I came into the PCUSA through the emergent movement. Coming from a conservative evangelical background, I followed the emergent movement (before it was called emergent) into an emergent seminary until life circumstances led me to a mainline PCUSA seminary. I feared my emergent postmodern theology would be co-opted by modern mainline constructs, but I found the opposite. My theological imagination went deeper as I read constructive and post-colonial texts and learned to think more critically. Many of the theological and spiritual resources I had been longing for were present in the history and ongoing trajectory of progressive mainline theology.
However, my experience in mainline churches was just the opposite. I felt I had stepped back decades in worship experience, accessibility, and engagement with the world. My struggle went beyond traditional versus contemporary styles. I wondered, where was the imagination I found in the classroom on Sunday morning? How did this exciting theology translate into visible action that invited others outside our communities to participate? Denominational structures and programs felt like an insider’s world that was completely foreign to me.
Carol Howard Merritt, in her new book, Reframing Hope, responds to these concerns. Like me, Merritt has found the progressive mainline tradition life-giving and supportive. She believes the history of the mainline church’s concern for justice and peace-making is a profound resource that American culture and our world are looking for. Merritt is passionate in her belief that mainline communities embody hope for a postmodern globalized world, however we must reframe that hope to make it accessible to younger generations.
Merritt speaks with a pastor’s heart and a researcher’s mind. Her conversational writing is in a language that is native to progressive mainline congregations. While her first book, Tribal Church, addressed how to include a younger generation in churches, this second offering looks at how the mainline tradition can reimagine its structures in the contemporary world. She examines authority, community, communication, message, activism, creation care and spirituality–offering insightful perspective and a way forward on how the contemporary church can respond and find new life.
This book is an essential resource in many ways. Presbymergents and “loyal radicals” of other denominations will find a helpful discussion of what makes us distinct in the emergent movement. Merritt puts voice to why I, and many others, choose to be in a denomination and what our hopes are for the future. Generation X-ers will find resonance in Carol’s experience of the world and view of faith and why something just doesn’t quite feel right about many churches. Church leaders will find a multitude of ideas and directions for how to restructure all aspects of their church. Prayerfully reading this book and considering its ramifications will spur many congregations’ vision and mission.
Reframing Hope is not a call to be less than we are as mainline congregations. Instead, Merritt passionately, prophetically and tenderly calls us out to be more fully who we are. As we move into naming our past and imagining our future, we will grasp the hope that Merritt holds out for the church in contemporary society.