Big Tent Christianity — Progressives, Emergents Find Common Ground at National Event

PHOENIX, AZ – More than 300 participants—some self-identified as Progressive Christians, others as Emergent Christians—gathered Feb. 10-11 to meet one another for the first time in an event termed “Big Tent Christianity.”

Co-sponsored by two local groups, the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology and the Emerging Desert Cohort affiliated with Emergent Village, the conference was marked by three unusual characteristics:

  • Christian leaders under age 35 dominated the event preparations, coordinating almost exclusively through social media.
  • Prominent Progressive theologians met with Emergent leaders in what is believed to be the first such national event.
  • The conference used an unusual, if not unique, process method, in which keynoters spoke for 12 minutes, followed by eight minutes of response from other event presenters, followed by another 20 minutes or so of questions that emerged after conversation between members of the audience.

The current declining state of organized religion in America both inspired and framed the conference, noted Philip Clayton, one of the primary hosts of the program.

“In times of scarcity, the tendency is to hold on tighter and become rigid,” said Clayton, Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Claremont Graduate University and Ingraham Professor at Claremont School of Theology.

“Big Tent Christianity was given birth by Christian leaders to respond to the massive social, economic and climate changes the Church faces,” Clayton continued, “We want to open our arms and honor the many ways that [Holy] Spirit leads us to encounter the way of Jesus. We want to become allies and not enemies, to act in sacrificial ways toward one another.

“We came to be inspired and supported and to find new partners on the [faith] journey.”

Tripp Fuller, founder of Homebrewed, served with Clayton as one of the event’s main program hosts. Clayton and Fuller are principals in the Big Tent Christianity effort, which began about a year ago under the auspices of United Methodist-related Claremont School of Theology with funding from the Ford Foundation.

Over two days of intense workshops, the participants and presenters explored various aspects of Progressive and Emergent theology and culture, based on a common theme of how to be followers and encouragers of vital Christian faith in the 21st century.

Highlighting the program were:

  • Carol Howard Merritt, a Presbyterian pastor, author and popular blogger on The Huffington Post;
  • Brian McLaren, pastor, author of more than 20 books including A Generous Orthodoxy and elder statesman of the emerging church movement;
  • Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, author and executive director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM;
  • Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor in Denver, CO and frequent blogger for Sojourners;
  • Mark Scandrette, author, teacher, activist and director of ReIMAGINE, a San Francisco spiritual collective of creativity, community building and social action; and
  • Marcus Borg, well-known biblical and Jesus scholar who is now canon theologian at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon.

Plenary presentations included: “Healing the Wounds of Religion” led by Howard Merritt, “Reframing the Big Tent” led by McLaren, and “Textual Divinity: Discovering the Divine” led by Rohr. Workshop topics ranged from social-action issues such as immigration reform, science and evolution, and technology through engaging popular culture, neo-monastics and the “spiritual but not religious” phenomenon to familiar church subjects such as worship, youth ministry, forming missional communities, storytelling and songs.

A two-hour presentation featuring Marcus Borg, “Conversations at the Heart of Faith: Jesus, God and Church,” drew a capacity crowd to Phoenix’s Church of the Beatitudes, a United Church of Christ congregation where the conference met. Borg and representatives of both Progressive and Emergent streams engaged in a dialogue about how the progressive theology of Borg and other scholars converged with the theologies of practical Christianity developed by independent emerging congregations. (See related article).

Although the exercise produced many common points, the session also resulted in several ongoing questions about how the two streams of Christianity imagine God; how they follow Jesus in today’s world; and how their respective visions of the church both mesh and divide.

Clayton said that, depending upon evaluation of the program and methods used in Phoenix, similar events may be scheduled around the country in the future.

Co-sponsors of Big Tent Christianity included its meeting site, The Church of the BeatitudesLiving the Questions, a popular vendor of progressive Christian curriculum ;, a spirituality site formerly known as The Center for Progressive Christianity; The Beatitudes SocietyProgressive Christian Alliance, and The Progressive Christian magazine.

Review & Commentary