Reframing Hope: Book Review

I’d been carrying around Carol Howard Merritt’s new book, Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation, for several weeks before finally settling down with it on the clergywomen retreat I went on last last month. It rained most of the time we were there, so I spent my afternoons tucked into a corner of the porch, absorbing Merritt’s wisdom and her, well, hope.

What I appreciated most was her (unbridled? cautious? no: faith-filled) optimism as she thinks about what church means in an age of Twitter and Facebook and globalization and post-denominationalism. Even her telling of history is optimistic: it is not, in her view, that the church is dying and needs a miracle – but that the decline of the past generation has opened up new possibilities that are only now coming to light.

In our evening discussions at that retreat, I repeatedly found myself quoting Merritt, particularly when the discussion took a woe-is-the-church turn, as conversations among clergy are wont to do. Are we really all going to have to have praise bands? we grumble. But Merritt suggests that there are authentic ways to embrace the great practices of our traditions while still appealing to a generation that is accustomed to having things fast and now.

I particularly like her term “loyal radicals” to define those of us who are committed to the structures and traditions of our denominational churches but long to see them transform into something more relevant. Just knowing that there others who feel that way gives me hope that we can hang on to the traditions of the church (and a reassurance that they are worth hanging on to) and still speak to a new generation.

I also appreciated not just her optimism that that church can be relevant, but also her evidence that it’s already happening: she gives examples of churches that are taking seriously their responsibility to care for creation, who are worshiping in new ways and in new spaces. She describes podcasts that connect a scattered congregation and technology that is harnessed not just for entertainment but as a means of working for justice.

She talks eloquently (as she often has) about the uses of technology – social media, smart phones, email, blogs – as tools for doing ministry, citing examples of pastoral care done over Twitter and community building through web forums. She also notes the “dangers and downsides,” and the digital divide between old and young and rich and poor. But as a sometimes-reluctant user of social media technology, I found myself wishing she had more fully addressed the drawbacks. The iphone may be handy for quickly looking up information relevant to an in-person conversation (as Merritt does with her daughter), but what about the married couple who can’t make it through a meal together without checking their email or texting friends? What about the pastor who spends all her time replying to comments on her blog and never goes to cheer on a youth group kid at his baseball game?

Merritt rightly points out that “as our interactions increasingly move from face-to-face to interface, we should keep in mind that we may be losing something vital in this shift.” In ministering to a new generation, perhaps it is part of our role not just to reach them where they are, but to also help them (us), to be reflective about how we live our lives. And maybe it is the pastor who can finally say: put down your phone and talk to me.

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