Small Town, Big Tent


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

When I was in Raleigh in July, my newfound friends Hugh Hollowell and Mike Morrell kept  pestering me about returning to the city for what they casually referred to as “Big Tent.” I smiled politely and mumbled something about being really busy this fall, mainly because my mind immediately translated “Big Tent” into “an event that likely involves Port-O-Potties.” 

But when I got home and received an email announcing the speaker lineup and schedule for Big Tent Christianity I knew I had to figure out a way to get there. I’m still working out the details, but hope to join Hugh and Mike (and Shane Claiborne, Phyllis Tickle, Greg Boyd, Brian McLaren, Peter Rollins, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and many others) in Raleigh September 8-9 for an event that celebrates a more inclusive, ecumenical approach to Christianity. 

I’ll be attending as both an author and a church-planter, but with one big question in mind: What does it mean to celebrate Big Tent Christianity in small town America? 

It’s a question we at The Mission have been asking ourselves a lot lately as we continue to grow and get more involved in the community. We are often challenged by folks who rightly point out that Dayton, Tennessee doesn’t really need any more churches. There’s one on every street corner and over 200 listed in the county’s church directory. In fact, it was within the context of this town’s most famous event—the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925—that journalist H.L. Mencken first coined the term “Bible Belt.” 

Our hope is that as we continue to serve our neighbors, The Mission will become a safe place for those who don’t always fit in at the church around the corner—doubters, dreamers, artists, misfits, gays and lesbians, divorcees, the lonely and the disenchanted. In addition, we want our little faith community to grow into a true picture of the Kingdom, which belongs to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, and the humble, and which is made up of people of all different ethnicities, political persuasions, and theological positions. A church consisting of “the rest of us” would indeed stand out in this little town, and if we can work together to address issues like rural poverty and racial reconciliation, I believe we can make a lasting impact here. 

From my perspective, serving and loving the people in the margins is the easy part, for I am a bit of a misfit myself. The hard part is serving and loving those who are critical of our efforts, those who say our tent is a little too big for the Bible Belt

It is inevitable that as we seek partner with other churches in our area, we will run into the very attitudes and approaches that left many of us wounded. I find myself getting all  defensive when local Christians question my commitment to my faith simply because I believe the earth is more than 6,000 years old or when they roll their eyes upon learning that women are allowed to teach at our church services. What will happen when they find out that we don’t intend to turn people away simply because of their sexual orientation? How will they respond when they learn that there are both republicans and (gasp) democrats in our midst? 

The truth is, it’s easier for me to love my neighbors to the left than my neighbors to the right. But if I can’t love my critics unconditionally, all my talk of missional living and interdenominational cooperation is just useless noise, clanging cymbals. If The Mission can’t find ways to creatively partner with those ultra-conservative churches on the corner, we will never be able to tackle the biggest challenges faced by our community. If there is no room for them in our hearts, there will be no room for them in our tent…which means it isn’t big enough; it will always feel like someone is missing. 

Much has been written about nurturing missional communities in urban settings, where missions of justice and mercy can often be accomplished with or without the help critics. But as the tent gets bigger and as the missional movement spreads to rural America, we must initiate a conversation about how to effectively grow a more inclusive church in this unique context, where we are sure to meet some resistance. 

Fortunately, loving the people it is hardest for us to love is the highest calling of the Church—whether it exists in the streets of Philadelphia, the rice fields of India, or the Buckle of the Bible Belt--so I expect to encounter a lot of great ideas over the next few weeks and months. May God grant us wisdom and grace as we seek to pitch a tent that is big enough for us all to worship, serve, and maybe even dance.  

(This post is part of the Big Tent Christianity synchroblogBe sure to check out the other posts!)  

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So, what does Big Tent Christianity look like in your context? What have you learned from partnering with those with whom you disagree?

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