Merritt of the Mainline

As we have been enjoying the interviews with Matthew Hedstrom's new book, as we joyfully anticipate Elesha Coffman's, and as many gear up for that one night of the year we head to church (which happens to often be the longest service of the year), I wanted to introduce the writer-speaker-blogger-reverend who is renewing my faith in church (dare I say reviving): Carol Howard Merritt <@carolhoward>. Ordained in the PC-USA, Merritt writes for Christian Century, the Huffington Post, and a host of other media outlets. She co-hosts God Complex Radio, which should be back on the air with the new year and is the author of several path-breaking books on church life. Her most recent, Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation, has me rethinking not only my approach to church life, but also to how I conduct my classes and form my "tribes" with my graduate students. In the foreword, Diana Butler Bass calls it an "elegant meditation" and a "practical sermon" from "a young mainline pastor in the postmodern world."

Merritt represents something old and something new. She emerged from and is connected to the tradition of the mainline, but advocates many of the de-centering, postcolonial elements considered hallmarks of the "emergent church." But she defies the emergent category for its tendency to replicate already established cultures of power (where white men lead whether preaching in suits or determining the shape of the discussion in jeans and t-shirts). Reverend Merritt has been making her own road, and it's one I think religious historians  now and in the future will want to notice.

Q: Can you tell us about your college and graduate school trajectory? Was there anything about religion in history that influenced you - personally or more globally?

I was a sixteen-year-old conservative Southern Baptist when I applied for college. I knew I wanted to be in some sort of religious occupation, but because of my background, I didn’t have any notion that I—as a woman—could be a pastor. In the mid-90s, went to Moody Bible Institute in order to become a missionary.

While I was at Moody, I lived in downtown Chicago in a zip code that had one of the highest income disparities in our nation. I’d walk from my jobs on the Gold Coast to volunteer in Cabrini Green. As I mentored kids at after-school programs and shopped for the disabled and elderly, I became disenchanted by President Reagan’s trickle down economics. It was clear that Cabrini was not getting a drop of the wealth that poured on the streets of the Gold Coast. The children I worked with in one area were concerned about their upcoming piano lessons, while children a few blocks away had anxiety about their personal safety.

From my limited perspective, the Religious Right was the only Christian political response that surrounded me and they were gaining strength by upholding economic policies that further damaged the poor.

I hungered for some sort of good news in all of this, so I began to read Walter Rauschenbusch and Dorothy Day and found great inspiration in the Social Gospel movement. Rauschenbusch and Day led me to read Gustavo Gutierrez and Paulo Friere. Eventually, the Liberationists introduced me to Feminist Theology. Thanks to a good library and a lot of trips to the used bookstores, my fundamentalist Bible College helped me to get an education in the God of the oppressed.

After four years at Moody, I joined the Presbyterian Church (USA) and decided to go to graduate school. I attended Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, where I studied under Dr. Cynthia Rigby who opened up a greater world of feminist, womanist, and mujerista theology; Dr. Stacy Johnson who exposed me to postmodern thought; Dr. Ismael Garcia who taught me ethics and justice through Hispanic eyes; and Dr. Ellen Babinsky who worked with great care to make sure to introduce me to a history of mysticism that would be intellectually and socially compelling.

Q: Your books, Reframing Hope and Tribal Church, both emphasize the notion of "generations." How do you see the recent shifts in church life and what do you mean by generations?

When demographic, organizational, economic and other shifts occur, church leaders often don’t understand how their common life together—on a small scale—fits into those larger movements. Much of my work helps Mainline congregations to appreciate how what is happening to them around their church board meetings relates to the changes in the society and culture.
Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation
For instance, when we look at the demographic aspects in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (USA), we’re seeing devastating effects of being a largely rural, white, older church. As agriculture changes, areas where there were 5,000 farmers and a community of banks, post offices, hardware stores and schools supporting them have now been reduced to 5 agro-businesses. The bank, post office, stores and schools are closing and younger generations need to migrate to urban areas for employment.

Yet, when we talk to rural pastors and leaders, they often worry that it’s some sort of spiritual, evangelistic, leadership or moral failure that caused their attendance numbers to drop.

In addition, when we look at the ways in which a new generation organizes itself and communicates, it stands in stark contrast to how our denominational church functions. For instance, when working with Occupy, they were much more action and pragmatic oriented. In each General Assembly (that’s what Occupy calls their meetings), the group brings up a problem or an action, then they use hand motions, social media and technologies to mobilize and communicate immediately.

If we contrast that with our churches, we often have a standing committee that meets so that we can discuss a particular function of the congregation (worship, evangelism, stewardship), and we spend much of our time discussing how we will be doing everything this month the exact same way that we did it last month. When a change or action needs to happen, we move into a season of discernment so that we can pray, discuss, and table the problem until it goes away. Of course, there is much wisdom in our traditional church structures, but they often clash culturally with the way younger generations operate.

Economically, the changes between denominational churches and emerging generations feel particularly stark. Younger generations have been facing rising student loan debt, high unemployment, erratic housing costs, low health insurance coverage, exploitative internship expectations, and stagnant wages.

The church has been largely silent about these issues—except for those who work in Sociology of Religion. Some sociologists have identified this important societal injustice as an inability to grow up. Many have offered to add another life phase—an extended adolescence—as if to say that these problems rise from a desire to hike in the Himalayas for a few years, rather than a system of injustice.   

My use of “generations” can be confusing. When I wrote Tribal Church, I was talking about ministry to a particular age group, so I used “generation” to refer to people in their twenties and thirties. In Reframing Hope, my definitions changed a bit, and I used “generation” to talk about a particular chronological period. In most of my work, I’m describing changes that often reflect—but are not limited to—Generation X and Millennials.   

Q: Do members of your congregation care about "history" and what histories seem to grab them (either during sermons or other discussions)?

Yes. It’s amazing how much history shapes and inspires a congregation, and I loved introducing historic narratives into the general stories that a body tells itself. In sermons and classes, I tried to connect the church to its liberating past. Not only because it’s often unknown, but it can also encourage people to become a part of a larger movement that spans generations.  

Usually, people are interested in the histories that immediately connect them to who they have become. Our congregation in D.C. told the stories of the Civil War. Like many of the churches in that area, their sanctuary was used as a hospital for both the North and the South, so we would imagine how bloodstains on a sanctuary floor forms a congregation’s calling and identity. I hope that we became a more compassionate, caring congregation because of it.

When I served Louisiana, they told the history of the Cajun and Creole people. They explained how their people were in Acadie when the Great Expulsion occurred. The women and children went to church, and the British captured them and put them on boats. When the men followed, they were captured as well. The Cajuns told stories about how they were sold as slaves down the east coast until they settled in Louisiana. Their history was not just written in books, but it pulsed through their vibrant, music, food and festival traditions.

I also preached at Revivals with the Prophetess Perot and we would meet in a House of Prayer. The building had been transported from a plantation and its walls were soaked with history. They told me that the House of Prayer was the one place on the plantation where slaves met, without any oversight or fear. Within those walls, in that safe place, men and women told their stories. The sanctuary was a refuge in every sense of the word.  

In many ways, histories grab them, but congregations are also fascinating receptacles of history as well.

Q: If you could narrate the history of "progressive Christianity" where would you start? What major events or people would you include in the story?

I would start by defining what I mean by progressive Christianity. Since it’s a fairly new designation (at least in its wide usage), it has a very present and contextual feel to it. It’s also a particularly political aspect to it (which I sometimes find problematic). For me, being a progressive Christian does not mean that a person aligns himself or herself to one particular party or mimic the talking points of a favorite politician. Instead, progressive Christians typically have a core longing to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” and we hope to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Those directives take us from understanding our faith as simply a matter of individual piety and move us to think and act systemically. Working for justice, we realize that we need to make structural changes that will allow all people in our society to have a sense of liberation, security, fairness, opportunity, and equality. These things have an effect on the ways we wage war, and many would further extend those aspects of justice to not only include humans, but all creation.

So, if I were to narrate progressive Christianity, I would look to people whose faith compelled them to work for justice (focusing mostly on the United States, but understanding the movement is global) and I would include those who may have worked toward cultural, political and religious liberation even if the term “progressive Christian” was never used to describe them.

I would focus on stories of people who fought for the poor, making sure that there were child labor laws and protections for workers. I would recognize the countless men and women who worked with the Civil Rights movement, feminist movement, and peace movements. We could explore the stories of men and women who work for the rights of immigrants and refugees, those who fought alongside the elderly and those who demand education and healthcare children. We have many who are working for the rights for same-gender couples and those who face discrimination because of their sexual orientation. I would lift up those who expand our understanding and care to include the earth.

The stories of those working for justice because their spiritual depth moves them to action are overwhelming. And I would take care to note that these ideas of liberation spread in countless ways and mediums--in our classrooms, books, journalism, preaching, music, art, dance, festivals, and technology.

Q: Are you working on a book now? Can you tell us anything about it?

I’m working on a couple of projects. I’m finishing up a handbook for recovering fundamentalists and I’m developing a book on at how people of faith are responding to economic issues, particularly in light of the Occupy movement.


Thanks for this interview, Ed. Perhaps because I also grew up SBC, I know many stories about the path from fundamentalism to progressive Christianity--and Merritt's seem archetypal in many ways.
Edward J. Blum said…
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Edward J. Blum said…
You are our resident expert on this!!!
Brantley, You're right... there are so many of us out there.

I think one difficult about writing about current religious movements is that there can be a tendency to universalize particular experience. But then there are times when there are *so* many people who seem to be trailing the same path, that it's good to point it out.
James McTyre said…
Great insight from someone who sees the complexity without making judgments. Too many preachers are ready to pounce when listening to and studying culture is a better first step. Diplomacy and conversation is so much more productive.

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