Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation, by Carol Howard Merritt

So many churches are searching for ways to reach young adults, that “missing generation.” Carol Howard Merritt, pastor at Western Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC, describes her approach as a tribal church. Her tribal church has four characteristics: “(1) a gathering around a common cause, (2) a ministry shift to basic care, (3) the practice of spiritual traditions, and (4) a network of intergenerational encouragement” (p. 8).

For Merritt, the common cause is to “connect with God.” Through worship and spiritual traditions (e.g., walks in nature, Easter breakfast at a restaurant) one creates a tighter bond with the Creator. In addition, she describes the church acting as Jesus’ hands and feet through social action and care for the creation. (She spends a great deal of the book advocating for the rights of homosexuals.) The Holy Spirit’s role is to make the church a caring community. One will quickly notice the absence of any theme, or need, of redemption.

Throughout the book Merritt expresses the frustrations many young adults feel toward older generations who have tagged them as materialistic, ignoring the financial challenges they face. In addition, she notes that many 30 year olds have been overlooked with respect to leadership positions. She describes how many in the mainline churches are “blatantly against.” Many of these generational points will resonate with readers in their 20s and 30s. Furthermore, she suggests that the church should recognize how much it offends young people, who value diversity, when it holds exclusive views on sexuality and soteriology, the doctrine of salvation (p 140). Accommodating this culture, Merritt’s tribe accepts not only homosexuality, but also bisexuality. Her theology embraces a god that welcomes and affirms agnostics and Buddhists. This seems to derive from her own agnostic Christianity that admits one doesn’t have all the answers concerning God.

This book could benefit someone working with young adults as it describes the worldview of many today. This book provides a clear depiction of the culture around us. Though a confessional Lutheran will disagree with many of Merritt’s theological positions, recognizing the various challenges young adults face (finances, sexuality) is a crucial part of ministering to them. Reading Merritt’s impression of Christianity is as valuable as her description of young adults. For, as 30 year old herself, she demonstrates how many in this generation are able to rationalize their diverse worldly views with the claims of Scripture. By reading her thoughts on the church and considering her questions at the end of each chapter, one can contemplate how best to respond to such views that are so prevalent in our society.

Whereas there are too many doctrinal issues in the book to address in this review, there remains a fundamental flaw in Merritt’s approach to ministering to the missing generation. If the church is to minister to young adults or any other generation in the name of Christ, the forgiveness of sins cannot be missing. This requires the recognition of one’s sins (not simply the perception that everyone is a victim) and faith in Jesus Christ, as proclaimed in God’s Word. This generation may value diversity and inclusion in all things, but God has chosen particular means by which He provides salvation for all who believe. “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). Merritt describes how one might build a tribe of young adults, but without the forgiveness of sins, it is the church that is missing.