by Thomas Jay Oord
September 12, 2011
Participating in the recent Big Tent Christianity gathering was an enriching experience. I realized anew how much I share in common with Christians of other traditions, despite our real differences.
The Larger Gathering
Two Big Tent Christianity gatherings met simultaneously. My contribution to the larger gathering came as the final ten-minute talk of the event. Thirty-four folks had spoken previously! The crowd was undoubtedly suffering from information and inspiration fatigue. Yet, those remaining listened sympathetically to my voice.
I spoke about my own tribe – the Church of the Nazarene – and my own journey. I talked about differences and similarities I see in the body of Christ today.
My primary message was simple: love unites us as Christians despite our differing opinions on many things. It was a message I have learned through many experiences, and one shared by John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit.”
The Smaller Gathering
I spent most of my time during the three days with a smaller gathering of leaders. Leading the group were Brian McLaren and Philip Clayton.
Although the group was diverse in many ways, I was one of the few in attendance who accepts the label "Evangelical." Despite being in the minority in that respect, I felt very welcomed by the group.
We talked about many things, some of which have been given the label “emergent/emerging church.” My sense is that what Phyllis Tickle calls “the great emergence” is still under way. That is, a large number of people both inside and outside the church hunger for a new experience and understanding of God. We are in a transitional age.
I include myself among those looking for a “third way” beyond the usual approaches to issues of concern today. For instance, I look for a third way beyond “conservative” and “liberal.”
Often during hours of conversation, I pondered the metaphors that might prove most helpful to inspire us to cooperate with God. I thought about the language we should use as we respond to the work of transformation to which the Spirit calls and empowers.
The conference metaphor – Big Tent – has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it invites us to think about how different people and groups could join together under common beliefs. A disadvantage, however, is that we often wonder how big the tent needs to be to include diverse views on theology, social issues, and Christians practices. In effect, we ask, “Who is under this big tent, and who must we leave out in the rain?”
An alternative metaphor discussed by the group was the great Yellowstone fire. Many years ago, raging fire destroyed Yellowstone’s forests and grasslands. The green shoots that emerged after the fire, however, renewed Yellowstone to its glory. In a similar way, we often need fire to destroy aspects of the church – especially its institutions – to bring about new creation. We need new wineskins.
A disadvantage of the fire metaphor, however, is that it seems to presuppose that nothing valuable now exists in Christian institutional structures worth preserving. I disagree with that presupposition, because I see so much that is useful in the church as it now exists.
A less dramatic metaphor is the idea of creating new hospitals on the sites of current ones. One might say the work of the church is to build new hospitals with many of the materials of current hospitals, all the while continuing the work of healing patients.
Networks Create a Web
The metaphor I like best has to do with networks that create a gigantic web. This metaphor says people and organizations connect with one another for common purposes. Personal relationships and shared concerns bond Christians of diverse persuasions in the work of God in the world. These networks of relations form a gigantic web of love endeavors.
Particular nodes on the network extend relations with other nodes on the web. These other nodes extend relations to still more nodes. On it goes. In this way, we build bridges to many, many groups of our own choosing -- without constraining other groups to work only with those we would choose.
The web grows huge, as God does far more than we could ever think or imagine.
A Third Way
I left the Big Tent Christianity gathering encouraged and challenged. I was encouraged by testimonies to the work of God in Christian groups and people outside my own denomination/tribe and outside Evangelicalism. I was challenged to help those in my own tribe work with the Spirit in this age of transition. God is doing a new thing!
I am proud of so many aspects of my own tradition. I don’t want to see it burned to the ground so that new growth can emerge. But I also believe much in my tradition could be improved.
I encourage others to join me – no matter their traditions, but especially those in the Evangelical world – in embracing the work of the Spirit occurring both within and beyond our usual realms of engagement.
A new Christian movement – a third way – seems to be gaining momentum. I invite others to join with me in following God’s leading to discern how we might participate in that movement.