Why Big Tent Christianity?

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Why Big Tent Christianity?

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Brian McLaren and I are organizing a major public conference on September 8-9 in Raleigh, North Carolina in order to make the call for a return to “Big Tent Christianity.” Why is this call important?

“One Lord, One Church, One Baptism . . .”
The Christian church appeals back to a single teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, whom our tradition calls the Christ. The unity of una ecclesia, the one church, was counted among its most important features. But, frankly, we’ve never done a very good job at the unity thing. The earliest history of the church, “the Acts of the Apostles,” chronicles the rapid devolution from “they had all things in common” (Acts 2:44) to the acrimonious battle over whether circumcision should be required of all new (male) believers (Acts 15).

No one can take a church history course without being struck by how much of the church’s story is about debates and divisions. Sometimes it seems as though all they did was call each other heretics over ever more obscure matters. At its worst, in the “Great Schism,” popes excommunicated popes. On a bad day, it looks like everyone down river from them was working to imitate their example.

The American Church Today
The church in this country was no exception. We spawned new denominations like salmon spawn eggs during mating season. Then for about a hundred years, it didn’t seem to matter as much. Presbyterians preached predestination and Baptists practiced adult baptism, but (in good American fashion) most people didn’t get too worked up about the differences. Most people identified with a religious community. It might have its doctrines and its quirks. Still, it worked for them.

Over the last few decades, however, “church” stopped working for more and more Americans. The decline hit the Protestant mainline churches first. They’ve been bleeding members and funds for about fifty years. But it now looks like many are finally at that “tipping point” where it becomes impossible even to sustain the old structures. Churches are closing in great numbers. Now the malaise is beginning to spread to evangelical churches as well.

What Happened?
In a word: the old disputes stopped mattering. First, people just wanted religious community, good preaching, and a strong Sunday School program. They didn’t much care whether the historical source was Luther, Calvin, Wesley, or St. Thomas. Then things got worse. The younger generations, the Gen-Xers and Millennials, left their churches when they left home, and the vast majority of them never came back.

What are they saying? That churches have become irrelevant to their lives and concerns. That the old styles of church attendance and worship no longer draw them. That the vicious disputes about doctrines are a turn-off. “If that’s all that your religion stands for, I can do without it.” A staggering 72 percent of Americans between 18 and 29 now call themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

A Movement Outside the Old Institutions
This revolution in attitudes toward institutional religion is upsetting a lot of apple carts. But it is not ending the practice of religion. Across the country people are reading and blogging, meeting in homes and pubs, inventing new forms of religious community. They may write cynically about the hostile debates between evangelicals and liberals, but they also carry within themselves a new religious idealism. They find something revolutionary in the Jesus of the gospels. And they’re bold enough to ask what Christian communities would look like if they really sought to incarnate the Way that this Teacher lived and taught.

We call it “big tent” Christianity. It evokes the image of the revival tent that folks used to set up just outside of town. Here differences were (ideally) set aside while people sought transformation and a new direction in the Spirit. Today, likewise, vast numbers of people are seeking spiritual answers and communities outside of church buildings.

More boldly, “big tent” is also a prophetic challenge to the rancorous debates and condemnations that are the church’s public face today. Christians on the Left and on the Right look more and more like Washington: you are on one side or the other of that great aisle or chasm; everything you say and do plays to your own party. Unity hardly exists, even as a goal. Even Patheos has to offer separate “portals” so that evangelicals and mainliners don’t have to enter through the same door.

A Challenge
Our challenge is simple: if there is any core faith, any shared Way, in Christianity, let’s place it in the middle. Let’s gather on a single stage — from Pat Robertson to Bishop Spong, and everyone in between — to say that unifying love comes first and that the disputes are secondary.

Join us September 8-9 in Raleigh, if you can. But if you can’t, write, blog, and speak about unity over division. Remember that the “big tent” mindset begins at home; it’s not an ideology, it’s how you live. Perhaps what the church needs to hear is what Jesus said to his friend: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary . . .” (Lk. 10:41f).

Also posted at patheos.com


Ian Carmichael

August 28, 2010at 3:20 am

I’m never sure whether to post a duplicate comment on a duplicate post. Whatever – this time I will!
Well said, Philip! I am not averse to doctrinal content, but there is far more importance in being transformed and transforming than in being ‘correct’. The point of my faith needs to be transformation – which needs to be the point of the activity in my ‘small tent’ as well as that of the activity in the ‘big tent’.
Obviously there are a set of parameters which indicate godly transformation, just as there are directions in which transformations is ungodly – but these are far more set in terms of character and compassion than in statements of propositional truth.
But I hope, for those who want to claim ‘We called them and they didn’t come…” that the call was by personal invitation, not by megaphone announcement.
So every blessing and hope for fruit – lasting fruit- to be born in the big tent!

Philip Clayton

August 28, 2010at 8:52 am

Ian, nice: I like your insistence that the smaller tents don’t become less important when we seek for larger-scale reconciliation. In the end, as you say, real connections happen through personal invitations and not “by megaphone announcement.”

Maybe we should stop and think about the resistance to the transformation message. To many of us it expresses the deepest features of Jesus’ prophetic message and of Christian existence. After all, what is salvation if not “metanoia” — a turning, a new direction … a rebirth.

But to those on the other side, all this transformation talk distracts from what Christians should be talking about, which is what is true and what sinners have to believe to be saved.

Are these two approaches really, essentially incompatible? Or are they two sides of a single coin?

— Philip

Ian Carmichael

August 28, 2010at 7:32 pm

I take this as two sides of the same coin. Romans 12 reads clearly from either side – don’t let the world conform you, let the Spirit transform you…
Even for the inerrantist debate, the focus of 2 Timothy 3:16, 17 is far more on the purpose of the Word than its provenance. Calvin makes that point himself. If our use of scripture is not for equipping people for every good work – we are contradicting it.

Ian Carmichael

August 28, 2010at 10:40 pm

Philip, you gave me pause above. “To those on the other side…” seems to shift the tentposts a bit (:. The very point, it would seem,of big tent is a level welcome. But in identifying ‘sides’ is there a right/wrong judgement being applied? Are you unconsciously welcoming THEM into OUR tent? I’d have thought that transformation is a key concept in any and every strand of Christianity.
Classical evangelicalism, for exam[le would be serious about sanctification – even if struggling with its social consequences – which is transformation. I can’t imagine any Christianity – indeed any religion – which would make a call to us to remain as we are. (And the struggle is already being made from within – Waldron Scott, Ron Sider, Tony Campolo, Dave Andrews – just to mention a few recent names working hard at transformative engagement both personal and social.)
Scott “Bring Forth Justice” is a particular illuminator for me, weaving personal evangelism, social justice and spiritual renewal together. Two antipodean attempt is Brian Hathaway’s “Beyond Renewal’, and John McInnes’ “The New Pilgrims”.

Philip Clayton

August 29, 2010at 10:58 am

Ian, great questions. I’ve just posted a blog responding…

— Philip

Kamalini Martin

August 30, 2010at 1:02 pm

I wish the Big Tent idea every success. It may take time to actually heal the wounds but the first step goes a long way. My prayers for unity.
Kamalini, Bangalore, India

Ian Carmichael

September 1, 2010at 9:12 am

And to follow up on purposive meetings – will there be a therefore from the ‘Tent’?
In ‘Beyond Renewal’ Brian Hathaway (re)publishes a modern creed (Appendix 1: Kingdom Manifesto pp 193-205). It alternates
“We believe…” clauses
“Therefore…” clauses. But it’s not just a clever structure
Its content and purpose is brilliant too (imho).

Philip Clayton

September 1, 2010at 12:40 pm

Ian, I hadn’t seen “Beyond Renewal” by Brian Hathaway — thanks for the reference; I’ll get a copy. We’re working on a second Big Tent meeting in Phoenix, AZ in February — more news on that soon. Your input, and that of others on this site, will influence how we set that one up.

— Philip

Church and The Lonely Soul | The Progressive Christian Alliance

September 28, 2010at 7:08 pm

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Bible Study

December 12, 2010at 9:37 pm

This is just letting us know Satan’s plan for mystery babylon is great success, knowing babylon stands for confusion. There are so many different denominations of Christianity all of which claim to be true. With all the confusion, it is probably best for one to stay home anyway and let God reveal himself to us.

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