Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Big Tent Christianity

Big Tent Christianity, a conference coming up in September has called for a synchroblog this week, addressing the following questions - What does “big tent Christianity” mean to you? What does it look like in your context? What are your hopes and dreams for the Church?

I have to say upfront that I was a bit taken back by the question. My first reaction is what other kind of Christianity is there? I truly don't understand how anyone can look at Jesus and see anything other than a big tent. As soon as I say that, I have to admit that many who call themselves followers of Jesus envision a very small tent with rigidly defined borders.

A few years ago in my denomination - American Baptist Churches, USA - there was a big discussion regarding whether the church is a bounded set or a centered set. The conservatives saw a bounded set wherein the members of the church fit clear parameters. They had to believe certain things, had to have experienced certain things, and need to have made specific commitments. If an individual fell short in any area, they were out. If congregations fudged on any area, they were out. Those left of center saw the church as a centered set with the person of Jesus as the focus. There was no list which one had to check off, only a relationship to Jesus to be lived. Individuals and congregations were more free to define that relationship within their context as their journeys led. The discussion has largely ended with an uneasy truce being made. The denomination has chosen a bounded set with less restrictive boundaries. Many conservatives are unhappy with the decision and one region withdrew from the denomination. For them the boundaries are too loose. Many liberals and progressives are equally unhappy, chaffing at any boundaries set by external authorities, and have sought new connections with more open groupings of churches such as the United Church of Christ and/or the Alliance of Baptists.

So what should a big tent Christianity look like? Some thoughts...

It will be different from place to place and time to time. Context is the key to incarnation and big tent Christianity is incarnational if it is anything.

Other words that are important for me are "welcoming," "compassionate," and perhaps most important of all, "humble."

It will be Big Tent both in terms of a welcome to a wide variety of people but also to a wild mix of ideas and questions. A few years ago we had an adult Sunday School class on the Baptist tradition where we wrote confessions of faith (we do not have creeds). One of the small groups wrote a confession that began, "All confessions of faith must be written in pencil." I like that a lot. It feels right to me.

The final descriptor that strikes me is, "difficult." To hold together a community of faith is difficult when there is no list of doctrines to which one must adhere, no enemies to revile, no list of do's and don'ts to which one must ascribe. Instead we have a common lord to follow and a common journey to walk. I believe that can be enough to hold us together... if we want to be held together. And I believe that is the only Church worth being held together in... and the only church worthy of the name, Christian.


Anonymous said...

The way toward Big Tent Christianity will require some difficult philosophical discussions about the dead-end foundationalism of both liberals and conservatives. In its place we must emphasize religious aesthetics, where we read the Bible as God's poetry of calling, and we move away from arguing "truth-claims" and focus, rather, on creating moments, individuals and communities that show forth the beauty and goodness of our Creator.

jpcarson said...

How is this relevant to the common and daunting issues facing humanity? if Big tent X does not have them as a central focus, it is a waste of time.

roy said...

I'm not sure what you're getting at here. Don't hospitality, compassion, community, contextualization, and humility make a huge difference when facing the common & daunting issues facing humanity? For that matter, I'm not sure what you mean by common and daunting issues...

Liz said...

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 synchroblog@gmail.com 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: