Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book Review: "Tribal Church: Minstering to the Missing Generation" by Carol Howard Merritt

I know I am late to the party reviewing this book (I have an excuse); Carol Howard Merritt (a Presbyterian Church-USA pastor) is about to publish another book--soon. Maybe people who are checking out her new book will want to know more about the older book.

Many reviewers of Tribal Church stated there are good ideas in Carol's book for inter generational ministry, but I'm not so sure this is an idea book as a conversation for leaders (and anyone else interested) about their congregational culture. If you're looking for specific ideas to replicate, you might find something, but you might look to another resource. Tribal Church likely fits better for small to mid-sized (up to 250 in worship) "Mainline [or what I call 20th Century-Brand] Protestants." Carol happens to name the plight of missing Gen Xers and Millennials and what it means for the life of the Church, but Carol's content and style inspires any congregation to better use the assets it already has to reach people in the margins of the community. I believe this is the book's greatest gift. The book's final chapter magnificently states in affirmation "The mainline denominational church has everything it needs to minister to younger generations." This is a powerful statement, I find that most of the congregations I serve in one capacity or another focus on what they do not have, rather than what they have.

When reviewing a ministry book, I answer the question, "how would I use this book in my congregation?" I have served in interim ministry for 9 years, covering 9 congregations. I believe the congregational transition between pastors is a great time to use this book. Here is why I would have used it in most (but not all) of my interim congregations:

1. Most small to mid-sized congregations, for a variety of reasons, will be calling a younger clergy person in their future. Carol names and broadly discusses the numerous challenging variables for young clergy (it should be noted that most variables could apply to early career clergy, but particularly young clergy). Some congregations may not be aware of the challenges and the lack of awareness could be the source of previous pastor-congregation discord. Awareness and action to address certain issues named in the book could produce a healthier relationship with the next pastor.

2. Pastoral transitions provide a great opportunity to evaluate congregational ministries. Howard Merritt astutely raises points around many contentious situations in the target congregational group:
  • "The _____________ (fund-raiser, cultural event) supper [for Scandinavian Lutherans, insert lutefisk]."
  • Committee service
  • Leadership development
  • Declining participation in a small group that appealed to people decades ago
  • Demographic and sociological realities
  • Generational divides
  • Clergy critique
3. The bigger picture of Tribal Church is the question that every congregation in transition must address: why do we (the congregation) do the things that we do? The bromide: "that's the way we've always done it" does not get a free pass in this book. I love asking this questions to my interim congregations, and this book provides multiple entry point.

I have a hard time not liking this book. Having recently exited the sub-group of "young clergy," I share a great deal of solidarity with Carol Howard Merritt and the advocacy she offers for Gen X and Millennial generations, as well as the small to mid-sized mainline Protestant congregations. I've served a majority of my ordination working with congregations in that classification, and shared in her advocacy work. The book could easily be shared in a coffee house or a church basement over a series covered dish/potluck/hotdish supper (depending on your area of the country), or in a church board room. You don't have to agree with every issue Carol Howard Merritt raises, but she will introduce you to an important evaluation of your congregational culture and practices worthy of a personal and graceful discussion, especially if you notice that Gen X and Millennial generations are missing from your congregational life.

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