by Bo Sanders

As one of the behind the scenes helpers of Big Tent Christianity, I can honestly say that I feel like last week’s Phoenix event was very successful. I know that others are weighing in on things that they would have liked to have seen or things that we can do differently next time – and I agree with many of these suggestions; I think we all do.

But before we focus on the 10% that could use adjustment, I want to highlight four things that I think were done right and which made this an overwhelming hit: partnership, dialogue, facilitation and leadership.

Partnership: we partnered with people. The Arizona Center for Contemporary Theology, The Desert Emergent Cohort and the Beatitudes Church were wonderful hosts and friends to Big Tent.  We didn’t pick some random city off the map, we responded to an invitation. We didn’t book some conference center or large hotel to stage the event, we were hosted by a congregation.

This shift in theological dialogue is not primarily about ideas but about relationship – not about impressiveness but about connection. If the main concern was to stage a big event with nationally known speakers then you would do that differently than what we did in Phoenix. I loved the connections that we made and the way that they were made.

Dialogue: we had conversations. Carol Howard-Merritt was the first speaker and set the perfect tone. David Felton spoke with an honesty that carried weight because of his position and location.

Eliacin Rosario-Cruz in conversation with Brian McLaren about the practices and rhythms of faith and life.

Nadia Bolz-Weber in dialogue with Richard Rohr about conflict and reconciliation.

Anthony Smith in dialogue with Tripp Fuller about Pentecost and post-Colonial realities.

Rachel Held-Evans taking on Marcus Borg in the Evolution break-out session.

Brian Ammons’ letter to the Bishop.

Mark Scandrette’s spoken word prayer-benediction-exhortation.

This is the upside to a conference like this. There are always limitations to this sort of event, but one of the advantages it that we get to listen in on conversations that we would never get to hear otherwise.  When Shane Hipps, Spencer Burke, and Barry Taylor were talking about technology and spirituality, I was so happy to be in that room.

Facilitation: we organized and empowered. There were many moments where I thought to myself “I love this moment”.  We had Main-Liners, Emergents, Evangelicals, Neo-Monastics, Pentecostals, Conservatives, and ‘Nones’  talking about Prayer, Evolution, Technology, the Bible, Sex, the Church, Demons, Intentional Communities, and Race.

This happened in break-out sessions, over coffee breaks, in main sessions, over meals and at late-night mixers.

Leadership: The simplest way to say this is that Big Tent is one branch on a big tree. When you have an internationally acclaimed Theologian like Philip Clayton who gets a vision and a subsequent grant to “Transform Christian Theology” and he does this – not by writing a 3 volume systematic theology – but by being in dialogue with others and facilitating conversation between others … I think that is really saying something.  Something that is probably too easily overlooked or taken for granted in this age of cynicism where it is easier to make sarcastic quips from the back row than to make substantial contributions on the front line (I am preaching to myself here).

I loved Big Tent Phoenix – and not just because I was on the planning team. I was on the planning team because I love what this is and what it represents and what it can become.

There will be things that will be different at Big Tent NY or Big Tent San Fran or Big Tent Portland-Seattle.  (I am making those up because I am hoping for them)

In addition to the Denominational diversity there is always an eye toward Gender and Race representation. The theological and ecumenical voices will be increasingly complimented by the thoughtful practitioner.

One thing is for sure: Big Tent Phoenix was a moment – a living moment. Heads and hearts were enlivened, lives and communities were influenced. Seeds were planted. I am grateful for the opportunity to have been a part of it and I look forward to seeing where it  goes from here.

you can connect with Bo at his blog or on FaceBook