Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reframing Hope (A Book Review)

I read Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt for a recent continuing education event. I struggled with the book, initially, for two reasons. When I started, I felt like this was one of those books that helpfully tells pastors everything about church is changing and that's it. No help for how to cope with change, how to educate around and love into change. The other reason I felt frustrated was that I was holding a book in my hands about ministry to 20-30 somethings (or so it seemed). If I could get them to meet me somewhere, anywhere, I'd be glad to try new ministries with them, but...

So I dragged my feet about reading the book until on the plane flight for the event. Once I started to read, I felt drawn in to Merritt's style and narrative. She actually has been a pastor of a small congregation and is now in a larger context. I resist reading books where I feel like the person is talking at me and Merritt's voice is the exact opposite. She speaks from her own pastoral knowledge and spiritual longing. She explores the topics of social media, Scriptural understanding, relationship to creation and community activism, describing new ways that congregations are coming to understand themselves through these lenses.

I remember a woman in a preaching class I took telling one of those apocryphal stories about a "new preacher". Said preacher was going to do his first sermon in a new congregation. Nervous, he studied the passages and did his own translation from the ancient languages. He read multiple commentaries and authored several versions of the sermon. He had illustrations, sung refrains, voice modulation and a powerful conclusion. When he delivered the sermon, he worked up a sweat and prayed powerfully at the end. When he was greeting members of the church at the end of the service, one of the matriarchs of the church said to the young pastor, "You've got powerful living water, but you have to bring it to us in a cup we can drink from."

I thought of that anecdote several times while reading Reframing Hope. Merritt brings difficult news, but refreshing grace in a cup from which any congregation can drink.

Mainline churches are slowly coming to grips with the reality that people aren't seeking spiritual services in the same way they once were. However, this doesn't mean change for the sake of change. It means rethinking the roots of a church's faith. What's important to your congregation? Is there a way to offer those core values to one another and a neighborhood that might look different? Is it time to consider offering the new covenant in a different cup, so to speak?

Too often churches look at what people are drawn to outside of church and then try to imitate that. As Merritt points out, the imitation is poor and not flattering to either side. In addition, the implication is then that the church has nothing to offer of its own accord. No wonder people don't see the point, if what the church holds out is a strained pablum of entertainment and self-justification.

Merritt writes:

It is easy for our churches and denominations to slip into a narrative of decline, which leads us to impart a message of deprivation: Come to our church because we need more people, money, and energy (which doesn't sound like good news at all). If we want to reach out to a new generation, we must avoid communicating that we're seeking just another warm body in the pew, another giving unity to meet the budget, or more volunteers for our programs. 

Yet, if our churches can develop and communicate a narrative that invites people to enter- if they are places where a person can slip into the pew for an hour of internal wrestling, where she can mentally question everything that happens, and at the end of it, she knows that such a questioning is okay- then people will attend again. Because, after all, we often talk about the spiritual journey as a matter of acceptance, but in reality it has more to do with struggle. Then, after a good long time, if she's willing to listen to the stories of the community, her own story will begin to form in her belly. It's an extensive, tough and beautiful process. And it is only of the great things about being church. 

I think that's the heart of reframing hope and drinking from a new cup. In our pews, social halls, Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and late night conversations, we have to be honest about our questions, our doubts and our certainties. There are people who are thirsty and our Mainline congregations (among others) know where to find Living Water. We must learn to reorient ourselves to the new tools of communication and meetings, while holding fast to what is true.

The way, the truth and the life is not in our denominational polity, our traditional Easter service, a new afterschool drop-in program or a sports complex. It is Jesus Christ and how he meets us in one another in every day encounters. By rethinking how we encounter people in preaching, worship, Bible study, recreation and environmental stewardship, we take our hope and place it, once again, squarely in God's hands.

I keep thinking of Paul's words to the embroiled Corinthians: In the end, three things will last: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love. (The Word According Julia interpretation)

The greatest of these is love. Faith without love is dogmatism. Hope without love is bleak. But love without faith or hope longs for structure and impetus.

Merritt's love for the Church as God's work on earth shines through her analysis and prodding. Her faith in our ability as church people to make change is perhaps deeper than we deserve. Her hope, though, that people will understand that the world thirsts and we can help, if we'll just look at the cup we're using. Think of Indiana Jones. What kind of a cup would a carpenter use? While the world changes at a rapid pace, the Church has the opportunity to provide respite and the consolation of mystery if we're willing to reframe our objectives and our understanding of what it means to be a congregation, united in hope and love.

I recommend Merritt's book to people who are trying to understand the changing dynamics of the Mainlines and emergent traditions. I have an extra copy of this book, purchased with my own money, to give away. Please comment if you'd like to receive it. If I receive more than one request, I'll choose a recipient at random.

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