Growing up a Southern Baptist, Carol Howard Merritt knew she wanted to be a pastor at the tender age of 6.

That’s the age she began preaching ― to anyone who would listen ― the sermons she’d heard in church on Sunday, from her notes jotted down on the backs of offering envelopes.

Merritt, a Presbyterian pastor and writer who most recently served a church in Washington, D.C., is convocation speaker this week at the Synod of Lakes and Prairies Synod School 2012. The 59th annual event, the denomination’s sole remaining synod school, has a record 660 people in attendance, 155 for the first time.

By the time she was ready to attend seminary, Merritt had a hard time explaining to her friends why she was leaving her fundamentalist roots for the Presbyterian Church. Why are you joining us, they wondered. We are on the decline.

Yes, she told them, but key Presbyterians ― including a paraplegic woman who had her read Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Henri Nouwen to her ― “showed me the grace of God, the greatest thing ever.”

Despite the fact that it’s closing 10 churches each month, the PC (U.S.A.) is in “a rich, incredible time of transition,” she said. Things are shifting all over, including the closing of rural post offices and the consolidation of farms into ever-larger operations. “Do we say the Presbyterian Church is irrelevant? No, we are hopeful for what is coming in the future,” she said.

That’s because Presbyterians have three advantages they might not realize are at their disposal:

  • Abundance ― “All Presbyterians say the same thing, that we don’t have enough money,” she said. “But we’re one of the richest denominations in terms of per capita income in history. OK, I just made that up,” she said with a laugh, “but it’s true. We have an incredible abundance of land, buildings, tradition and thought, and all we do is sit around and talk about how terrible things are.”
  • Technology ― The Presbyterian advantage is that technology is still word based, and “we can use the wisdom and richness we have as adenomination” even as we spread the Good News with such devices as our smart phones. “We [Presbyterians] did OK with radio and did nothing with TV, but now we have a different opportunity with technology.”
  • “Incredible” theology ― “As painful as it is to go through schisms and frustrations” talking about gender and racial diversity and controversial ideas like liberation theology, “we have not ignored them, so we have a rich depth of theology and tradition. We are blessed people and are amazingly adept at navigating the shift we are going through.”

While Americans used to believe Walter Cronkite when he’d sign off his newscasts with, “That’s the way it is,” today “1,000 bloggers would be telling him the real way it is. That’s not all bad,” Merritt said. “People are talking back to news organizations, and sometimes incredible conversations arise. Other times,” she added, referring to criticism of her own writing, “I feel like I’ve put my hand in a meat grinder. They are just brutal and nasty.”

In today’s churches, pastors face the same problem that news organizations encounter. They’re not viewed as the final authority.

 “We wear our fancy robes, have a monologue, and we end it with, ‘And that’s the way it is,’” she said. “But we who are in the pulpit aren’t always right. People need a place to wrestle with their faith.”

While church should be that place, for many people it’s not, because wrestling requires muscles they haven’t exercised in years.

 “A pastor recently said, ‘I think my congregation is a bunch of 13-year-olds. They haven’t thought about their faith since confirmation class.’”

“We need spaces where people can wrestle, question and really begin to come to faith with an intelligent, scientific mindset. We’ve got it. It’s all here. I just need a place where I can begin to question things.”

Preachers would do well to take a story-telling cue from the Trader Joe’s grocery chain, she said, which convinces shoppers to buy fish by “telling you the story of how that fish was treated.”

“I know it doesn’t come naturally to Presbyterians, but it’s OK to talk about our feelings,” she said. “If you present something with a context, it makes it more interesting.”

Merritt is author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation and Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation. She’ll be speaking for 45 minutes each morning at SynodSchool.

The theme for Synod School 2012 is “Singing the Lord’s Song in a Strange Land.” The Rev. Susan Barnes of United Presbyterian Church of Lone Tree is the artist in residence (and husband of this correspondent).

Mike Ferguson is a ruling elder at the United Presbyterian Church of Lone Tree (Iowa), a reporter for “The Muscatine Journal”― the newspaper where Mark Twain got his start ― editor of “Out and About, the enewsletter of the Presbytery of East Iowa, and a frequent contributor to Presbyterian News Service.