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Omaha, Nebraska, United States
I am more and more convinced that most congregations die from a staggering lack of imagination. Let's change that. Let's imagine a creative future with God and each other together. Drop me a line on email or leave a comment if you have thoughts on God, Jesus, congregations, the church or whatever.... I look forward to our conversations.

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Big Tent Christianity" and Prairie Table

(This blog is part of the "Big Tent Christianity" event to be held in Raleigh, NC next month. Please see for more information. ed.)

I am very supportive of the energy surrounding this event to bring about new ideas and ways of being and becoming the church. Such a desire to bring together Christians from battling each other to battling the evils of destruction and disintegration is always to be commended, and I am glad to be even a small whisper of a much larger conversation. One of the charges we are asked to blog about for this event is "What does it (big tent Christianity) look like in your context?" and I want to take that question up this week. I want to answer, in a beginning sort of way, what "big tent Christianity" looks like up here in North Dakota through the fellowship of people at Prairie Table.

Prairie Table and the "big tent" metaphor have one attribute we share, and a major one that we do not share...I will begin with our commonality. Both the "big tent" metaphor and Prairie Table agree that whatever the church is to be or become it will be moveable. That is, Church is not a permanent thing. Church has no stone walls, no buildings, no programs, no committees, no budgets, no anything that is usually associated with "church" these days. Places may have those kinds of things, and they may be ministry centers, social services agencies, ritual re-enactors, or whatnot, but they are not Church...maybe they are playing at "church," but they are not Church.

Because the metaphor of a tent is provisional, temporary, portable, and moveable, there must be an assumption of "big tent" Christianity that the Church is provisional, temporary, portable, and moveable too...and we at Prairie Table really agree with that. (See "A Table Along the Way," May 19, 2009) Prairie Table is a way of being Christian community that is provisional, temporary, portable, and moveable...and this is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because our relationships with each other and with God through Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit go with us wherever we go. Right now, we gather in Bismarck, ND...but who is to say we will be there tomorrow, or next week, or even next year? As God calls us, not only into ministry around us, but also into the great globe itself, we take the relationships we have nurtured around the table with us, and set up our "tents" or "tables" wherever we happen to be. God loves us in our provisionality, our temporariness, our portability, and our movement...but we do not. And this brings us to the curse.

We love to be "settled." We all seek one tap root some where, some place, some time...and the transitory nature of a "tent" or a "table," while exhilarating for a time, cannot we seek refuge, comfort, and solace from the institutions of our lives...making "church" one of the biggest. It is interesting that the "big tent" conference draws from the revival heritage of Christianity in this country...and revivals are not designed to last, they are not designed to be permanent structures of church...and at Prairie Table we work from that same transitory nature of church. We use the "table" metaphor, not because we do not like tents, but because we focus on "how" God builds relationships with us, not "where" God builds relationships with us...And how, is around the table, the place where Jesus broke bread and his body so that we could fellowship with God...

But Prairie Table works a different angle than the "big tent" metaphor, and finally this difference makes all the difference in the world. You see, the "big tent" idea still wants to attract people inside, still wants to invite people into whatever Christianity is...that is, the metaphor still holds some kind of objectivist power image that whatever is in the tent is Christian and whatever is not in the tent is not...and Prairie Table fundementally disagrees with that idea. There is no tent big enough to hold the universe that God has made...and only if you want to use "big tent" as a substitute for heaven (and that carries a whole raft of philosophical and theological issues) could Prairie Table finally use the "big tent" metaphor...

You see, we don't invite people to the table...we bring the table out into the street...and that is a huge missional understanding of Church that goes in a far different direction than a "big tent" metaphor. We understand that God sends Jesus as the Christ and the Spirit into the world to incorporate us into the life and being of our creation and finally in our redemption that comes from the cross of Jesus the Christ we are incorporated in the life and being of God-- brought to the table so to speak--wholly on the activity of God's grace coming to us, not we going to it. So that the table we set out in the street is but a shadow of the table God sets out for us in the resurrection of Jesus the Christ...we don't invite anyone to the table...we set it out so that any and everyone may eat and drink at the feast of our Lord. There is no "inside" or "outside" at the table (and since we use round tables there is no head or foot either)...everyone is at the table, everyone feasts on the grace of God...and it is God's battle with the forces of evil and destruction that we eat and drink to our salvation...not our battle that God stimulates us for with a shot of blood and a chip of body...Because God creates the world (we take that to mean universe) there is no place where God is not nor will not be...and a tent would at best be a protection from the elements, but it could never be a boundary to God's love and engagement with creation...the tables we set out have taken all the abuses and the abused the world can offer...but that is because they are God's tables, not ours. And there is no inside to which we gather, and no outside to which we exclude.

So we at Prairie Table will continue to work on bringing tables out into the world that God redeems in Christ. We will not get too concerned about the size of the tent...because you see...for us at Prairie Table, the only tent big enough would be one to cover the entire universe...and while we pray for the love and justice of the "Big Tent Christianity" conference to prevail, our belief is that we are only going to get there--one table at a time...


Daniel Rose said...

Scott, I love the post. I deeply resonate with your post and the missional impulse it represents. I especially appreciate the phrase "no inside". I think that when each of our traditions gets that concept then we will also get the real heart behind a "big tent".

jpcarson said...


From reading your post (more between the lines than explicitly) you are cognizant of the common and daunting issues facing mankind.

I think BTX must make such issues a central focus if it is not to be a waste of time, if not worse

Liz said...

Thanks for participating in the Big Tent Synchroblog.

I hope you are able to participate in the upcoming synchroblog "Christians and The Immigration Issue"

Here's the info:

CHRISTIANS AND THE IMMIGRATION ISSUE - 9/8/2010 (second Wednesday of the month) As Congress debates how to handle undocumented aliens already within U.S. borders and how to more effectively handle hopeful immigrants in the future, Christians will need to consider what it means to love these new neighbors in our midst.

Please email your name, name of blog, title of post and link to: Sonja Andrews at by close of business CST on 9/7/2010 if you would like to be included in this synchroblog.

Here's a link to help keep up with monthly synchroblog themes and dates: