Book Review: Tribal Church by Carol Howard Merritt

I’m a lay leader in a wonderful, thriving, and extremely diverse international church in Munich. There are black people, white people, loads of kids and babies, and a very small smattering of teens; and then the demographic chart picks up again with older (50+) people (*my mother would say this is not old, but from the perspective of an 18-year old, it is). But there is an awkward gap in the church where you might hope to find university students and young professionals, ages ca. 18 to 30… but you don’t.

When I talk to others about this, they simply say, “People in that age just don’t go to church.” It may well be the age in which church attendance drops the sharpest, but I refuse to accept this resigned, “oh don’t even bother” attitude. I am under 30, and I do go to church; in fact, my church community is extremely important to me. There must be others like me… somewhere.

So I picked up “Tribal Church” by Carol Howard Merritt with the hopes of finding new insight, or at least cannon fodder for the next round of arguments at council meeting about whether there is any need to update our website to make it fresher and more appealing (yes! need!), or any value in starting a Facebook page for the church, or any point in exerting any energy whatsoever to attract young people to the community.

Merritt’s proposed solution is the tribal church, a church that ” understands and reaches out to the nomadic culture of young adults.” For our church, which is anyway comprised of a wild mix of ex-pats, locals, refugees, asylum seekers, and others, her model of “ministry to nomads” is extremely relevant. Merritt suggests that the tribal church can focus on offering its members the following:

1. Intergenerational relationships
2. Economic understanding
3. Unambiguous inclusion
4. Affirming traditions
5. Shared leadership
6. Spiritual guidance

I actually think that our church does a pretty good job in these areas. Of special concern in our church is the number of refugees and asylum seekers, who are given a great deal of attention in our community. The wonderful aspect of this is our vibrant commitment to social justice, as well the way that we integrate people on the margins of our society into our church family. A potential danger of our church’s focus is that by comparison, the needs of ex-pat-20-somethings are not taken as seriously. For a young person looking for a job and struggling to pay the exorbitant rent prices for even a tiny apartment in Munich, life can be really tough. It doesn’t help if when she comes to church she is (implicitly) told, “you are so privileged! Don’t complain; you are not an asylum seeker from Africa!” In other words, “you don’t have real problems.” Speaking as someone who moved from Boston to Munich in her mid 20s, I can say:  in my first few years in Germany, I did have real problems: I was often broke, minimally employed in a dignity-stripping job, struggling with the language and culture shock, clinically depressed, and almost crushingly lonely. In comparison to an asylum seeker I surely looked like I had it all together and was a “just another privileged American abroad”, but inside I was really struggling, and I needed my church to see that.

Oh, right, this was about someone else’s book. I forgot, because I was ranting about me. I will wrap up this post by saying that do very highly I recommend this thoughtful and passionate book, which may very well help churches who are scratching their heads and wondering why there are no 20-somethings to be seen in their congregations to become more intentional and effective at loving, caring for, and ministering to not only young people, but also nomads of all generations who are looking for a tribe to protect and support them.

Amen!

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One thought on “Book Review: Tribal Church by Carol Howard Merritt

  1. Thanks for the mention! 🙂 Your honesty is refreshing. I think when we share where we are, or have been, it opens the door for others to be as honest and real as we (you) have been. Thanks for being willing to put your story/heart out there. Love –

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