What makes a church a “big tent”? Is Slatersville Church a “big tent”? Do you even want to be a “big tent?

In church, being a big tent is not dependent on the number of people in your community, but rather the tolerance for diversity and opinions among community members. A “big tent church” is both expansive and inclusive. UCC.org reads, “You’ll find a broad range of cultures and styles in our united and uniting church.” More on expansive and inclusive later.

When we describe the United Church of Christ as a “big tent,” we are acknowledging our differences, yet expressing that we desire the unity expressed in John 17: 21 “That they all be one.”

Common sense might dictate that the simplest way to maintain a big tent community would be to avoid anything even remotely controversial. In actuality, the key to a successful “big tent” is not avoiding important conversations or conflict but learning how to have crucial conversations so that differences may be resolved in a healthy way, rather than shelved only to bubble up, even after years of avoidance or walking-on-eggshells. (Please stay after church Jan 21to discuss the lay-led Crucial Conversations group or sign up during any coffee hour.)

A church member recently asked if it is even possible to have a “pastor who is a spiritual leader” in a “big tent” church. Paraphrasing their next question, it would read something like, “Doesn’t the message need to be sort of neutral/middle-of-the-road?”

I think I understand where someone would get the idea that the safest path might appear to be keeping things as generic and tame as possible. The problem with this notion is that we strive to be disciples of Jesus, who was anything but bland. The Gospel isn’t neutral or tame. In my opinion, there will always be folks who just want a nice place to be with people (and SCC should be that) but others may crave the same, while also wanting to be part of a community that is fun, friendly, interesting, and perhaps most importantly, moving with the spirit, and not just surviving.

If anything, leading a “big tent” church requires a strong spiritual leader who has a deep understanding of what it means to be expansive and inclusive. There are many reasons to be a “big tent” church, but only one good one. It may come off as politically expedient, culturally or socially acceptable according to societal norms, or perhaps a community might be concerned about being perceived as politically incorrect or intolerant. In my opinion, while these are all rational considerations, they are also pretty bad reasons. The best reason to be a “big tent” church, or any
other kind of church, is because that is who you believe God is calling you to be.

I always think of Jesus’s use of undesirables or outright villains again and again as the heroes or recipients of grace in parables. This is a lesson on inclusivity. He is not telling us to admire Samaritans, tax collectors or centurions; he is expanding our idea of who is a child of God by including people that would have been seen as appalling from the viewpoint of a first century Hebrew. Jesus always commends people for their actions, and in the case of the centurion and the hemorrhaging woman, their “faith had made them well.” What faith would that be? Neither one of the people would have been seen to have an emote remotely acceptable religious viewpoint.We must learn to use a first century lens in context if we are to have any hope of making use of the
brilliant teachings bequeathed to us in Jesus’s name, especially if we are to be “big tent” people.

Inclusivity means that everyone is invited to ride on your bus. All God’s children deserve to be welcomed with open arms. Big tents don’t have litmus tests or barriers to entry. The only barrier to entry is feeling the need to bar someone else from riding the bus. If it is truly a “big tent”, you’ll still be welcome, but you may feel like you’re on the wrong bus much of the time. In a church in transition (which you are) there is already stress over identity. We cherish the past, but we acknowledge that the past isn’t who we are now. Yet, we don’t exactly know where we’re going or who we’ll be when we get there, which is unsettling to say the least.

In the Exodus story, the temptation of the desert is to turn around and go back to Egypt. We remember fondly the warm home and the food. We forget the shortcomings of the past and remember
with nostalgia the “good old days”. Anything that serves as a reminder that those days are gone can trigger a powerful negative emotional response. We forget the rational reasons we struck out
across the desert in the first place. Something about the “promised land” was it? When emotions run strong, we forget the spiritual reasons we began our journey in the first place.

As you continue to build a beloved big tent community that can see, understand and be present, you will be there when people need that love.

So this should be easy, right? NO! It’s hard to acknowledge the shadow in ourselves and to “acknowledge the suffering” in others, but it is all part of a spiritual journey of growth. Big tents have
many challenges. The first thing is to acknowledge is that we all have people we want to kick out of our tent. The second thing to realize is that it’s not our tent, it is God’s tent.

Some questions to consider:
Are we a “big tent”?
Should we be?
What are the benefits of a smaller tent?
Would I prefer that church model?
Do I even want a pastor who is a “big tent” style spiritual leader?
Why or why not? If not, what do I envision as the right fit for me?
For my church?

Thanks for reading,
Rev. Korte