Friday, August 13, 2010

Big Tent Christianity: Easy to Say, Hard to Do

This post is part of the Big Tent Christianity Synchroblog. All the bloggers involved in this project are answering a very simple prompt: "what is 'big tent' Christianity?"

In a word: hard.

Most of my life I have been called an idealist. Guilty as charged. One of my ideals is that all of God’s children really can find a way to live together in peace. We simply have to choose to do so. Easier said than done, of course. I’m not foolish enough to assume that everyone will actually choose that path, but I believe that they are capable of doing so. That’s the Arminian side of my theological heritage.

It is in the midst this tension between ideals and the tragic reality of human choices that I can’t find anything to say about what “Big Tent Christianity” means to me except “hard”.

It’s hard to make Christianity a big tent when there are so many groups of folks who don’t want to coexist. It’s very hard to keep everybody under the tent when we actively invite our GLBT brothers and sisters to openly claim their sexuality as part of their imago Dei bearing goodness while Fred Phelps and his crew are standing there under the same tent screaming and holding signs proclaiming who is and is not welcome under the tent.

It’s hard to maintain a tent that’s big enough for everyone when people whose passion outweighs their experience are dismissed by others for being too young and/or inexperienced, or for not having the right education or credentials, and are told that they’re second class citizens, if they’re welcome under the tent at all.

I could go on citing examples all day, but I think you get the point.

It’s not a matter of conservative vs. liberal, evangelical vs. emergent, or whatever other labels we attach to people. The real issue is the tendency we all have to stick with those that are like us, and to justify our own existence by putting down and excluding those that are different, whether we have an honest disagreement with them or not.

Practicing Big Tent Christianity means not only welcoming others that are different than us, others whose beliefs or practices might be offensive to us, but opening ourselves up to the possibility of being converted, in some sense, by our interaction and fellowship with them. It means Fred Phelps might have to learn something from the Gay Street Preacher. It means I might have to learn something from Pat Robertson. (that last sentence made me vomit in my mouth a little bit)

Big Tent Christianity is easy to talk about, but very, very hard to practice. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it happen outside of brief, isolated events. Have you ever seen Christianity truly be a big tent over sustained periods of time? If so, please share!

Hard, yes. But not impossible. There I go being an idealist again.


Anonymous said...

Hey Matt. This Synchroblog thing is cool. I had not heard of it before reading your post.

My one thought about "big tent" is that we might practice it better if we did not lump everyone who disagrees with changing the disciplinary language on homosexuality with Fred Phelps.

Just a thought.

Matt Kelley said...

I agree. Nuance is essential. I don't know anyone who blindly lumps all those folks in the Fred Phelps camp, although I am sure there are some who do, and that is unfortunate.

One of Freedom said...

Hard is a good word for it. Sometimes I wonder if it is worth it but I can't imagine a lesser tension matching the Kingdom. I've been reflecting a lot recently on how we critique our own faith and practice. In the gospels I see Jesus railing against forms of religion (faith and practice) that propagate injustice - adding to the law and interpreting the law in strictly nationalistic and exclusive ways. It is one thing to identify a location for critique and quite another to work that out in community. I'm sure even Phelps has somehow convinced himself his cause is the just and faithful one. Fortunately, the Phelps' of the world are not that common (just loud).

I just subscribed to your podcast, will give it a listen.

jpcarson said...

How is this post and its comments relevant to the central focus of BTX and Transforming Theology - transforming the Church so it can effectively address the common and daunting issues facing humanity?

Absent keeping this a central focus, BTX is a waste of time, if not worse, given the purpose of Transforming Theology.

Liz said...

Thanks for participating in the Big Tent Synchroblog.

I hope you are able to participate in the upcoming synchroblog "Christians and The Immigration Issue"

Here's the info:

CHRISTIANS AND THE IMMIGRATION ISSUE - 9/8/2010 (second Wednesday of the month) As Congress debates how to handle undocumented aliens already within U.S. borders and how to more effectively handle hopeful immigrants in the future, Christians will need to consider what it means to love these new neighbors in our midst.

Please email your name, name of blog, title of post and link to: Sonja Andrews at by close of business CST on 9/7/2010 if you would like to be included in this synchroblog.

Here's a link to help keep up with monthly synchroblog themes and dates:

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