Review: Reframing Hope

April 18th, 2011

Carol Howard Merritt is something of a bridge person. With one foot in the Emerging Church and one foot in a mainline church (Presbyterian), she charts the places of divergence and of convergence between the two. As someone deeply formed in both experiences of life and church, she is able to draw gifts from both as well as to note some correctives of one for the other. In these ways, she is a very insightful “both-and” sort of person who helps us make sense of the times in which we live. Hers is a message of hope, so needed in a time when “either-or” thinking threatens to alienate parts of the church family one from another.

I read Rev. Merritt’s book, Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation on the heels of a meeting in which an avowedly “Big Tent” church advocate dismissed “old liberal-type Protestants” (such as myself, I realized to my dismay) as irrelevant and passé. I came away disheartened and wondering why in the world I should even report for duty the next day. Carol Merritt to the rescue, in a manner that is life-giving to the church as we continue to live our way into new ways of being and serving Christ while honoring the contributions and traditions of previous generations of the faithful.

As Diana Butler Bass notes in her Foreward, Merritt’s reflections on hope as a primary virtue in Christian community demonstrate how emergent and traditional church must “hold hands” for Christianity to thrive in the 21st century. She explores the implications of technological change, generational dynamics, environmental instabilities, and philosophical frameworks through the stories of her life as a pastor. As a Gen X pastor, she asks: “How do postmodern and pragmatism change us and our congregations? How can the church adapt to flourish in this new context? What vital possibilities are arising in this exciting, surging time? How can we reframe our ministries—our faith, our hope, and our love, in the mist of these currents?” (p.2)

And through the lens of story, she sketches responses to those questions, bringing to life real people, real communities, real issues, real theology, real church, and real hope.

Her questions enliven, rather than diminish, the practice of ministry. Her hopeful spirit helps point new ministries to old practices that can provide grounding, depth, and direction. And she simultaneously opens windows for older, revitalizing congregations to see ways to build on their values and strengths to embrace new ways of being, communicating, worshipping, and serving.

You’ll find in these pages practical insights into a broad range of ministry challenges and opportunities such as social networks, reinventing activism, renewing creation, building community, vital spiritual practices, the needs of children, and renewing the purposes and uses of our buildings. There is much to spark the imagination of thoughtful and innovative clergy and lay leadership. No one formula for “success” is presented, but rather a range of possibilities is offered, all through the lens of lived pastoral ministry among real people that generate excitement and hope.

No fan of entertainment-based mega-churches, Merritt sends us back to the congregations in which most of the church continues to live, worship and serve. Don’t forget, she reminds us, that “people go to church for the same reason they’ve always gone to church—not because it is the biggest and most entertaining place in town, but because they have in their core a spiritual longing to be fed.” (p. 19) But lest we be complacent, she challenges with these words, sounding much like a Wesleyan to me: “vital churches will not be those that rely on their denominational brands to draw people through their doors but those that have something creative and compelling to say about what is going on outside those doors.” (p.15)

Thank you, Carol Merritt, for reframing hope, for grounding it and giving it wings.

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