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.