From Big Tent to Networks

September 12th, 2010 / 13 Comments

Participating in the recent Big Tent Christianity gathering was an enriching experience. I realized anew how much I share in common with Christians of other traditions, despite our real differences.

The Larger Gathering

Two Big Tent Christianity gatherings met simultaneously. My contribution to the larger gathering came as the final ten-minute talk of the event. Thirty-four folks had spoken previously! The crowd was undoubtedly suffering from information and inspiration fatigue. Yet, those remaining listened sympathetically to my voice.

I spoke about my own tribe – the Church of the Nazarene – and my own journey. I talked about differences and similarities I see in the body of Christ today.

My primary message was simple: love unites us as Christians despite our differing opinions on many things. It was a message I have learned through many experiences, and one shared by John Wesley in his sermon “Catholic Spirit.”

The Smaller Gathering

I spent most of my time during the three days with a smaller gathering of leaders.  Leading the group were Brian McLaren and Philip Clayton.

Although the group was diverse in many ways, I was one of the few in attendance who accepts the label “Evangelical.” Despite being in the minority in that respect, I felt very welcomed by the group.

We talked about many things, some of which have been given the label “emergent/emerging church.” My sense is that what Phyllis Tickle calls “the great emergence” is still under way. That is, a large number of people both inside and outside the church hunger for a new experience and understanding of God. We are in a transitional age.

I include myself among those looking for a “third way” beyond the usual approaches to issues of concern today. For instance, I look for a third way beyond “conservative” and “liberal.”

Inspirational Metaphors              

Often during hours of conversation, I pondered the metaphors that might prove most helpful to inspire us to cooperate with God. I thought about the language we should use as we respond to the work of transformation to which the Spirit calls and empowers.

The conference metaphor – Big Tent – has advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it invites us to think about how different people and groups could join together under common beliefs. A disadvantage, however, is that we often wonder how big the tent needs to be to include diverse views on theology, social issues, and Christians practices. In effect, we ask, “Who is under this big tent, and who must we leave out in the rain?”

An alternative metaphor discussed by the group was the great Yellowstone fire.  Many years ago, raging fire destroyed Yellowstone’s forests and grasslands.  The green shoots that emerged after the fire, however, renewed Yellowstone to its glory. In a similar way, we often need fire to destroy aspects of the church – especially its institutions – to bring about new creation. We need new wineskins.

A disadvantage of the fire metaphor, however, is that it seems to presuppose that nothing valuable now exists in Christian institutional structures worth preserving. I disagree with that presupposition, because I see so much that is useful in the church as it now exists.

A less dramatic metaphor is the idea of creating new hospitals on the sites of current ones. One might say the work of the church is to build new hospitals with many of the materials of current hospitals, all the while continuing the work of healing patients.

Networks Create a Web

The metaphor I like best has to do with networks that create a gigantic web. This metaphor says people and organizations connect with one another for common purposes. Personal relationships and shared concerns bond Christians of diverse persuasions in the work of God in the world. These networks of relations form a gigantic web of love endeavors.

Particular nodes on the network extend relations with other nodes on the web. These other nodes extend relations to still more nodes. On it goes. In this way, we build bridges to many, many groups of our own choosing — without constraining other groups to work only with those we would choose.

The web grows huge, as God does far more than we could ever think or imagine.

A Third Way

I left the Big Tent Christianity gathering encouraged and challenged. I was encouraged by testimonies to the work of God in Christian groups and people outside my own denomination/tribe and outside Evangelicalism. I was challenged to help those in my own tribe work with the Spirit in this age of transition. God is doing a new thing!

I am proud of so many aspects of my own tradition. I don’t want to see it burned to the ground so that new growth can emerge. But I also believe much in my tradition could be improved.

I encourage others to join me – no matter their traditions, but especially those in the Evangelical world – in embracing the work of the Spirit occurring both within and beyond our usual realms of engagement.

A new Christian movement – a third way – seems to be gaining momentum. I invite others to join with me in following God’s leading to discern how we might participate in that movement.

Add comment


Hans Deventer


Thanks for your report! Perhaps this third way may also relate to holiness. We might consider that in a few weeks.


Frank Green

Tom, good words! I agree with your take on the private session. I am grateful to have spend the larger portion of three days in the same small group setting with you. Thanks so much for the time, your work and the person you are. Here is to the future and to whatever it holds. Anything you need from me is yours. God bless! Frank

Philip Clayton


Your comments here, like your comments in Raleigh, show your ability to be a leader not only in CotN but also in the broader church. You listen to views that diverge from you own; you remain true to your understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and then you seek to find common ground to whatever extent it is possible.

In choosing to lead with the love of Christ that unites us, rather than with differences that could further divide and splinter the church, you show the abilities of a Christian ambassador. I deeply agree that “A new Christian movement – a third way – seems to be gaining momentum.” May God grant all of us the wisdom to support this movement of reconciliation through grace.


Jerad May

Hi Dr. Oord,

Your discussion on the networks metaphor reminded me a lot of Augustine’s ever important petition to the Church, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” 

I think for a lot of young Christians the rivalry persons seem to perceive between denominations (whether or not it is valid) is an incredibly distracting turn-off.  Because of this, many are turning either completely away from the Church or to alternative communities and expressions of the Church.

That being said, I find it interesting that just about every divisive “hot-topic” in the Church is commonly based on various non-essentials of the faith (i.e. inerrancy of scripture, evolution, homosexuality, and worship style).

It mourns me to think that these issues have caused such division in the Church, so much so, that many have mistaken these non-essential positions to be essential.

Nevertheless, I am beginning to wonder if in order to create a more unifying sense of community in the Church, things need to become much simpler. 

Of course to be a Christian means something.  Therefore, I feel that it is obviously important that the essentials of the Church and what it means to be Christian ought to be clearly established (As they already are).

However, perhaps a church community might do itself good by not taking a corporate position on any issue that is considered non-essential.  This might better establish the sense of catholic spirit that so many desire.

In this, not only will various people no longer feel isolated by their church community for the things that they believe, but furthermore, those established faith communities might begin to identify their faith in the things that unite, rather than those that divide. 

I can foresee that perhaps this more simple and open posture might do two important things. 

First, it might not only encourage persons think for themselves on these issues, but it might further reunite the church community with those who have left the Church over such issues. 

And Second, this posture might benefit the relationship that the Church has with itself in the sense that it could reunite those church communities who have so long been divided over issues that frankly, in the scheme of salvation and eternity, do not really matter.


Michael Johnson

Dear Tom,

I agree that there is much that draws Christians together from varying backgrounds and theological perspectives. I am a mild proponent of ‘ecumenicalism’ provided that it exists within certain boundaries. The early church creeds perhaps offer the best ‘boundaries’ to explain the ‘church’ which God established and works through.

I also believe that there is a new way emerging that has the opportunity to more accurately describe some of the truths of the Bible that have either been glossed over or taken extremely out of context (sometimes just for the advancement of personal prejudices and ideas).

I would assert however that many are searching for new ways, methods, theologies, and ideologies not because the old ones have been tried and found wanting, but because the old ones haven’t been tried.

Revival could come, relevancy of church and Scripture could be found, and a resurgence of the church’s influence in culture could again be seen if Christians would 1. obey what they know the Bible and the Holy Spirit are speaking to them, 2. become vocal and passionate evangelists telling others of the good news of the gospel, and 3. teach others to obey everything Jesus has commanded (through intentional discipleship).

I believe we can do more together if we actually do it (not just talk about it) and if we do it together.

Mike J

Justin Walker

It sounded like a very productive meeting!  I liked your “simple” message!  I think it is vital in the church community. I am not a person to divide myself by denomination, because it can be so ghastly to the overall effect to the church community.  The best thing we can do is to love one another and know that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Lord. 

It is a blessing to hear of such meetings taking place.  I loved the metaphors.  My favorite was the Yellowstone fire because I have found in my own life that God often refines me through the testing of my faith—or fire.

Phil Anderson

You know I think deep down in my heart I have wanted something different.  I think the more I am involved and understand our “tribe,” I find myself on the edge of the seat in anticipation that something big is about to happen.  Yet, like a sermon with out a great close, it seems like I am left hanging on the edge.  How do we get a denomination with hierarchal systems and such a huge diversity in cultures, in and outside of the states, to also feel this urge to push into new territory?  In fact, let me ask you, do you see a tendency toward change in the CotN or is there a wall?  It seems to me it goes back and forth. I also wonder how difficult it will be to move a global denomination that has taught the world one way and instilled, for lack of a better term, “old theologies” onto sponge like societies and cultures who now may be more resistant to changes than even the US church.  Can the CotN in the US. move into a new conversation and think that the rest of the fundamental, conservative (I’m thinking Africa) international church will just follow?  Will it be necessary?  Do we sparate the work of the church globally and can the church function as a global denomination with such diverse ways of doing church if it were to experience the third way in one place but not the other? These are kind of “what if” questions but I think that some day they may be extremely relevant. 


Scott Carver


I too, am pondering what the fate of the traditional churches as we know them will be in the future.  Your analogy of wildfire leaves me wondering if there might be a better way.  I agree wholeheartedly that there must be a “third way.”  Food for thought- Recently I have been pondering what it would be like to launch new churches out of traditional ones thus enabling them with the necessary resources to thrive, but also keeping them unhindered from many lagging traditions and baggage that comes with many traditional denominational churches. 

We are in the midst of a radical transition.  I am not convinced that there is a “one-size-fits-all” approach to succeeding in our approaches, but I do think we have need for a radical restructuring of what the church looks like and we need to be intentional about our purpose because the time is short!

-Scott C

Hunter Mizar


One of the things that I have appreciated about the Church of the Nazarene is that we have never taken an elitist stance to think that we were the only church that has a corner market on God.  I like the idea that you expressed in that it is Jesus’ love that brings us together and unites us.  I think especially in efforts to portray to our local communities the message of Christ it is important for lost people to see Christians working together and showing love towards one another beyond denominational lines.  One of the greatest ways to destroy our reputation as followers of Christ is when churches spend their time arguing and working against one another.

Steven Larrabee

I am convinced that we are in the midst of a cultural change that when completed will probably change the world even greater than when happened during the development of the modern era.  As I read your comments on the third way.  I was wondering how will these changes affect the holiness tradition and many of the key beliefs of the Church of the Nazarene.  I am willing to face tough questions and seek for answers much I must be honest I am not sure actually what these changes will bring.  Everyone in the online group at NNU seem to think it will be a good thing and better for the church.  I hope so, however, I have my doubts.  What are your thoughts on the how this will affect our denomination?

Todd Barker


Thanks for this report about the conference and continuing the conversation on a third way.  We do need to find ways to unite people who are following after Christ in ecumenical ways.  Your foundation in a ‘love that unites’ is exceptional.  I would venture to say that there must also be some other things that ‘unite’ us – but that gets to the question of the tent metaphor.  Who will be (or what specific arenas of Christ following) will be left out in the rain? 

Beyond the love of God and salvation, I do not believe that many doctrines or ‘ologies’ will be uniting factors.  However, I do believe that people will be uniting.  It is when people look for connection, similarities, genuine points of interest, and so on, that we will find unity.  I also think that Christianity in a global sense can also be united even further through shared and common practices.  It is those practices that will be the most inviting to non-christian traditions and probably have the biggest impact on our world.  I think we can attribute that to God’s grace at work even before we begin to move.  People have a natural soft spot and excitement for partnering with a good cause.  This also may address what Hans introduced with a ‘holiness’ that unites.  A social holiness is extremely uniting and something Christians can rally behind. 

The Church of the Nazarene has much to offer if we will invite those of other traditions to participate!  This is good news for the future.


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