Reframing Hope by Carol Howard Merritt – A Review

September 13, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Books, Religion 

Rev. Carol Howard Merritt, currently of Western Presbyterian Church in Washington DC, has published a new book:  Reframing Hope.  I’ve recently finished reading it and here I present a review.

Disclaimer:  I’m a friend of Carol.  She sent me a free copy of the book to read and review.  And I’m even mentioned in the book.  So I’m a bit biased.  And let me just say this – it’s really strange reading someone’s book and knowing the backstories behind the stories, having participated in some of the conversations that she mentions and discusses.  That’s particularly true of Chapter 3 – Reexamining the Medium – where she discusses Twitter and other social media.  OK, that’s out of the way.  On with the review.

Merritt’s primary thesis is this – the modern world is ending, postmodernism is taking hold, and the Church needs to adapt in order to survive.  While spelling that reality out, she documents different ways in which the adapting part of Christianity (though not necessarily the Church as institution) is succeeding in reimagining the faith for not just a new generation, but a whole new way of “doing church”.  She uses the psychological term of “reframing” as a model for that reimagining.  Merritt states that we are using outdated frames to measure church success:  numbers, attendance, income.  We need to reframe our idea of church success and particularly church methods and ideas in order to work within a world that is changing from modernism to postmodernism.  And interestingly enough, that reframing often includes a return to ancient ideas and practices.

Merritt centers all of this study of the past and present and imagining of the future within the idea of Hope.  She feels (and I agree) that younger generations – Generation X through the Millenials, particularly the latter – show a great deal of promise in their zeal to make the world a better place.  She feels that spirituality and community-building are on the rise, and contrasts them to the modern ideas of power and structure and hierarchy.  Merritt feels that there is a movement of the Holy Spirit happening and a vitality of the newer generations, and that it’s important for us to recognize that and welcome it.

Merritt begins the study in the area of Authority.  The locus of authority in the church today is changing from books (as recently as 100 years ago only available in libraries at a distance, and before that only available to a learned few) and pastors in the pulpit to a new locus in the Internet, random conversations, and outside the church.  Where once only the very well educated were seen as authorities on spirituality and theology, today individuals are able to “publish” their ideas on the Internet and share them without a need for a title like Reverend or a bunch of letters after their name.  Even more notably, the Internet and social media have allowed people who are interested in these subjects to converse with experts in the field, and even to form friendships with them.  Shoot – today a wannabe pastor like me gets to converse with published authors and Moderators.  And it’s not just ideas that are discussed – we aren’t spending a lot of time on “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” questions.  Practical notions about how to express our spirituality in community, how churches are governed, and sermon ideas are exchanged between people who have never met.  And in the midst of that, ancient spiritual practices are lifted up again and seen in practice today.  Merritt ends the chapter with a study in contrasts.  In today’s world, there are two competing ideas – the idea that centralization is king and “bigger is better” and the empowerment of people at the edges.  These movements are contradictory and happening simultaneously and in my opinion reflect the practical struggle between modernism and postmodernism.  And we are expected (particularly pastors) to live with feet in both movements simultaneously – ministering to those rooted in the modern world and those rooted in the postmodern world.

Merritt follows this study of authority with stories of Re-forming Community.  The big question in the Mainline Protestant church today is “how can we keep the young people from leaving?”  “How do we reach out to a younger demographic?”  Today’s church is aging, and the average age of members is getting so high that even the Sunday Schools are starting to empty – because the parents of those missing children are missing themselves.  Our churches are worried about closing (and some have closed).  At the same time communities are springing up to deal with the questions of spirituality and faith.  These communities are sometimes appearing within the traditional church structure, but more often than not are growing organically across denominational lines and even inter-faith.  Even the idea of community has changed – from “whose are you?” (what group do you belong to OR what are your beliefs) to “who are your friends?”  The traditional idea of belonging to a group that has chosen to accept us and which has sharply defined boundaries has shifted.  Today’s new communities are marked more by their permeable boundaries and sharing of concepts across faith and practice lines.  Traditions are not rejected and replaced as they were in the evangelical movement (with its move from hymns and organs to rock bands and light shows) but instead are combined and formed into a new creation.  To me, it looks a bit like spiritual Legos or Play-Doh – the basics are the same but the shape and size and color of the new community are created by taking pieces from many communities, old and new.

Merritt also speaks about the importance of denominational structures in the new world.  She highlights the good in denominations:  continuity, shared support, and the weight of numbers that makes big things possible.  She calls herself a “loyal radical” – one who embraces some of the ideas and innovation of the Emerging movement but is still a loyal member of her denomination – Presbyterian Church (USA).  (And she points out the groups that Phyllis Tickle calls “hyphen-mergents” – the presbymergents, anglimergents, etc.)  She lists three factors that distinguish the Loyal Radicals from the Emergent church:

  1. Loyal radicals have strong ties to their denominational histories, where Emergents sometimes reject that history
  2. Origins – the postevangelical emergent movement grew out of a meeting held by Doug Pagitt to raise up the next generation of evangelical leaders – and can be very antidenominational.  The Loyal Radicals reached similar ideas and practices due to their loyal reactions to their denominations, which many of them still love.
  3. Social justice – Loyal radicals are much more open to women, ethnic minorities, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) leaders; indeed their presence is demanded or the movement is seen as exclusionary.  Postevangelical emergents have had their leadership develop organically and the net result has been that that leadership is dominated by primarily white, straight men while in some places women and LGBT folks are excluded from leadership.

From there Merritt moves on to discuss the effects that the Internet and social media in particular are having on faith.  This is a balanced look by someone who lives in that world every day.  (Indeed – she and I have tweeted at each other WHILE I’m writing this review about another matter.)  She discusses the positives of the Internet and social media:  communication and friendship between distance-separated people who would be fast friends in person if they lived near each other, the ability to carry on discussions simultaneously and asynchronously, the instantaneous access to information and opinions.  (I have to echo those virtues.  I’ve made very close friends through social media.  It’s fun to meet someone in person for the first time who you’ve been friends with on the Internet – most of the “new friend” awkwardness is gone and you have that “known each other for years” feeling.  And the base of knowledge in a community of hundreds who will answer questions randomly is hard to beat.)  She also considers the downsides:  the questionable community by those who are never together in person, the loss of communication in a text-based medium, the dehumanization that anonymity produces, the ability to claim more support for your ideas than may exist and to take potshots at others from behind your screen.  In the end she concludes that the new medium is good and that communication has changed forever.  She challenges us to both accept the new and the good and also to be aware of the risks.

From here, Merritt moves into a discussion of the effects of these changes on different areas of interest to the church:

  • The Message – Merritt discusses the power of story.  The narratives of our Scripture, the narratives of other faiths, the stories of our lives – they all have the power to change people and lives.  There is power in the linking of the stories of God and the stories of the person sitting in the next pew.  All of this reminded me very much of Donald Capps’s work on narrative, particularly his book Reframing – A New Method in Pastoral Care.
  • Activism – She speaks of the power of these new ideas in bringing about the reign of God.  She speaks of the power of the new mediums of communication on activism for social justice.  At the same time, she speaks of problems that this shift causes.  There is a subtle ageism in movements fighting sexism, racism and homophobia.  There is a divide between the activists of the 60’s who gave their all of their causes and the younger leaders who have not been mentored, and who see an “us versus them” mentality in the battles of their elders.  Merritt gives examples of how today’s communication methods are being used in activism with good results.
  • Environmentalism – Merritt speaks of the current state of the environment and the ways that we have become insulated from the natural world.  She speaks of practices that have the potential to make things worse if we aren’t careful – such as the effect of the use of bottled water on the quality of tap water.  She includes ideas of how to prevent and counteract the separation from the land that we are experiencing.
  • Spirituality – Here the author discusses the split between mind, spirit and body that was fostered by Modern ideas – the split between secular and sacred that has left us feeling that the two cannot coexist.  She speaks of the importance of presence and the fears and realities of digital technology on physical presence (her conclusion – it can hurt but often helps build community).  She lists different areas of spiritual practice that need our attention to reintegrate body and spirit, daily life and our faith.  In the end she concludes that the evangelical concentration on individual faith and the liberal concentration on social justice are two streams that are starting to flow together – integrating our faith and correcting the errors of our past.

In her conclusion, the author sees Hope in the future as people find new ways to organize and BE community in this world.  She illustrates this with stories  positive and uplifting and poignant and painful all at the same time.  But she sees hope, and shows us a glimpse of how to foster it and reframe it for the rapidly changing world in which we live.

OK, Mark.  That was 1800 words on WHAT the book says.  How about the review?

I live in this intersection of modernism and postmodernism.  I grew up with a father who was a school principal and later superintendent – a paragon of the Modern world and the old picture of authority.  I’ve always been heavily involved in technology and the Internet – particularly during and after college.  That has put me in contact with people (including Carol) who were and are at the bleeding edge of the “new way” of communication.  That in turn has led me to be in contact with folks who are currently thinking and talking and praying and working around the new way of doing and being the Church.  A number of people have told me that this “new way of doing church” is a part of my personal call.  I’m in more or less the same place as the author, though we’ve taken very different routes.

The book rings true to me.  As I said in the disclaimer, I have been a part of a number of the conversations and events that she relates.  There is a big shift in the church coming – one that has also been alluded to by Phyllis Tickle in her book The Great Emergence.  The church that exists today just does not speak to younger people and they are voting with their feet.  It’s not so much anger with the church that is leading young people away – it’s apathy towards the church.  We just don’t matter anymore.  At the same time I know that for those youth who ARE in the church we matter very much and their lives are transformed.  Our message just isn’t getting through and I believe it’s because the world changed around the church and the church failed to change its communication methods.  Many people accuse the church (particularly accusing liberals and postmoderns) of changing the message itself in an effort to reach new people.  In some areas it’s true that the message has changed – homosexuality being one of them.  But those changes have always happened – with slavery and the place of women most recently.  It’s really the methods of communicating the message that are failing today.

One thing that I struggle with is how to create a church that can speak simultaneously to ALL generations.  I don’t feel that we’ve reached the point of abandoning that goal – I still think it can be done.  But it WILL take a decision to recognize the failures today and to accept new ways of being the Gospel to the world.

This book does a lot to show the way to that future.  Merritt shows us what new ideas and concepts and practices are being used today to bridge the gap between the Modern church and the postmodern world.  But more importantly, she shows us how those new ideas and concepts and practices fit within our faith – that the new is not necessarily a compromise of faith.

Additionally, this book is written in a very accessible manner.  Some other books that discuss the same ideas and subjects are written in a very academic manner.  This book is one that can be read by anyone.  No extensive knowledge of church history, theology, or philosophy is needed.  This book is written for both those in the academy and those in the pews.

No review would be complete without some negative feedback (sorry, Carol!).  My only issue is that the author in a few places speaks of her personal history – as someone who has roots in the evangelical church, as a woman entering the ministry – as if those experiences were generally applicable to a large part of a generation.  Those stories sounded completely true to me as Carol’s experience, but I question how applicable they are to American Christianity.  No doubt my background contributes to this reaction – at the same time that Carol was growing up in the South I was growing up in the Northeast in a New York City suburb, in a town where we had multiple faiths (1/3 of the town was Jewish) and evangelicalism was very limited.  I grew up with a woman who was my neighbor AND the Associate Pastor and our church Session was at least 1/2 female.  I saw a different force operating on young people – apathy towards the church and faith in general in an atmosphere of social and career climbing where the victims didn’t matter.  The net effects are the same – the kids aren’t in the church – but the causes are very different.

If you are interested in understanding the forces at work in the reshaping of the church, and in particular are looking for some methods of communication and practices that can bridge the gap between how we have done church and how we will do church, buy this book.  And read it.  But more importantly talk to others about it.  Kick the ideas around.  That’s what it’s gonna take to get from here to there – from where we are today to the Kingdom of God.

Into the future

September 2, 2010 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Candidate Process, Seminary, Work 

Hello, folks.

I know that this blog has been dormant for a while.  The main reason was that I was being very careful not to post anything related to my job search that might upset a future employer.  As you know if you go back into my history, I’ve been mostly unemployed since August 2008.  More recently working with the US Census allowed me to create my own small business without upsetting the unemployment folks and that has been operating at a part-time sporadic level since last spring.

Throughout my unemployment period I repeatedly heard a call to ministry.  Sometimes it took the form of a thought that perhaps I should go to seminary.  Often it took the form of me simply noticing that I was choosing to spend my free time while unemployed increasing my volunteer work in the church.  I also found myself thinking that my church work was more important that my job search at times.  A number of times it took the form of a surprise opportunity to stretch my ministry skills into a new area, and succeed, and I credit God with providing those opportunities.  Once in the last 2 years I had a sense of God’s immediate presence, which felt a lot like my previous dream and vision.

All of this came to a head this past January.   Several events – conversations with people that I know, and my hard work back home the week that my church’s mission trip was caught in Haiti after the earthquake – led me to the point where I felt that I “can’t not” consider seminary.  So I took a few steps in that direction.  In the spring I audited a class at Princeton Seminary on pastoral counseling.  I spent a LOT of time talking to people who have already gone through the vocational discernment process.  My wife and I went to considerable efforts to determine whether or not our relationship could handle the change in career to one that pays less and demands more.  We consulted a financial planner to make sure that our cash flow and retirement planning would allow for me to have five years (the next year, 3 years of seminary, and a year after seminary looking for work) of very low income.  I prayed a LOT – sometimes for God to help me make it happen and sometimes for God to take away the call.  Ultimately I reached the point in August where my wife and I (among others – see below) agree that going to seminary and likely going into ordained minstry is the right choice.

While this discernment was going on (and believe me, it will continue essentially forever but will be very focused for the next few years) I started the official process for becoming an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).  My Session voted to recommend me to the presbytery Committee on Preparation for Ministry (CPM) as an Inquirer in March.  I met with CPM this past Monday evening and they voted to recommend that the Presbytery of New Brunswick enroll me as an Inquirer at the next meeting in 2 weeks.  So from the official side I’m on my way.  Our denomination has a very planned and regimented process of care, support, discernment and gate-keeping where the CPM committee will work with me (and my church Session, and to some degree the seminary) between now and the day that I may someday be ordained into my first call to make sure that God, the community and I all see that Call to ministry.  That’s moving now.

My plan at this point is to start seminary for my Master of Divinity (MDiv) degree in the Fall of 2011.  Our financial plan calls for me to work on a very part-time basis for each of the next 5 years.  So for the next year I hope to find some combination of small business work, project work (hopefully church-related or something similar) and a regularly scheduled part-time job (again, ideally church-related or something in the non-profit field) that makes up about 10-15 hours a week.  At the same time I’ll be continuing to discern, work on seminary applications, and volunteer at church and elsewhere.  My wife has a solid well-paying job here so we are not looking to move either for school or the future.

So that’s what’s going on.  If you have questions, please feel free to ask them in the comments.  I do plan to reactivate this blog going forward to keep you updated on the journey and to again open up the release of writing that I felt needed to be temporarily stifled by my job search.  Watch this space!