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Big Tent

By Published On: March 17, 20110 Comments on Big Tent

I did not want to go.  It took two phone calls from David Felten, with the “Living the Questions” organization, before I would reluctantly agree to help promote the event. It took a third phone call, one that required pulling off the freeway to argue with this dear friend. He insisted that I come to Phoenix to see what was going to happen when a bunch of young people get together and talk about what it means to be part of the so-called “emerging Christianity” or “Emergent church movement.”  Please note that none of these labels have clear definitions or clarity in their meaning at this point. They are still in formation and if I am right, that is where they intend to stay… in the process of forming.

The event was something called the “Big Tent Christianity” (BTX) and was organized by a group primarily out of Claremont School of Theology, under the leadership of the Dean of the school, Professor Phillip Clayton and his right hand man, Trip Fuller. Fuller is an ordained minister attended Divinity School of Wake Forest University, and is working on his PhD in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont. And, I would guess, is also a “wanna-be” rock star. For the record Philip Clayton refers to young Trip Fuller as his boss.

The movement, if that is what it can be called at this point, appears to be made up mostly of former fundamentalist, conservative and evangelical Christians who are speaking, blogging, texting, tweeting and “Face Booking” about what it means to be a follower of Jesus today. Based on my reading of their blogs, conversations some dozen of the attendees and listening to the speakers, a high percentage of them seem to be experiencing a sense of emancipation from former beliefs that had been stifling and that no longer fit their world view and vision of reality.

Carol Howard Merritt, a keynoter, is a pastor of Western Presbyterian Church, Washington DC, an inner city church.  She told a powerful story about her days as a student in Moody Bible Institute when she questioned nothing until the day she was attacked on the city streets and realized she had no one in the school who she could confide in about what happened.  It was a great awakening of sorts that lead to graduate seminary degree and eventually an exciting ministry in a mainline denomination.  I heard several stories about how some of these young people came to the conclusion that the religion of their childhood was no longer working for them and they sought out change.

I would guess that if most of these young people were asked to articulate a theology or even a Christology, it would sound similar to what was being taught in mainline seminaries in the nineteen seventies.  However it did not seem like very many people had much interest in systematic theology or even in debating Christology. They were far more interested in finding the things that they hold in common and focusing on ways to live a different kind of life style that they perceive is different than mainline America.

In part because of the growth and vitality of these emerging communities and even more importantly the young average age of the participants, the emerging movement is getting a lot of attention from denominations, religious sociologist, and even funding agencies.  Tattoos, rings and grunge clothing were the norm, with a few of us grey and white heads in our button down shirts and khaki pants sprinkled through the crowd. But there were no uniforms, no specific fads that I could see.  Just a wonderful mix, some three hundred strong, of very interesting people, who one way or the other, seem to believe that Jesus has something important to say about the way we live our lives.

Okay, I admit it that I was uncomfortable with rows and rows of people sharing tweets while the speakers were talking. Two or three times I started to say something and then I realized this was not my world. And yes, there appeared to be a bucket full of arrogance in some of these young people who because of the attention they are receiving, often from the institutions they so openly disregard, have been thrust into the limelight. But hey, they are young and they want to change the world.  It takes a certain amount of arrogance to think that you can change the world, and “God” knows we need change.

I must admit that there were some big surprises.  I was stunned how many people who attended knew me or at least knew something about  Predicated on my assumption that most people who attend these events were barely out of the Conservative/Orthodox era in their religious beliefs, I also assumed that I would feel uncomfortable introducing myself as the President of an organization that some people claim is out to destroy Christianity.  Instead, I had no less than twenty people come up to me to express their gratitude that we co-sponsored the event and sent out flyers about BTX to our entire mailing list. There were untold others who recognized my name and knew all about our organization, I realized that I could no longer write them off as unsophisticated if they were on our mailing list.  I also found it interesting that these were not the same people who normally attend our events but rather young, excited folks who were so glad they were there and happy to see me.

Another surprise was the quality of the speakers.  I had never heard Brian McLaren speak before, although I had read a couple of his earlier books.  McLaren, possibly the father of the emerging movement, asked the audience to consider a new model when thinking about Jesus.  Using some simple PowerPoint graphs, he shared his own transformation from a believer who thought that only through one’s belief in Jesus as our personal lord and savior could keep one from suffering eternally in hell to realizing that he had been looking at the Christian narrative from the wrong direction. The old model started with an assumption about whom and what Jesus was. That particular model, he argued, was not biblical or historical but was rather a Greek interpretation, (influenced by Plato and Aristotle) of the narrative and needed to be reinterpreted in reverse, starting with ancient Jewish lenses.  Not only did I learn something from his talk, but I heard something that I was not expecting. So much for assuming the room was full of conservative and even Orthodox Christians.  I could not say enough about the way McLaren handle this delicate subject in what had to be a theologically mixed crowd.  I have become another fan of this gifted man.

The third surprise was to learn how much verbal and written abuse some of these emerging bloggers and speakers must endure. I do know a little about that vile hate that comes from “conservative Christians” who believe I am attempting to destroy Christianity. They have no hesitancy to let me know what is going to happen to me when I die. I only worry that they may want to speed that process up. But when someone goes on our progressive website they know what they are getting. I have been a progressive/liberal Christian since my youth, over 50 years now. What I write and speak about is just a continuation of that journey. But most of the emerging speakers have come out of a conservative tradition and it is apparently shocking to those they have left behind. It is a threat to their world view and I suspect that frightens them.  I asked two different bloggers and got the same answer-it gets very nasty sometimes. I read some of the feedback on two of the blogs.  It must take a certain amount of courage to make that transition public. (See an example of this vitriolic commentary here:

The next thing that hit me was that the vast majority of people gathered at this event, actually talk about how being a Christian should impact their lives. Not only do they talk about it, they care about it and it appears they do something about it. I could not help but think about the dozens if not hundreds of workshops I have done over the years, in large part in old churches with aging congregations. What those folks usually want to know is, “How do we fix our church so it will be like it used to be.” What these young people were asking was, “How does following Jesus change my life.” I am not certain where this will go when they have kids in college and they are worried about their 401ks, but right now, these young people, many of them parents of young children, believe that following the Jesus path will lead to a better life, healthier family, and possible salvation for mother earth. I could not help but wonder what would happen if those kinds of conversations were going on in all of our mainline churches?  I also realized that it might be one of the places that progressive and emerging Christians will find healthy and helpful common ground.

I was touched but what appeared to be a genuine care that people had for each other in spite of what must have been some pretty significant differences. I overheard an emotional but compassionate conversation among some of the BTX leadership about what would be acceptable behavior, when apparently one attendee had become outspoken about the so-called “heresy” that was going on there. This was a big tent but they were not going to condone bullies.  I also felt that these young people did not have that phony, pasted on smile that I have seen in some places when the slightest inconvenience can bring out the anger. It sincerely felt like a joyful and exciting place with lots of laughter, fun and some killer, homebrewed beer in the evenings.

And finally the biggest surprise was my struggle to sort out why I had been so resistant to going and seeing with my own eyes what was actually happening in the emerging church movement.  It was not a pleasant sorting. You see, I realized that I had made all kinds of presumptions and judgments about what to expect.  At the same time, I sincerely believe that Jesus was teaching a spiritual path that can lead to a Sacred Realm here on earth…living an interconnected life without boundaries or borders between us.  I have committed my life to trying to follow that path. One of the primary lessons is to avoid making judgments upon others and learning to meet them where they are.  I painfully realized that I had failed to do something that I feel very strongly about.  I made lots of excuses and managed to maintain a modicum of dignity but the more time I spent with some of these young people, the more I realized that I had something to learn from them.  I might even realize someday, if I really want to save Christianity, I may need to get out of the way.

I liked what I saw and I am actually excited about the possibilities. I will keep you posted.

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