A Plea for Big Tent Christianity: Don't Suck

A Plea for Big Tent Christianity: Don't Suck August 13, 2010

This post is part of the Big Tent Christianity Synchroblog.

I’ll be emceeing the Big Tent Christianity event next month, along with my partner-in-crime, Doug Pagitt.  And, I’ve gotta say, this event is rife with potential — potential to be great, or to suck.

The potential has everything to do with the amazing roster of people scheduled to participate — leading lights in from center to the left of contemporary American Protestantism.  Each of them could probably carry the stage for a couple hours in their own right, but we’re putting them on panels, asking them to speak passionately about something for 5-10 minutes, and then mix it up in an hour long discussion/conversation/argument.

But here’s what worries me.  When it comes to spending time with progressive, intellectual Christians, I tend to see three common missteps in dialogue, any of which could derail BTX.

  1. Endless talk about who’s not there. Progressives rightly desire robust diversity in their ranks.  Flip through Christianity Today, and you’ll see ad after ad for pastors’ conferences in which the speaking roster is unashamedly full of white men.  This is not acceptable among progressives.  Good.  Yes.  I agree.  However, one does what one can and then one lives with the consequences.  So Philip, Brian, and Tripp cast the net and the invitations far and wide, and got as many acceptances as they could, and the line-up of speakers is still too male and too white.  Having said that, there’s nothing more we can do about that now.  If we all sit around an bemoan our failures at diversity, we won’t advance the ball down the field.
  2. A Mutual Admiration Society. I don’t think this is unique to progressive Christian leaders, but there’s a tendency for the conversation to devolve into a bunch of back-slapping and high-fiving.  The fact is, whenever a group like this convenes, there are politics: Person A used to work for Person B; Person C once served on a foundation board with Person D; Person E is hoping to be hired at the university where Person F is the dean.  Those personal connections can stymie robust conversation if everyone is trying to be on their best behavior.
  3. Unwillingness to talk about something far afield. Evangelical leaders, it seems to me, are wont to spew their opinions far and wide, regardless of their expertise in a particular subject.  Progressives, on the other hand, tend to stick to their category of expertise and defer to those in other fields.  But in order to advance the conversation, we’ll all need to become polymaths.  We’ll all need to talk about the Bible and politics and sexuality and justice…and everything.

I don’t mean to sound overly negative here.  In fact, I think that this event really is going to great.  But I just figured that my contribution to the synchroblog would be show up some pitfalls that I’d like us to avoid…

My $.02.  What say you?

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  • Tony, I won’t be attending — had other plans — so will miss the banter.

    My question here — and in my synchroblogging contributions I touch upon it — concerns the difference between this movement and previous ecumenical ventures. We have the National Council of Churches (mainline and orthodox), Churches Uniting in Christ (mostly mainline Protestants) and Christian Churches Together (a broader ecumenical coalition that includes Catholics and Protestants). As a Disciple I should note that the General Secretary of the NCC is Michael Kinnamon (Disciple), the Ex. Dir of CCT is Richard Hamm (Disciple), and two previous leaders of the CUiC have been Disciples. So, as a Disciple pastor who is part of a movement that has sought to promote a big tent, non-creedal, simple Christianity that sought to root itself in the New Testament (with a Lockean spin). How does this differ from what is already present?

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  • Tyler

    If your Big Tent wasn’t “too white” and was instead “just the right amount of white,” or even “not enough white,” I might have come, but showing up at an event like you describe is bad for my cred.

    I mean, if the event was in Detroit, the allowable percentage of white people could be as high as 20-30%. But if it was in, say, Portland, I would only want 10% of the people on stage to be white, no more. And they’d have to be women also.

    I mean; God – are there no Pentecostalist churches in Raleigh frequented by non-white immigrants? Just tell them they can preach on whatever they want, bus their congregations in, and humor them if they try to pull an altar call. At least they will make you look good on the brochures and website.

  • Tyler, could it be that one of the benefits of institutionalized ecumenism is that the institutions can make such rules? Most mainline denominations go to great lengths to create diverse participation.

  • This event conflicts with the CCDA conference in Chicago, which is where I’ll be – too bad to see two similar events happening at the same time.

  • Kenton

    Props to Tyler for his comment.

    Bob- I don’t doubt for a minute that most mainline denominations go to great lengths to create a diverse population – and my evangelical tradition can’t by *any* means point a finger here – but just how successful do you think mainliners have been in actually creating a diverse population? I think Tyler is on to something: instead of trying the same things over and over and expecting different results, let’s try some new things.

  • Kenton, you have put your finger on an important point — in our local congregations we may not be doing as well. So there really are two questions here — how do we create a public conversation where there is true diversity represented? With the second question being — how does that sense of diversity become alive in local congregations?

    As for doing new things? As I point out in my blog post today, how new is this? And what will something new look like? Although I enjoy forums like this, I’m not sure where it goes. I did Theology after Google — great event, great time, but what did we ultimately accomplish there?

  • Terry

    I too will be at the CCDA conference this year and will miss this event.

    As it relates to Tony’s post: The worst kind of conference is a “show and tell” conference. Presentations/conversations that are strictly about what a particular church, organization, or person is doing is so elementary school. Make sure to involve everyone there, even the ones not talking.

    As it relates to the comments thus far, the CCDA conference is a greatly diverse group of people. I have always been amazed when I attend at the racial, ethnic and gender variety. Maybe they could be used as some sort of case study for future conference/organizations?

  • You used “wont” and “polymath” in the same paragraph – bravo!

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  • “from center to the left of contemporary American Protestantism”

    Tony, it seems to me this isn’t a big tent, but just another tent.

    Where’s the people from the “center to the right”?

    I just added to the synchroblog, and I include myself in this latter category. Probably because of this I feel sensitive about whether this is really a “big tent” Christianity or whether this is the ecclesial wing of progressive theology that is trying to come up with an inclusive sounding phrase.

  • So why should the average pew sitter care? Nothing that happens will impact his/her life as lived – it will not impact his/her income, economic security, possessions, environmental impact – nor will any religious professional make a claim that it should.

    I have read each post in synchroblog. Not one mentions “suffering for righteousness’ sake” and unless a lot of Christians decide to do so – where it counts, in their jobs, vocations, careers, professions – we are, as a global society, toast. So relevancy to civilization is not an objective at BTX apparently.

    My experience in why these conferences tend to suck is because everyone wants to be interesting, few want to be interested.

  • Hi Tony,
    Could you please tell the women theologians or midwifers or pastors or educators that you asked to speak at this event besides the three that are presenting? I’m really trying to understand how the male to female speakers could be so blatantly disproportionate.

    • Mary (and others),

      I was not involved with who was and was not invited, though I have heard the names of several women who were invited and declined to accept. One of the issues here is that none of the speakers is being paid, which may invoke a kind of inherent sexism. Maybe men are, in general, more able to afford to accept a non-paying invitation while women are not, based on the discrepancies in their salaries, their family commitments, etc. This is pure conjecture on my part, but it seems plausible.

  • Tim

    I think those are some solid reminders, Tony. Of course the organizers must give their diligent effort in creating a conference worth attending. Participating in them is a sacrifice on a number of levels, financially, time away from family and ministry, etc. We all know this, especially the organizers and I am grateful for them.

    Number 1 touches a nerve. But this is not directed to the organizers but to fellow attendees. I hear all the time that we want more diversity and so forth but from my experience of being the only Middle-Easterner in a room, I am not really sure why. Now for the record, I have never once felt excluded, but for all the talk of, “We want more ethnic diversity!”, I am curious as to why. Let me be clear, I (and I’m sure I speak for others) expect no special treatment and my Arabic sucks quite frankly (but good enough to curse out a fundamentalist ;-), but my real problem is when we simply use this as a reason to complain about something, like, “Caputo was great, but you know, he was talking to a bunch of us white people … and so I was fairly disappointed by the event”. So let us not use that as an excuse to complain even though we desire to see more diversity in our churches.

    A Korean friend and I were at a event (it was “non-Emergent”) where the lack of color was evident and when that comment was made, we joked about how we wanted to stand up and say, “What is that you need? Maybe we can help. Besides, most Christian middle-easterners and many Koreans are still fairly conservative. Some are just not ready for some of these conversations” (but I’m sure more will make it to the party as time goes on, like maybe the emergent theological gathering in Dec. on postcolonialism).

    Honesty, I have enjoyed pretty much all the conferences/events/gatherings I have attended. Some were amazing experiences for me. Others may not have been as incredible but still offered insight, encouragement or whatever. Then there’s the whole communal element too. Among my real regrets is not sustaining many of these friendships formed at these events (although FB, Twitter and blogs have been helpful).

    I think we as attendees need to temper our expectations so we are not guilty of a similar type of consumerism that many of us self-described emergents have complained against. We can participate in more ways than speaking to the entire group. I think that’s why many of us love going out after the evening sessions. Wish I could be at Big Tent this year, it looks great and I know I’m missing out.

  • Jan Edmiston


  • The constant failure and self-forgiving nature of #1 is wrong. It does matter, it does speak tons, it does send a message, it is tough, it is hard, but it comes down to friendship. Are your friends diverse? If not, our conferences will show it.


  • Joey

    Tony, your conflict with racial diversity may be due to CCDA.

  • The list of speakers/board members of CCDA does not overlap with the speakers at US Emergent events with a few exceptions like Shane Claiborne. When I interviewed Spencer Burke for my podcast (Jesus Died for This?) he had some interesting comments re: the fact that no matter what he did to try and promote racial and gender diversity, he’d end up with a group of largely white male evangelicals. He also talked about what he was trying to do moving forward to think outside of the box here.

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