What fits under Christianity’s “big tent”?


This week, bigtentchristianity.com is gathering in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina. Its organizers have a lot of concerns about what’s been happening in Christianity:

  • Right-left polarization, on political and theological grounds.
  • Isolation of Christians from one another by denominational, and other institutional barriers.
  • Focusing on one range of biblically appropriate issues — say, abortion or homosexuality — while not being attentive to such concerns as the environment or sexual trafficking.
  • Majoring on what they see as minors: focusing on political concerns, for example, without providing significant service to their communities.

In an interview with the local newspaper, The News and Observer, Philip Clayton, a theologian at Claremont (California) School of Theology said:

“Generation X and the Millennials are fed up with the disputes that define American church today. They want to talk about the Gospels; what Jesus taught and did.”

And here, the movement is aiming, in some way, to accomplish something that happens periodically in church history: to return to a purer church, more nearly what God created in the beginning of Christianity. Jesus prayed that his followers would be brought to complete unity, that the world would see the unity of his followers, and by it know that God had sent Jesus and loved all of his followers. (John 17: 20-23) This is part of their desire. May it be so.

At the same time, bigtentchristianity.com and its friends have caught some criticism for at least the way they’ve expressed themselves about world religions. As Clayton put it to the News and Observer, “You can’t know Muslims and Buddhists up close and think God saves people in one tradition but not the next. It’s a lot harder to be exclusive and provincial in the way it was.”

Critics are concerned that the new strain of youthful Christianity is sliding toward Universalism … on exactly the grounds that Universalism gained many supporters in the early United States. The leaders of the late 18th century’s “new globalism,” based in New England ports, developed doubts that their unbelieving trading partners had to be eternally lost. A significant early Universalist church was founded at the port city of Gloucester, Mass. in 1793, pastored by a leading Universalist evangelist.

Prayers and blessings for you all. May you find a tent as big as 12,000 Christian believers from 60-plus denominations — evangelical, charismatic, liturgical, pentecostal — used to find at the annual Vision New England conference. It was a long build. But that’s what faith is for.

Copyright (c) 2010 Carlene Byron

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About Carlene Byron

Writer, editor, publicist, communications project manager ... I've written technology and infrastructure; I used to edit New England Church Life and The New England Christian and I've freelanced to publications ranging from Commonweal to Christianity Today. I'm now living in my hometown in Maine and am speaking about global perspectives on suicide prevention.
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