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Philip Clayton, Ph.D.

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Seeking Common Ground in 'Big Tent' Christianity

Posted: 09/01/10 09:11 PM ET

We know well what it means for people to be dissatisfied with Christianity, or to blurt out "I'm finished!" and publicly walk away. I've even heard people proclaim that the term "Christian" has been so torn apart in the battle-to-the-death between liberals and conservatives that there's no longer any point in using the term at all. Should we all be post-Christian now?

Yet some of us are still hanging in there. In fact, in the midst of the increasing skepticism, a number of good things are happening. For one, more people are speaking up about what's wrong with the institutional church, making bolder calls for it to change and adapt. This is good. Don't forget that Christianity has its heritage in the Jewish prophets, who took the religious institutions of their day to task for a multitude of sins. And the first-century rabbi whom Christians follow modeled himself on the great prophets of the Hebrew Bible. It's high time for a more prophetic, more counter-cultural Christian faith.

Knowing the Doubts from the Inside...

Perhaps the best thing that's happening is that those of us who remain are beginning to get it. We realize that "cultural Christianity" -- religious belief and practice that's "just obvious" because it's been inherited from one's parents and culture -- is largely a thing of the past. The burden is now on believers to show why their tradition is still relevant in today's world. As we know, many of our friends and critics doubt that it still is.

The ones who are best at speaking to a generation grown skeptical about religion are the ones who have felt the force of the criticisms, up close and personal. They are producing courageous (and widely read) manifestos for the future -- books like Tony Jones' The New Christians, Peter Rollins' How (Not) to Speak of God, Diana Butler Bass's Christianity for the Rest of Us, and Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change.

The sad thing is: much of the institutional church is going to turn its back on this new generation of spiritual seekers. It will declare them too heretical, or it will find their questions too troubling. It will ask them to shut up and sing the old hymns.

In some ways, these new Christians expected that. They are meeting in homes, in office buildings, in pubs ... and even in churches, when they are welcome there. They are finding what it means to form deep communities, to practice deep discipleship ... and then to sort out the beliefs as they go. Soon, I predict, this new movement will begin to dwarf some of the more traditional forms of religious expression.

What to Call This Movement?

Years ago they were called "Jesus People." More recently people have been talking excitedly about the "emerging church" movement. Brian McLaren describes it as a "generous orthodoxy" and "a new kind of Christianity."

However you describe it, the movement breaks with the religious politics of division and calls for a return to a "big tent Christianity." "Big tent" evokes the image of the revival tent that folks used to set up just outside of town. Here differences were (in theory) set aside while people sought transformation and a new direction in their faith. If you're skeptical, follow it on the web and judge for yourself. People will be live-blogging the next "Big Tent" conference this Sept. 8-9 in Raleigh, NC, and many of the (mostly younger) leaders of the movement will be speaking.

"Big tent" is also a prophetic challenge to the rancorous debates and condemnations that are the public face of religion today. The Religious Left and the Religious Right look more and more like Washington: people sit on one side of the aisle or the other; everything they say and do seems to play just to their own party members. More and more of those in the younger generations are tired of the combative attitude. They look for something different, something more positive, from Christian faith.

What Do Emerging Christians Believe? Is It Biblical?

Let's name the really contentious issue. The criticism one most frequently hears is that all the emergent church really stands for is a kind of lukewarm, perhaps slightly updated liberal theology. Is it true?

Although conservatives frequently make this charge, it does not seem to be accurate of the movement. Think of the "Emergent Conventions" that took place over the last decade, or the "Emergent Theological Conversations" that have continued, featuring theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann as discussion partners. Whether at the larger meetings, or the high-volume websites such as HomebrewedChristianity.com, or in small-group meetings around the country, I see young men and women deeply concerned, almost obsessed, with theological issues.

Neither their approach nor their conclusions fit the classic definition of liberal theology. They do not start with a clear philosophical position and then mould Christianity to fit. Their interest is not confined to the human dimension and implications of the faith. I find people preoccupied with Jesus' enduring question, "Who do you say I am?" (Mt. 16:15). That humans are imperfect and in need of divine grace, that Jesus is unique and not "just another prophet," that God is somehow active in the world, that Christianity must offer a hope and "good news" if it is to merit our attention, that discipleship should be serious and life-transforming -- all these are themes that I hear heatedly debated, adapted, and adopted.

True, emerging Christians often don't lead with these assertions. As Phyllis Tickle notes, their movement tends to be "belong ... behave ... believe" rather than "believe ... behave ... belong." Given their stress on the Jesus of the gospels, their ecclesiology (doctrine of the church) focuses first on creating communities of acceptance and honesty, communities where questioning is okay. But neither community nor politics nor social action is the final goal. Across the movement I see a strong desire to rediscover a deep, vibrant form of incarnational Christian life and faith--one based not on an economy of exclusion but of embrace.

For this reason, it's natural for emerging Christians to invite churches back to the "big tent" vision. The invitation extends to liberals who want to be able to say what is distinctively Christian about their progressive stance, and to evangelicals who want to really engage contemporary culture and thought from a biblical perspective. Some will decline this call to Christian unity for the sake of the purity of their non-negotiable doctrinal boundaries. But others, growing tired of the increasingly hostile disputes, are finding ways to proclaim a common vision.

Why It's Urgent to Look for Common Ground

Many of the old religious institutions are withering away. People are voting with their feet on Saturday and Sunday mornings: "if that's what religion is, I'm not interested." Much changes in turbulent times--especially the face of religion. If "Christian" is just a label for warring factions on the Left and Right, each ridiculing the other and declaring themselves the only true heirs of Christ, then yes, more and more will become post-Christian.

But why associate Christianity only with this battle? Why not join the increasing number of those who want to leave it behind? The way we navigate our spiritual identities is changing; a revolution is afoot. Why limit spiritual practices only to the forms of the past? As the debates and distinctions of bygone eras cease to matter so much, new spaces of acceptance are opening up, bringing with them new forms of Christian practice. Should we not welcome them, rather than seeking to squelch them?

 
 
 

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