Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Reframing Hope Review

It's no secret that the past few years have been rough ones for many of us.  This is no less true for our churches.  Economic hardship coupled with a rapidly changing world has caused many churches to suffer, and some to even close their doors.  It is into this reality that Reframing Hope is written.

I've written about author Carol Howard Merritt before.  She is one of the co-hosts of God Complex Radio (which, coincidentally, just started a new batch of episodes yesterday) and is the person behind the Tribal Church blog (not to mention the author of the book of the same name).  I've been following Merritt via her blog and her Twitter feed for a few years now, and when she offered a free copy of the book to those of us who agreed to write a blog entry reviewing it, I was happy to take her up on the offer.

Although some people have argued that Merritt is a part of the "emerging church" movement, she prefers to think of herself as a "loyal radical."  "Loyal radicals" are "loyal" because they remain devoted to a particular denominational traditionin Merritt's case, the PC(USA)despite fully acknowledging the imperfections of that tradition, and "radical" because they see the need for, and work toward, change within their tradition.

It is this balance of tradition and change that forms the core of the "hope" that Merritt hopes to "reframe" for us in her book.  Although Merritt's political views may well be considered "liberal" (and she would be the first to admit this), it would be unfair in the extreme to stereotype her too quickly.  She comes from an evangelical background that, while she may no longer claim it as her label of choice today, nonetheless remains a part of her and has valuable contributions for how she views her ministry.  At one point near the end of the book, Merritt writes of two "poles" of US Christian belief: evangelicals and liberals.  As I generally try to claim the "evangelical" label as distinct from "fundamentalist" (and, indeed, as broad enough to include some "liberal" thought), I might quibble with that comment, but not only is Merritt hardly alone in seeing "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" as basically similar, she speaks out of personal experience, and doesn't make this kind of statement lightly.  Indeed, her point in bringing up this polarity is to point out that each side has gifts they can offer the other.

In attempting to describe a way forward for our congregations, Merritt is quick to acknowledge that no one way will work for all.  Each congregation represents a distinct grouping of different types of people, gathered together in a particular place at a particular time.  Taken together, these many "churches" are bound together by a shared Christian tradition (if admittedly over a sometimes broad swath of doctrinal belief within it), but each of these distinct contexts means that each individual congregation faces unique challenges.  Merritt remains fully aware of this while trying to navigate the potentially-tricky waters of providing a kind of map (or, perhaps more accurately, a broad outline) to renewed church vitality.

Merritt does not advocate change simply for its own sake, nor does she disrespect the traditions that many of our congregations have maintained and passed down to us over the years.  There is much of value in these traditions, and we lose them at our peril.  Nonetheless, it is equally an error to refuse to change no matter what happens in the world around us.  Merritt describes, often using stories of actual congregations or actual people, ways in which we might take advantages of new developments in technology and the globalizing world to help the church better respond to the call of God.  This does mean that some congregations who fear these developments may have to learn to push through that fear, but at the same time, discernment is called for:
The possibilities in this new age are fascinating, yet there are dangers that come with the increased use of Internet as a primary form of communication.  As we form relationships and community in our churches, we will have to be sure our care does not become impersonal.  We all know how frustrating it is to call a utility company and spend forty-five minutes on the phone, waiting to speak with a human being.  The company tries to reassure us with soothing Muzak and the hypnotic message, "Your call is very important to us.  Please continue to hold."  But the real message is clear: Your call is not all that important to them.  If it were really important, they would hire more people to answer the phones. (p. 59)
These new developments have real dangers, as well, and we need to be wise in appropriating them.  Technology, by itself, is certainly not the answer, and Merritt makes no suggestion that it is.  Indeed, to the extent that technology draws people away from relationships with each other, or from time spent alone with God, it is being misused and/or abused.  But, to the extent that technology can draw people into deeper relationships with others and with God (and she uses examples from Twitter, Facebook, and the blogosphereamong othersto illustrate how this has been, and might be, done), it can be a valuable tool toward helping us become the kinds of communities of faith God would have us to be.

Merritt also draws attention to the fact that many "new" churches have appropriated "old" traditions and spiritual practices that even more "traditional" churches may have lost.  As God gives us leading (and there's a great bit about the difficulty of discerning whether something is God's voice or our own on page 119), through wise application of these kinds of "traditional" and "emerging" practices, we have reason to hope that the future remains bright for the Christian church.

I definitely recommend your picking the book up, but suggest doing so quickly, as this book is very much tied to its time.  For example, Merritt makes a reference to "the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico" (on p. 95) as though it is a current event that her readers will immediately understand, and indeed we do... for now.  BP only announced just a week or so that the well is officially "dead," but of course the clean-up efforts will continue for some time to come. But I imagine that in just a few years, people will read this reference and no longer immediately understand what incident Merritt is referring to. This is a minor concern, of course. The book is worth reading, regardless.

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