“[It is] urgent … to reclaim a Big Tent Christianity, a centrist return to ‘just Christian’ in word and action. The two poles are driving each other ever further apart, spawning ever deeper hostilities. The solution — in American society as in the church — certainly is not to let the other’s anger fuel my own. As leaders it’s our task to help break the cycle of anger, of rejection leading to rejection, and to foster a radically different understanding of the heart of Christian faith.”
– Philip Clayton
There is an upcoming conference entitled Big Tent Christianity, which attempts to embody the above values and transcend some of the differences between Christian denominations and traditions today. Is it possible to get back to being “just Christian”?
I grew up in a tradition that typically identified itself as “just Christian.” For most of my childhood until I graduated high school my home church was an independent non-denominational Christian church. When anyone would ask us where we went to church and what denomination that was a part of our typical response was, “just Christian.”
For the last four years, however, I have been a part of a church which belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a big-time denomination boasting over 4 million members. When someone asks us about our church and which denomination we belong to, we say the ELCA.
The interesting thing to me, though, is that in my experience the big time denominations are more likely to embrace this idea of Big Tent Christianity than are the smaller, independent churches who already claim to be “just Christian.” People who are presbyterian, methodist, episcopal, and lutheran, to a large extent, do not seem threatened by the idea of seeing Jesus at work in other churches. We tend to hold our theology with an open hand and be open to working together to achieve common goals.
The irony is that in a Big Tent Christianity world, denominations will cease to exist–at least in their current forms. When we are open to working with other churches based on a common mission rather than belonging to a common group, then the obvious outcome will be less and less of a priority on denominationalism.
And that is good news for denominations.
You see, denominations are already facing heavy decline. Denominational leaders are trying hard to keep their huge ships afloat in a world where the waters are becoming more shallow and ever wider, a world build for small, agile boats. What is at stake for many of these denominational leaders, I believe, is mission. There are many great things that 4 million members in the ELCA can do together that we cannot do separately, things like eradicating malaria in Africa. If these huge denominational structures cease to exist, won’t these efforts suffer?
Not in a world of Big Tent Christianity.
Big Tent Christianity seeks to bring people together based on their common missions. Big Tent Christianity transcends denominational borders in order to reach common goals. We can be confident in a world of Big Tent Christianity that Christians can still do Big Things, dream Big Dreams, and tackle Big Problems without resorting to the old forms of bureaucratic denominationalism. Big Tent Christianity will help us continue to do the things that we can do better together, things that we cannot do separately. Big Tent Christianity can continue the mission in the absence of denominations.
Though denominations are dying, the mission of the church is not.
Erik Ullestad says
Excellent reflections, Matt. I think that our ecumenical conversations are going to play a major role in keeping denominations afloat…not just for the sake of keeping denominations, but for purposes of mission and prophecy. The Big Tent philosophy is at the heart of ELCA full-communion partnerships with six other (dying) denominations. We just need to figure out how to transform those doctrinal agreements into ministry and mission. I continue to enjoy reading what you write.
Bob Cornwall says
Matt, at the end of the day, even if denominations are doing “poorly” these days, will they actually disappear? As a Disciple I’m part of a denomination that was doing the “big tent” thing back before it was popular. Back in the early 19th century, denominations were all the rage — the more the merrier — and yet the Campbells and Barton Stone recoiled from the evils of denominations. Of course, we became a full-fledged denomination just as they were going out of style. Then again, that was 1968 and we’re still here.
The ecumenical movement was premised on the idea that the constituent parts would sort of disappear into a general Christianity, but these things are stubborn. And perhaps that’s not such a bad idea, after all. I say this as one deeply committed to unity!
Joe Carson says
How is this relevant to the common and daunting issues facing humanity? If Big Tent X does not have these issues as a central focus, it is a big waste of time – just an opportunity for Christian religious professionals to have another conference by and for their professional interests.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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: