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Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, Alban Institute, 2010, 139 pp.

This is the follow-up volume to Merritt’s Tribal Church. Tribal Church mapped out the contours of the next generation, describing with insightful detail the cultural promise and pressures facing Generations X and Y. I finished Tribal Church frustrated that it did not offer as much wisdom as I had hoped about how to be engaged in ministry within this new cultural reality. Reframing Hope picked up where Tribal Church left off, and started to paint a picture of ministry in a new era.

Merritt’s gift is not a program or a plan of action for ministry. Instead, she is able to draw a portrait, an evocative image of what ministry can look like with a new generation. Instead of spelling out “do this, don’t do that,” she carefully draws out the places that hope is found and Christianity is alive anew. In broad strokes, she points out areas that need attention and reformation: authority, community, means of communication, the way the Gospel is told, activism, connection to creation and spirituality. The picture as a whole is still blurry, because we are still figuring out what this new Christianity looks like, but Merritt provides concrete anecdotes that are hi-res clear.

Merritt does an excellent job of distilling and naming subtle changes in understanding for our generation. She gives voice to things that seem vague and unnamed. One compelling example is her description of power and authority:

In a new generation, reliable information does not radiate from a central power; rather it moves underground, through networks, streets, relationships and friends.

Someone recently asked me where I look for information, insight and new ideas about ministry. I realized that there are very few authors or leaders that I turn to as authorities. Instead, I most admire my young colleagues in ministry, whom I connect with through the 2030 Clergy Network. They are my most reliable source, and they are available to me via social media.

Merritt also offers wise words about the impulse toward community.

We retain the cynicism that remains wary of institutions, yet we are weary from radical individualism. … A new generation is longing for authentic community, a place that nurtures our spiritual lives and develops deep concern for one another. We look for groups that understand the need for both individual responsibility and communal action.

Amen and amen. We realize that we cannot make it on our own, that we need one another, and that life together is richer and more full. Yet we do not turn to institutions to provide ready-made community. We are looking through institutions to build community that is authentic, intense, small and demanding.

Merritt’s book maps out the ways the historic church can be meaningful, relevant and life-giving for a new generation.  Her reflections are deep and beautifully written, demanding contemplation rather than programming. It asks the church to orient itself in ways that are spiritual but not radical, so it can be a place of welcome and filled with hope.

Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, by Carol Howard Merritt. The Alban Institute, 2007.

I used to be highly intrigued by authors and scholars who sought to define, categorize and understand my generation. I think I always wanted to know if I fit, to see myself in a new mirror, to determine if my personality is a non-conformist quirk or just part of my age-bracket territory. Now that I have settled comfortably into my mid-30s, I am less concerned with these personal expressions and more interested in professional insights about how we will reach out as a church to welcome other people in my generation.

Merritt’s book promised just that sort of insight. The title alone, Tribal Church, made me think that she would lay out an elaborate twist on being and behaving as a church that would connect with other 20s and 30s. While I did not leave the book completely dissatisfied, I was disappointed that there was far more time spent cataloging the experiences of people in their 20s and 30s, and less time spent describing (even anecdotally) the way the church might look for them.

Merritt’s look at life in your 20s and 30s provides great insight for pastoral concerns and community needs that will certainly be insightful to any church leader seeking to reach out to this generation. Rather than the classic approach of the “Me” generation or the cynical “Generation X,” she more accurately talks about the struggles of two-income parenting, student loan debt, parental care, stereotypes about lazyness, and the changing nature of work due to technology and contract labor. In the context of ministry, she talks about the need for community connections and the difficultly forming friendships and tribes. She does an excellent job with this–but it all felt like old news to me. Perhaps that is because of all those other books I have read on the same topic, or perhaps she just describes what I already know, because it’s my life!

I wanted more prescription and less description from Tribal Church. What does a tribe really look like? What does a tribal church look like? How can leaders support the formation of tribes? Or can they? Merritt describes several ideas for informal connections and ministries that mainline churches can offer to people in their 20s and 30s, but they are mostly anecdotal. I want more.

However, I think the reality is that most of my clergy colleagues, who are 20-40 years older, have absolutely no idea and no accurate portrait of life in my generation. In my regular interactions with them, they have no concept of life with two professional working spouses, of the constancy of geographic moves and the separation from extended family, of seminary debt and breastfeeding and technology, and even of the loneliness and lack of friendships. This book makes a great contribution if it is read by those older leaders with an open mind and heart. I can imagine myself lending this book out to lots of (older) clergy colleagues and citing it in church meetings when we are making programming decisions for our future.

For me, the most helpful take-away from the book was the perspective that less is more, when it comes to church programming. It’s what I have secretly believed (and practiced) for a long time–but it goes against conventional wisdom. When children and parents are already overscheduled, the last thing they need is another church activity to overwhelm them. What they need is a space to be a family together, activities that engage all of them in quiet and reflection, in service and in sharing. A simple time to eat together and make friends across generations is a rare gift in today’s hectic world. This is what the church can offer people in their 20s and 30s, far more than glossy bulletins and contemporary music. Merritt covers this in far greater depth, including the challenges (even from my generation) in bucking conventional wisdom on church programs.

Tribal Church is strong in its description and depiction of life as a 20- or 30-something today. Will we listen to the description? How will we respond?

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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