Editor’s Note: In our on-going series called The Preacher’s Bookshelf, we interview authors of books that might be of interest to pastors and preachers. In this installment, we ask Carol Howard Merritt, one of the most influential voices in the “emerging movement” within the mainline Church, to reflect on her new book Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation.
Howard Merritt is a pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. and the author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation. She blogs at TribalChurch.org, and co-hosts the Internet Radio Show, The God Complex.
As church leaders, we often find ourselves in barren deserts, looking on the horizon, pointing to what is just beyond our vision. We encourage our churches to dream about what God might have in store for us. Reframing Hope gives leaders a tool to do just that. Exploring the current shifts in our culture—especially how we view authority, technology, narrative, spirituality, and activism—I point to the many hopeful streams that bubble up around us. I look at pastors and communities who engage in vital practices that are giving new life and meaning to our congregations.
What can pastors learn from this book for their own spiritual lives?
This is a difficult time to be a pastor. We have so many new tools to measure growth and effectiveness. As a Presbyterian, I can pull up the attendance of any church in the nation and compare it to how many people attend our church. All too often, these metrics show us how we are not measuring up to our grand and glorious past.
Why is it? Is it because pastors fifty years ago were that much more awesome than we are?
No. It’s because we’re in a time where things are shifting. We are losing the post-World War II generation that kept our churches thriving with their hard work and generous stewardship. Since our congregations were largely tailored to that generation, pastors often walk into situations that don’t make sense in a new time.
We expect a new generation of moms to work forty hours, cook meals, do laundry, and then attend a three hour committee meeting where we discuss whether we should cut the communion bread into circles or squares. We expect young singles, struggling to maintain basic employment, housing, and health insurance, to contribute money to our multi-million dollar organ fund. We want to attract “young families,” not realizing that if a man gets married, he’ll probably be forty before he begins thinking about having a family.
Many pastors walk into situations where the numbers matter more than ever, and yet their church culture is out of step with a new generation. And many leaders are feeling exhausted in the midst of the tensions. Then we get caught in that trap—thinking that if we can if they could work long enough and hard enough, we could turn things around.
I hope that this book will give pastors tools to change things, to create healthy growth in a new generation. But I also pray that the words will give some comfort to the striving, exhausted church leader. It is not because we are not awesome enough, it is not because we’re not working hard enough that those numbers don’t seem to be adding up. It’s because things have shifted. With renewed hope and vision, we will need to keep looking on the horizon, imagining what God is calling us to next.
Can this book be preached? What might a sermon or sermon series based on the book look like?
Most of the book was preached, in one context or another. In fact, Diana Butler Bass described it as an extended sermon in the Foreword. As a pastor, I’m always working with words in proclamation and on page.
As I imagine a sermon series, I think of the last chapter in particular. I talk about Hannah, who was in the desert with her parched child, imagining that God would make a great nation out of them. There are so many men and women of Scriptures who inspire us with their prophetic imagination. Moses led the wandering people of Israel through that dusty desert, constantly reminding them of the fat of milk and the sweetness of honey. Esther spent her years in a harem being ritually raped, and yet she saw herself as a savior of her people. Mary, a pregnant single woman, knew she could have been stoned, and yet when she looked down at her bloated belly, she imagined herself as the most blessed among women. How could they, in such extreme circumstances, understand that God was calling them to a new hope?
That same God is working in and among us today. This is an important time for our churches and I believe that God is calling us to use our prophetic imagination in similar ways.
Are there any particular anecdotes or stories (whether or not they are told in the book) that crystallize its message?
The book is full of hopeful stories. There are congregations who are realizing that they are not able to make the shift in a new generation, so they are nesting emerging gatherings or starting new churches.
There are church leaders who are learning to support one another, resource their ministries, and reach out through social media.
There are churches who are connecting with a new generation by understand that they are called to change the world. They are caring for creation, feeding the homeless, and supporting local food movements.
There are church leaders who understand what a difficult time this is for people, and so they are reaching back to practices of discernment, contemplation, and prayer.
Throughout the book, I tried to highlight the interesting, creative work that is happening all around us.
What did God do to you in the process of writing this book? How did God use it in your own spiritual life?
Writing itself is a spiritual discipline for me. I wake up early in the morning, brew up some coffee, and ask God to open me—open my mind, my intellect, and my intentions. Then I write. Sometimes it’s easy and often it’s difficult, but the process itself is life-giving.
As far as the book itself, I think I have been enriched most by the reactions. As I’ve travelled around the country, I’ve been amazed and humbled by how many people have said, “Thank you. Because of this book, my church finally ‘gets it.’”