Edward J. Blum
Today begins a three part miniseries on Carol Howard Merritt's Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. I have encouraged attention to Howard Merritt's work for a number of reasons. First, she doesn't quite fit the assumptions we have about contemporary church life. She grew up Fundamentalist but then went mainline; she's mainline, but refuses to call it that and for good reason; she is post-colonial, but not emergent. Second, Howard Merritt is somewhat the Paul Harvey of the ministerial blog-o-sphere. Her blog at Christian Century is a must read for certain pastors. Third, and finally, she's my friend whose work has transformed my own thinking about the church today.
I asked three of RIAH's finest minds on contemporary Christianity to reflect on Reframing Hope. I asked the scholars to analyze the work as they would other sources in that come before them. This morning is Seth Dowland; later today will be Steven Miller, and then in on October 4 Brantley Gassaway.
Carol Howard Merritt's Reframing Hope presents a lucid and encouraging view of how ministry is changing in urban mainline churches. She suggests that the demographic trends of the last decade have revitallized ministry in many churches that hit nadirs in the 1980s and 1990s. These ministries have taken a different shape, of course: they rely heavily on the Internet and focus on issues like sustainability and social justice. Her book calls on older Christians to come alongside these new types of ministries, and on younger Christians to learn from their past.
Indeed, Reframing Hope offers something of a conundrum for an American religious historian. It begins with music to my ears: "When Christians ignore their histories, they cannot understand their present circumstances" (6). I could hardly have said it better myself! (But The Onion can) Yet after that opening, we get a book that is focused far more on present circumstances than on histories. Howard-Merritt alludes throughout the book to her upbringing in 1970s- and 80s-era evangelicalism. She draws on broad social analysis of Generation X and millennials, as well as on the demographic changes (especially suburbanization) that fueled the rise of megachurches. But most of the book focuses on personal stories and present conditions. Groups like the new monastics and emergent church -- who have gone to great lengths to unearth ancient Christian practices -- show up but never merit sustained attention.
Instead, the books seems directed primarily at educating Christians about how to embrace the new world order. The book is a call to arms for liberal Christian's to "reframe hope" by showing how the gospel bears on sustainability and social justice, how Christians ought to embrace the rise of ethnic diversity and social networking. Howard Merritt provides an exciting glimpse of the new types of ministry that are taking shape in urban, mainline churches. She makes a compelling case that the midcentury changes that fueled the evangelical megachurch have stalled. Ultimately, Howard Merritt contends that the hope of the U.S. church lies downtown, in the steepled churches Americans fled over the last half-century.
But everything old is new again. One of the most historically astute moments in the book comes when one of Howard Merritt's parishioners tells her, "We've seen this all before--the house churches, the coffeehouses, the intentional communities. All this already happened in the sixties" (44). Beyond living memory, one could point to the advocacy of Walter Rauschenbusch and Dorothy Day (which, to her credit, Howard Merritt does) or further, to the revivalists and social reformers Timothy Smith chronicled a half century ago. The particulars change, of course, but the trend is recognizable: groups of Christians have rallied against what they perceive as pernicious societal changes for centuries.
I hope Howard Merritt is right--that the loss of community and environmental degradation we've experienced over the last five decades spurs American Christians to reframe their religious life in profound ways. Some are doing that, and others will join the chorus in coming years. But Christian movements that seem antithetical to Howard Merritt's vision, like the prosperity church, are also thriving by providing a far different set of answers for the problems twenty-first century Americans face. (Howard Merritt recognizes this reality with a great one-liner comparing Joel Osteen to Hot Pockets.) The tapestry of American Christianity contains many strands, some beautiful and others despicable.
Howard Merritt knows this, and yet her excitement and optimism about the power of the church to transform itself and the world around it is strong. I hope that optimism continues to build in the church -- that we can overcome the nasty parts of the past while not letting go of the good traditions that formed us. Here's to reframing hope.