the busyness of our schedules, in our anemic social lives, people are turning off their televisions and they are using flat screens to tell their own stories. Through innovative social media, they now gather together in virtual communities, report on their days, and relate the stories of their lives. Now, through blogs, podcasts, social networking sites, and Twitter, the power of the narrative emerges in new ways, as an amazing proliferation of words arise. Through enterprising mediums, creative messages form and people share stories—and this allows spaces for communities to take shape.8” (page 80)

I am reading this book on my computer from a PDF file sent to me from Alban Institute. Also open on my computer are window for the three email accounts I maintain, plus Facebook, and windows for several blogs I write on and follow. I easily move from reading the book to checking email, to posting a comment on a blog, and back to the book where I’m taking notes so I can write this review. We are multitasking multimedia people.

In the fifth chapter titled “Reinventing Activism, reframing hope,” she discusses media and social networking movements and their impact on social justice. Is travel, Internet and global access increasing our sensitivity to justice issues or overwhelming us and shutting us down? Merritt argues both are happening, a sense of being overwhelmed while at the same time providing new ways of mobilizing for justice, peace, and the reign of God’s kingdom. Again for the book:

“The idea of the reign or kingdom of God has been used in different ways throughout our history. It has been a utopian vision for settlers establishing a new world; it has been a battle cry for wars; and it has been a promise held until after you die. Now, it is being recognized once again in our hope for our world to be different. Right here and now, we are longing for wars to cease and for peace to reign. We are praying for a world in which each and every person is fed and sheltered. We see the great inequities, and we know we can do a better job caring for one another. We realize that each person is made in the image of God and has dignity and worth, no matter what his or her earning potential is. The requirements of justice, mercy, and humility ring true for us.” (Page 83)

Chapter Six, “ Renewing Creation” examines aspects of the stewardship of creation. From community gardens to Vacation Bible School to the water we drink, there is trend toward reimagining how we use our vital resources. As a source for reimaging community, entire ministries can be built around developing sensitivity to the world we live in, the food we eat, the air we breathe. These ministries can renew congregations and build a reputation within a community which revitalize churches.

We live in a culture where many people say that they are “Spiritual but not religious.” It’s not quite clear what is meant by this, what is “spiritual” and what is “religious?” Merritt considers this in chapter Seven: Retraditioning Sprituality. Here is part of what she asks and ponders:

“Our Christian churches have not always encouraged an embodied spirituality. Have you ever wondered why so many people who grew up in the rich tradition of Christianity choose to explore other religions when they want to learn how to meditate? What does it say about our churches when so many people declare that they are “spiritual but not religious”? Why are our congregations known more for fighting over ordination standards than for being places where we can learn to open ourselves to the still, small voice of God? In our churches, why are our members more likely to learn how to put together a meeting agenda than they are to learn how to sense the Holy Spirit’s movement?” (page 115)

She then follows that with a reminder that intuition, listening for God is a discerning process: “It’s far too easy for us to claim God’s blessing on our own agendas. We can quickly replace the humility required to listen for God with a pride that assumes our thoughts are the same as God’s. So, we listen for God with a bit of fear and trembling, a whole lot of humility, knowing we may not be right.” (page 119) This is a critical point in this day and age, when people throw around the idea that God is behind what certain people are doing, their political agendas and the issues we face.

One point of criticism I have with the book and her thesis is this generalization: “Right now, our congregations are beginning to grapple with remorse, as many of our national errors come to light. We know we will not be able to sustain unending growth in our financial markets at the same rate that we did in the last couple of decades. We will not be able to use coal, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy without any regard to what it is doing to our environment. We realize our predatory lending has led our nation into a cycle of shameful debt.” (page 128) It's true that churches are grappling with remorse. However our congregations, filled with fear and frozen in time, are hoping for just the right pastor who will lead them BACK to the haydays of the past. Many are not looking at the issues we face in our world today finding those issues daunting. Too many churches do not want to be "political." Instead churches hope for a Pastor who will bring in families and young children, a Pastor who will return them to the grand old days when the pews were full.

Thankfully, on that note, she offers an assessment of the old, dying framework of church and the new frameworks of the world we live. When congregations can reach into these new frameworks they begin to find new life and energy.

“Old” framework and New Framework:
1. Within our old frameworks, our church ministries reached out to a different family structure.
a. New framework: Single parents, couples w/o children, mothers work fulltime outside the house – reducing the volunteer work women used to do in churches
2. Within our old frameworks, our churches could flourish in a Eurocentric society.
a. New Framework: More diversity, no longer primarily white anglo protestant
3. the people to whom our churches reached out were largely from a Christian background. Within our old frameworks, we could rely on social conditioning and denominational loyalty to drive people to church.
a. New Framework: Now a wide array of backgrounds, faiths, religions, beliefs,
4. Within our old frameworks, we could rely on social conditioning and denominational loyalty to drive people to church.
a. New Framework: Now, reach out with more intentional caring and compassion
5. Our modes of communication have changed so dramatically and so quickly that the church has struggled to keep up.
a. New Framework: Social media and networks – some churches can’t even keep a website going.....how to build creative outreach into social media arena?

Overall I enjoyed this book. It would have been a great resource for the small church I worked for some years ago. It would have been a challenge for the larger church, with an older population, that I worked at. But then again, she is writing to and for a younger generation of church and those who are seeking a way to find deeper meaning in life. I hope people use this book in their adult formation groups and seriously ponder what she offers, looking without fear, into their future and how the Spirit is calling them to new life.

(I would be remiss if I didn't mention that the RevGals are hosting Carol Howard Merritt and this book for our Continuing Ed event in February 2011. More information can be found here)


Wendy said...

Great review. Thanks. I may just have to pick this one up.

Purple said...

I agree. I just finished chapter four. Also agree with your assessment on churches wanting to live in the past glory years...as you noted on my blog post.

Carol Howard Merritt said...

I just found this. Thank you so much for reading it, and engaging with it so thoughtfully. You have left me with wonderful insights!

Mompriest said...

Carol, the pleasure was all mine. Thank you for this book. I've just recommended it to Norvene Vest who is pondering her next book, something along the lines of guiding congregations in spiritual formation....don't know if you know her, but it might be good for the two of you to connect?

Jan said...

I'm impressed with your reviewing ability. Good job!

Anonymous said...

Great post! I was really impressed by the quality of the resources. Thank you alot.


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