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Even better than a ballgame

Merritt tells Synod School church is still the great gathering place

July 25, 2012

STORM LAKE, Iowa

Besides sporting events, where besides the church do people young and old gather together anymore?

“Church is the one place we have [where we can] break down barriers” like demographics, Carol Howard Merritt told about 660 people gathered this week for Synod School, hosted by the Synod of Lakes and Prairies and meeting at Buena Vista College.

Because they’re together at least once a week, older and younger Christians have ample opportunity to teach each other. Seniors can teach young college graduates how to get by on a fixed income. “Those who grew up as digital natives,” Merritt said during Tuesday’s convocation, “have a lot to teach those of us who poke around on Facebook. We owe it to society to listen deeply to one another and to learn from one another.”

An active blogger and writer most recently from Washington, D.C., Merritt called on those people who feel called to go find a 20-year-old who can set them up to blog or podcast to tell the world about the work of their church.

“Our stories need to reach out beyond our doors. We need to be going out into the neighborhoods and to the ends of the Earth as digital missionaries,” she said. “It’s easy for us to say blogs are shallow and don’t mean anything. People used to say, ‘I don’t care what you had for breakfast,’ and pretty soon The New York Times had a blog.”

“We need people on the Internet engaging other people, because that’s where people are looking for God,” she said. “Sadly, people are not coming into the doors of our churches looking for God anymore.”

She labeled a concerted effort to Tweet, blog and podcast about the work of the local church “articulating the grace of God over and over in as many forms as possible.”

A child of the 1970s and 1980s, Merritt said she “grew up being taught to question. We can say that’s disrespectful, or we can realize we are people of faith who believe God is big enough and strong enough to handle our anger, questions and grief.”

One thing that makes Merritt “so incredibly proud to be part of the Presbyterian Church” even in the midst of change and declining membership is that “we are able to welcome people’s questions and accept their struggling and their wrestling. Our lay people have as much power as the clergy. We need to make sure the church stays that open and that people can question authority.”

A pastor friend once told Merritt that during the 1950s he’d often wear his clerical collar into department stores – and it regularly earned him discounts. By the 1970s it only got him dirty looks.

The church “now has a different place in society. We don’t have that honored position, and yet we can still play a part breaking down walls,” Merritt said. “The story of Jesus is not a victor’s story ― it’s a story of the oppressed, of people who don’t always win. Hagar’s story (recall that she was sent into the wilderness with her child, Ishmael) ― that’s who we are, a broken people who can honor the struggles of one another.”

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.

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