Many church leaders bemoan the absence of younger people from their pews without bothering to consider the contextual factors that must define ministry with new generations. Carol Howard Merritt’s Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation is an engaging mix of personal narrative and social commentary that explores the cultural trends and interpersonal dynamics that shape the needs and expectations of the millennial generation.
A new generation of Christians is longing for the very practices of inclusion, diversity, and questioning that many mainline churches have been cultivating.
From her vantage point as a young, mainline pastor in a complex urban setting, she describes a generation with an intense desire for intimacy and genuine relationships, but within the context of an evolving notion of what constitutes community and how it is sustained. Commenting on expectations with regard to pastoral visits, she notes that few parishioners today stay home polishing silver and dusting the parlor in hopes that the pastor will drop by. Instead, emails, text messages, social networking, and blogs have become essential tools of ministry that can forge authentic relational bonds. Online communication has created virtual communities in which people can tell their own stories.
Leadership looks different as well. People are more open to learning from a colleague who comes alongside them than a credentialed expert who talks at them. The model of leadership is no longer a pyramid with a single individual poised at the apex, but a network in which leaders are relationally connected to many others. Leaders are, in the author’s words, “accessible, authentic, and human.”
But no sophisticated use of technological media or contemporary leadership matrices can carry the day unless they convey a compelling message. The hope of which Carol Howard Merritt writes is grounded in faith that the church’s story can indeed resonate in a post-modern world. She explores how spiritual meaning is expressed today in vital practices that embody faith — not only prayer and silence, but social activism, global engagement, environmental awareness, and responsible living.
In the midst of these dynamics, she also claims a message of hope for mainline denominations. She writes that “a new generation of Christians is longing for the very practices of inclusion, diversity, and questioning that many mainline churches have been cultivating.” To those fixated on a story of membership declines and eroding institutional standing, this author offers a new narrative that does indeed “reframe hope.”