BTX in Phoenix: Big, Bold, Exciting and Scary

Looking over a mountain toward an unknown future can be both exhilarating and scary. That’s where I’ve been for the past 72 hours in Phoenix at the Big Tent Christianity event: exhilarated and a little bit scared – but hopeful.

Elsewhere readers will find news on the conference’s program and speakers, along with a bit of video from some of the participants. The conference was sponsored in part by the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and theEmerging Desert Cohort, affiliated with Emergent Village.

Here, though, I want to share my impression of this inaugural gathering for what may become a series of meetings around the country.

Big Tent Christianity, or BTX as it has come to be known, brought together two segments of American Christianity: Progressives and Emergents. Many things about these two groups were different, most notably their ages and where and how they practice their faith. What they share, however, is far more powerful than any surface differences. Both are in love with the holistic gospel of Jesus Christ in which salvation is not an insurance policy for the hereafter, but instead means following the way that Jesus taught for living eternally in the here-and-now.

At first glance, especially for the most rigid adherents among both groups, apparent differences might seem too great to converge toward their common passion.

Progressives tend to be associated with denominations, particularly mainline Protestant denominations. They are the faithful remnants of the Social Gospel movement of the past century. By and large they are devoted process theologians (a trait they share with some of their younger Emergent cohorts). In most cases Progressives are still trying to change their respective ecclesiastical and social systems from the inside. You can recognize them by their silver, gray or snowy white hair or the lack thereof (Hi, Richard and Marcus!); by their highly erudite vocabulary and historical-critical theological method; by their assiduous concern for social justice and inclusiveness especially for LGBT people; by their general preference for wine over beer; and by their incongruous fondness for some traditional hymns and organ music (but not the “bloody” ones).

Emergents tend to come from independent congregations or churches loosely affiliated (emphasis on loosely) with Pentecostal or Anabaptist backgrounds, although some have strong mainline Protestant ties. They tend to be younger, although the Emerging movement now has its own wise elders (Hi, Brian!). You can recognize them by their long, lush hair (Hi, Tripp!), their many piercings, their fondness for beer over wine, and some truly eye-popping tattoos (Hi, Bo and Nadia!). They eschew dogma, wrestle with scripture, drop F-bombs like rose petals, love rock music, poetry and visual art. They put their own assiduous concern for social justice into practical works without need for denominational structures.

Put these two groups together and you have a heady brew of Christianity the likes of which has not been seen since at least the first century, if then. As with the great truths of faith, the only way to describe the experience is through metaphor. Thus, if being in “regular church” resembles a sip of communion wine (or of grape juice for the Methodists, Nazarenes and other Wesleyans), then being at Big Tent Christianity was like drinking a full pint of “Jimbo Baggins’ whiskey stout,” a dark and dangerous home-brewed beer served at BTX’s after-hours mixer. Jarring at first, then downright headspinning.

In short, BTX was big and bold and flavorful, ragged around the edges and sometimes in the middle, profoundly thoughtful, thought-provoking and spiritually uplifting without being sanctimonious. I’m struggling to restrain my enthusiasm at the event’s implications, because we don’t know that BTX was the start of something, or even the beginning of the start of something. We live in uncertainty and amibiguity about it.

Yet Big Tent Christianity in Phoenix had an air of sanctity about it, a Spirit blowing through its semi-organized proceedings like the rush of Pentecost. This was the first national BTX gathering after a couple of pilot events, so more such events could occur across the country with sponsorship. If one occurs near you, I encourage you to go and judge for yourself. You will meet Christians you don’t know who are totally unlike those you meet in church on Sunday, and you will meet Christians just like yourself. Either way, you, too, may get a glimpse of a scary and exciting future for the Church.

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