Last year I attended a conference called “Big Tent Christianity.”  Phillip Clayton and Tripp Fuller cosponsored this event. As many of you recall Philip is a Quaker from Claremont Friends and is former dean of theology at Claremont Theological School. (Currently, he serves as vice-president of academic affairs and dean of the faculty at CTS).  He spoke to us last year during meeting for worship.  Clayton described Big Tent this way:

‘Big Tent’ evokes the image of the revival tent that folks used to set up just outside of town. Here differences were (in theory) set aside while people sought transformation and a new direction in their faith… ‘Big tent’ is also a prophetic challenge to the rancorous debates and condemnations that are the public face of religion today.[1]



While there were numerous speakers and many of them renowned theologians of our time, the words that struck me were offered by my classmate and friend from divinity school days Tripp Fuller. (Tripp is currently working on his PHD in theology from Claremont Theological School and youth pastor at Neighborhood Church in Palos Verdes Estates).  Tripp talked to us about his faith journey. He said: “if we’re going to do Big Tent Christianity it has to be inclusive of every version of you as you’ve attempted to follow Jesus.” For example, Tripp said: “that he grew up as a Baptist preacher’s kid singing hymns and loved them until he discovered that you could play guitars and praise Jesus at the same time.” As he has grown and studied and some of his beliefs have changed, he recognized that there was no point in his life where he was outside the love of God. 


Tripp’s words struck home with me, because I too have studied, grown, and changed in my understanding of God.  I grew up in a Quaker parsonage.  I’ve worshiped with people from a variety of faith traditions.  I recognized years ago that I was Quaker not because of my grandparents, parents, or by tradition, but because of my own convictions. My understanding of God was experiential, rather than through spoken creeds, liturgy, or music. 


My exposure to people was deepened as a flight attendant.  My co-workers were from a variety of faith traditions, with a variety of political perspectives, and with differing sexual orientations.  Sometimes I feel that the most important ministry I’ve participated in was sitting on the jump seat along side people, as we shared our stories. Being a flight attendant certainly keeps me from being easily shocked.


For over a year, I have been thinking about this idea of Big Tent Christianity, and thinking about my own understanding of Big Tent Quakerism.  If I were going to build a Big Tent Quakerism, or a place for spiritual transformation where we could set aside differences, I’d need to include all of my past selves. The young child who grew up in a Quaker parsonage, a divorced single parent, flight attendant, and a self-acclaimed Bible nerd.  My Big Tent would need to include myself as a conservative who is never quite conservative enough to be considered conservative nor liberal enough to be considered liberal. I’d want a tent big enough to include my friends with differing political views, religious understandings, and differing lifestyles, because I don’t believe that there was a time in my life or theirs where they stepped outside the love of God.  


My understanding of faith is through the lens of the Quaker understanding that there is that of God in everyone.  My understanding of my calling as a pastor is not as the gatekeeper of heaven or hell.  My understanding of ministry is that I am called to preach the radical love and hope of Jesus to one and all; this is idea of Big Tent Quakerism and the tent I hope to pitch.


[1] Clayton, Philip.  “Seeking Common Ground in ‘Big Tent’ Christianity”


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Comment by Tom Smith on 8th mo. 21, 2011 at 3:12pm

In some ways the Big "revival" Tent does remind me of some fairly "small minded" and narrow viewed incidences. However, the Big "Raft" Christianity strikes me as a alternative image.Borrowing from the Buddhist tradition a concept that is inclusive rather than exclusive.


Comment by James C Schultz on 8th mo. 23, 2011 at 6:46pm

I think if you are going to honor each person's faith walk and accept the fact that you yourself have probably not finished your own, you have no choice but to accept a big tent Quakerism.  In fact when people ask me about what Quakers believe I just tell them it's a very big tent.  So long as someone is seeking the truth I have to accept that God is big enough to reveal Himself to them in the best possible manner for them individually.  I might be able to help someone find the right note once in a while but I can't possibly write the symphony that is their life.


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