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Big Tent Christianity

In just under a month, an interesting “first” will be taking place in Raleigh, NC. Big Tent Christianity: Being and Becoming the Church is a conference/conversation being held to talk about what it is that unites followers of Jesus from a broad range of contexts and perspectives and how we can live and work and talk together in a spirit of cooperation, respect. It is intended to reflect a willingness to learn from rather than shout at/about one another in this crazy thing called the church. It is an attempt to come together under the “big tent” of the body of Christ and to recognize that the big tent is more important than the little tents that we are, perhaps, more familiar and comfortable with.

As a part of this process, the organizers have invited bloggers to participate in the Big Tent Christianity Synchroblog throughout this week. A quick glance at the posts already up (which are very much worth looking through) makes it clear that I’m a little late to the party, but I will nonetheless belatedly (and somewhat hastily) offer a few of my reflections on some of the themes and questions that the organizers sent out to generate conversation about “Big Tent Christianity.”

At the outset, I suppose it could be considered odd for me to think in terms of a “big tent” at all. I am, after all, part of a very small tent in the Christian world. The Mennonite Brethren Church is a tiny little twig on a still-pretty-small Mennonite branch of the much larger trunk of the Christian church. And the origins of the Mennonite Brethren as a renewal movement within the Mennonite church could be interpreted as giving evidence that we actually think the tent should be small. Like many other denominations, a lot of the rhetoric in our past has focused on the purity of the “real” church (and how we, of course, embodied or represented this purity). Like many other denominations, we have only slowly come to think about if/how to retain those aspects of our little tents that are important while embracing the larger family of which we are a part. But this is the direction we are headed, and for that I am grateful.

I guess one of the most important things that big tent Christianity means to me is a willingness to acknowledge our limitations as human beings and as followers of Jesus. Where my ancestors were, perhaps, convinced that they alone were the true church who alone understood what Christianity was all about, there is an increasing awareness and embracing of the fact that nobody sees the whole picture and we all need each other to provide insight and correction and encouragement along the way. Questions about who’s right and who’s wrong are gradually giving way to an acknowledgment that we’re all wrong about some things and right about others, but that we’re all on the same journey with and to Christ. We don’t all have to agree under the big tent, and I am glad to see that we are learning how to disagree without setting the tent on fire or kicking down the poles holding it up.

This gives me hope for the church, both around the world and in the west-coast Canadian context in which I live and work. I see a lot of cynicism and/or apathy about the church in my neck of the woods. The latest numbers show, I think, that around 4% of the people on Vancouver Island attend a religious service of any kind on a given Sunday morning. So on one level, things look rather bleak. At the same time, people are very open to conversation about questions of justice, spirituality, earth-keeping, and others. And the person of Jesus is someone who continues to generate significant interest and admiration. If following Jesus is going to be seen as plausible or attractive in this context, part of the process will almost certainly involve a church that is committed to living responsibly and ethically in God’s world, and that gives evidence of genuinely loving God and neighbour.

My hope is that more and more people will—through initiatives like Big Tent Christianity, but also through the everyday lives of ordinary people in ordinary churches around the world—see that the tent under which we journey with Jesus is big enough for them.  I hope that through Christ’s church, our post-Christian world will come to realize that the big tent is a safe and hospitable and grace-filled place to learn and love and hope and grieve and grow and follow together.

20 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It may be that diversity is at least as important as unity. Alister McGrath’s book, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea, develops this idea to some extent.

    Re: “almost certainly involve a church that is committed to living responsibly and ethically in God’s world.” Maybe not. That has been the Western emphasis in modernity, but the idea that this should be the emphasis is not shared by all in the West and not the emphasis outside of the West. I think if anything unites Christians, it is not this.

    I don’t mean to disparage ecumenism or any other Western emphasis including “living responsibly and ethically.” This emphasis is, after all, at least part of the way of Christianity that is most familiar to me. It is not a bad way.

    August 14, 2010
    • I’ve not read McGrath’s book although based on the reviews I’ve read and a more general familiarity with his other works I think I would wholeheartedly agree with the ideas it contains. I gather it is something of an argument for the importance of dissent and disagreement and diversity of opinion and interpretation? I of course think these are crucially important legacies of the Protestant Reformation. In the post above I was largely advocating/affirming the trend I see toward living with diversity in more healthy and, in my view, Christian ways. My conception of Big Tent Christianity certainly doesn’t involve squashing diversity.

      I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of what Christians have/have not emphasized in modernity. Perhaps it is a reflection of the different contexts we are familiar with. I have certainly seen a great deal of energy in the evangelical world (a world that Mennonites never seem quite sure if they belong or ought to belong in) expended on defining the borders of doctrinal purity and patrolling them vigilantly. I have often seen a fear-based approach to the broader culture and a determination to prevent contamination from “the world.” It is a highly cognitive approach to faith that emphasizes thinking and believing the right things. I think the cognitive content of Christianity is certainly important, but it will always be immensely more attractive and believable if it makes an actual difference in how Christians actually live.

      August 14, 2010
  2. Ken #

    I think of McGrath’s book as a framing of protestantism as a reforming movement, still reforming. In addition, it is just a fascinating assessment of the reformation and restoration movements in Germany, Switzerland, England and America.

    Re: emphasis on right living and ethics: I am thinking especially perhaps of the emphasis in main-line protestant denominations, although I do think that an emphasis on ethics has largely characterized Western protestantism in modernity notwithstanding the emphasis on right belief that became important in the fundamentalist/modernist conflict (on both sides.)

    August 14, 2010
    • Ken #

      In addition, maybe the emphasis on right living and ethics is part of the same movement as the persecution of heretics for their wrong beliefs in protestantism and modernity.

      I have just begun reading another book that may appeal to you. “Burning to Read” by James Simpson, professor of English at Harvard. It deals with the connection between the way we read texts since the reformation and with the persecution (burning) of heretics and the banning (burning) of books. He makes a particularly interesting revisionist argument in which fundamentalism and modern liberalism are strikingly and horrifyingly the same in their roots. He is not seeking the abandonment of liberalism, but rather a rethinking of how we read for the sake of liberalism, for the sake of freedom and peace. (It also appears to be another fascinating take on the reformation.)

      I find the most interesting theology in departments of history, philosophy and literature at universities. And, heretic that I suppose I am, I find God there and in nature more than in church. Please pray that I will not burn.

      August 14, 2010
      • Sounds like a fascinating book—I’ve added it to my list.

        I agree—philosophy and history and literature are (and have almost always been) the source of the most interesting theology. It’s where I often tend to look too :).

        August 14, 2010
  3. mdaele #

    It’s hard not to be critical of a movement like this for the standpoint of (what seem to be) the underlying institutional agendas present.
    Unity does not seem like a valid end goal for the church. Unity should be the product of some other greater purpose which clearly could not be accomlished without unity (ie. tranforming the calamitous poverty and injustice in our world). As an end goal unity can only ever hope to devolve into lowest-common-denominator theology and dogma.
    We get mighty suspicious of large corporations who use amalgamation to increase their market share – not by finding new customers but by taking over the customers of other companies. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to see this (well polished) movement/organization as little more than more of the same type of tactics. There are traces of a greater agenda but still far too little for my liking.
    I am not opposed to ecumenism at all but it it should be a means and not end. I would be excited to see someone frame a rationale for ecumenism that reaches beyond unity to an agenda that could reflect power the church COULD wield in fighting injustice – for instance…

    August 15, 2010
    • Ken #

      Justice is the main concern of the ecumenical movement, at least in the mainline or liberal protestant denominations. It unites the left leaning clergy in those denominations. Of course, their politics alienates them from many people who belong to their churches. They spend a lot of time trying to “convert” their flock to their way of thinking, and they mostly fail.

      August 15, 2010
    • I don’t think unity, in and of itself, is a good enough reason for ecumenism either. At the same time, I would be hesitant in saying that there is no “greater purpose” behind movements like Big Tent Christianity. What about something as simple as mission? What about coherence at a worldview level? Christians claim to be telling/embodying a particular story about God, human beings, what’s wrong with the world, what the solution is, etc. I think that part of telling that story well and in a manner consistent with the nature of the story involves a commitment to living well with those who don’t see the world in the same way that we do.

      I guess I’m not sure we can so clearly draw lines between means and ends here. Unity is not the goal but I think it is certainly a goal. If the big purpose behind Big Tent Christianity (or any other expression of Christian ecumenism) is promoting the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven, then there is room for all kinds of purposive goals and activities, including addressing poverty and injustice.

      August 16, 2010
      • mdaele #

        I’m not trying to make a mountain out of southern Alberta coulee…
        My concern about so many of these corporatized ‘movements’ is that the purpose or rationale is as manufactured as so much of our commonplace marketing for the useless ‘products’ we consume daily (which we are told that we need). (ie. i really NEED five blades on my razor to get a little action from the ladies)
        In this case what makes me question is that motivations that reach beyond unity are largely seen as by-products or additional benefits of the the unity that is achieved. Its not that justice and mission are not present in the rationale intoned in this movement. And I certainly see value in wise people holding meaningful conversations about unity across the eclesial divides. To me it seems that what should stand out is the unserving urgency of a clear mandate to accomplish something together that would be impossible otherwise.
        In my experience I have watched unity emerge out of situations where diverse perspectives responded to the urgency of a need that brought them together in action. I suppose I fail to see that clarion vision expressed. So that makes me suspicious that this is little more than so much marketing fluff to sell more books and have good people waste money on conference registrations and hotel bills.

        August 17, 2010
      • I think your concerns are very legitimate. God knows we don’t need more expensive conferences where like-minded people get together and congratulate themselves about how like-minded (and right) they are. And it is certainly true that unity does emerge around situations where urgent action is called for to meet a need.

        I guess for me, the “clear mandate” for Big Tent Christianity (or any other expression of Christianity) is already given: the kingdom of God, shalom, etc. We don’t get to choose our mandate. We can discuss it, clarify it, imagine it, be convicted by our failure to live according to it, and any other number of things. But the mandate doesn’t change. I don’t think that isolating one feature from the whole picture (i.e., addressing poverty/injustice) gets us much further. In fact, it’s what we already see on the ground with various interest groups focusing on what they think is the heart of the Christian mandate (i.e., Sojourners, Focus on the Family, the Gospel Coalition, etc). Perhaps Big Tent Christianity will turn out to just be another one of these groups. Time will tell, I suppose.

        But perhaps I’m still missing your point. What could/would be a legitimate motivation for an endeavor like Big Tent Christianity, in your view?

        August 17, 2010
      • mdaele #

        the mandate is pre-established like you said
        perhaps the ‘nuanced’ (hehe) meaning that I am getting it at is evidenced better by how some of the early conflicts (schisms) were dispatched in the first century. circumcision was threatening to divide the church but the urgency of the their commitment to the mandate of the church coupled with the very real pressure of external forces of persecution elicited a resolution to the problem that re-unified the church but more importantly allowed them to keep on doing what they were doing with integrity.
        I think that urgency and pressure (which still undoubtedly exists) is not represented in the same way in these types of movements. and i think that is reflected in the fact that unity seems to be the main goal and the rest is somewhat backseatish.
        I guess the question is not so much what might be a legitimate motivation for an ecumenical agenda. Instead a better investigation might seek to shed light on those places where ecumenical endeavor has resulted in accomplishments that reflect the true ethos of the church without evoke the overly institutionalized, corporatized and commercialized facades that seem to be all too common in recent expressions/movements.

        August 17, 2010
      • I understand what you’re saying and, as I said, I share some of your concerns. I guess I would simply say that I’m not convinced that there needs to be some kind of urgent catalyst to justify getting together to talk about things like unity. I am not so pragmatic that I can’t see the value in getting together to talk without having a specific problem to solve or need to address.

        And again, I think that Christians learning how to talk to each other about their differences and embracing areas of commonality is at least somewhat pragmatic in a skeptical, post-Christian, Western context that (rightly or wrongly) expects to see hypocrisy and intolerance of diversity in the church.

        August 18, 2010
  4. mdaele #

    yeah it hard to be too critical of any sort of unity achieved (especially when unity is crucial to revitalizing the church). my negative reaction follows my skepticism about the process and how this sort of thing tends to ride on hype and so much marketing glitz. i suppose that in the times we live in it may be very difficult to separate the marketing schmaltz from anything more authentic. but then i guess i remain mostly suspicious of most spiritual ‘pitches’ as you well know—
    Is this really a big tent or a decked out 5th wheel – cause we all know what really camping means…?

    August 18, 2010
  5. Hey Ryan, I too am watching what comes out of the ” Big Tent Christianity ” conference. And, I share your hope. The more we travel this corridor of post modernity through post Christendom…it will only be with a spirit of humility, hospitality around an open table where there is always room for all.

    August 19, 2010
  6. How is this post and its comments relevant to the common and daunting issues facing mankind? In my opinion, if Big Tent X does not have them as a central focus, it is a waste of time.

    August 19, 2010
    • Curious that you would expect a blog post reflecting primarily on the nature of Christian discourse and the subsequent comments to directly address the “common and daunting issues facing mankind” (whatever those might be, in your view). Also curious that you seem to consider a church that has learned/is learning to live with diversity in a more healthy way than it has in the past to be irrelevant to these issues.

      Re: Big Tent Christianity, I of course don’t know which issues you specifically have in mind, but I noticed a fairly broad range of topics on the agenda (justice, sexuality, spirituality, the Bible…). I didn’t see enough detail about any of them to warrant a judgment on whether or not this event is a “waste of time.” As I said above, time will tell.

      August 20, 2010
  7. Liz #

    Thanks for participating in the Big Tent Synchroblog.

    I hope you are able to participate in the upcoming synchroblog “Christians and The Immigration Issue”

    Here’s the info:

    CHRISTIANS AND THE IMMIGRATION ISSUE – 9/8/2010 (second Wednesday of the month) As Congress debates how to handle undocumented aliens already within U.S. borders and how to more effectively handle hopeful immigrants in the future, Christians will need to consider what it means to love these new neighbors in our midst.

    Please email your name, name of blog, title of post and link to: Sonja Andrews at by close of business CST on 9/7/2010 if you would like to be included in this synchroblog.

    Here’s a link to help keep up with monthly synchroblog themes and dates:

    September 2, 2010

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