A man dies and goes to heaven. Upon arrival, he is met by Peter, who tells him that he will be a guide to help him get acclimated. Together they stroll past a large open area where there are several people dancing the hora, singing, enjoying a great feat, and generally having a good time. Peter turns to the man and says, “those are all Jews. After all they’ve been through throughout the centuries, they’re genuinely happy to be here.” Moving on, they come to another area where all manner of people are drinking, playing games, celebrating, and thoroughly enjoying themselves. Peter says, “Those are Catholics. They come together every now and then to celebrate their inclusion in heaven and the great sense of personal fulfillment that they each feel for being here.” They proceed to another area, where a number of people are sitting quietly, staring at a wall. The man asks who those people are and Peter responds “Shhhh! Those are Baptists. They think they’re the only people here!” That’s the way I first heard the joke. Of course, you can substitute nearly any church or religious group in there, and it will still make the point. When I’m asked what is meant by “Big Tent Christianity,” I think about the fact that we have, most assuredly, not practiced a “Big Tent “ mentality for a very long time. Sometimes, when I see what various Christian sects have done regarding each other, I can’t help but hear Mick Jagger sing something like: “When I’m watching my tv, and a man comes on and tells me, how bright my soul could be, but he can’t be a man ‘cause he does not go to the same little church as me, I can’t get no satisfaction.”
So why a “Big Tent?” I think that it talks about having a faith that is big enough to accept people and practices that are different. It means that whatever label you put on your faith is not as important as the author of that faith, and that “belief” is no longer the standard by which faith is measured, so much as “relevance.” This is a tough leap for many of us to make, since we have for so long defined ourselves by our differences. However, we need to get past the juvenile conceit that the particular relationship that we have with God through Jesus Christ is the template for the only way to have such a relationship.
For the longest time, Christians have focused too much on belief. If you sit in on enough worship services, even today, you’re bound to hear someone say that all the world’s problems can be solved, and all the world’s people can “saved” if they can only hear the message of Jesus Christ. It’s a drum that Christians have beaten for a very long time! Sometimes, though, today’s churches don’t seem to understand that we live in a world of cell phones, satellites, and the Internet, where few, if any messages are “unheard” anymore. What we need now is for Christians to make that message relevant, but, instead, many of us respond with something like “well, if you just heard the message the way we understand it….”
And there is where the problem lies. When we think that our personal interpretation of Christ is superior to everyone else’s, we fall into the trap of fighting amongst ourselves, instead of being the people Christ has called us to be. We spend so much time finding reasons to exclude others that we have precious little time to spend doing the things that we’re supposed to be doing. Given all the troubles that our world faces, our tendency to focus on our ultimately irrelevant differences makes us irrelevant as well, and if anyone is still out there asking how “sectarian atheism” is doing so well these days, your answer starts here.
We probably won’t agree on many things. In fact, if you look within any Christian congregation, you are bound to find points of belief on which they disagree. But our shared faith in Jesus Christ demands that we set aside our differences and live by that faith by working together. “Big Tent Christianity” is a faith that is as radically inclusive as Jesus was with his initial followers. Those terrorists, thieves, prostitutes, lawyers, fishermen, carpenters, betrayers, and whatever else they were – showed us that faith in Christ is for everyone, whatever their backgrounds, values, and habits. Failing to embrace the unconditional love inherent in our faith seems a betrayal of that faith. So open up, work, and celebrate with your fellow faithful, no matter how “weird” or “wrong” you think they might be. You are not the only ones here!
Learn more about Big Tent Christianity and their upcoming conference.