Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) described the first Big Tent conference, held in Atlanta in 2009, as “a big Presbyterian family reunion.”
That first year, 10 Presbyterian groups held conferences simultaneously at Big Tent – focusing on everything from new immigrant ministry to evangelism to stewardship, with participants gathering together for joint worship services and shared meals.
This year, for the fifth Big Tent – which will be held at the Washington University in St. Louis campus July 6-8 – things are different. The attendance is down (from 1,500 that first year to about 600 this time around, about 150 of whom are staff and speakers).
The theme and programming this year have been developed primarily by the PC(USA)’s national staff, using the theme “Race, Reconciliation, Reformation.”
On Friday night, some of the participants will head out to five Presbyterian congregations in the St. Louis area to participate in “Holy Conversations about Race,” and to learn about work those churches are doing involving racial justice and reconciliation. That’s part of the “Hands and Feet” initiative that J. Herbert Nelson, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, is advancing to connect Presbyterians with community needs in the next three cities where General Assembly will be held: St. Louis in 2018, Baltimore in 2020 and Columbus, Ohio, in 2022.
Eric D. Baretto, an associate professor of theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, will lead Bible study focused on difference and diversity in Acts.
The Big Tent thematic emphasis on racism, reconciliation and justice “grew out of the last General Assembly, where the agencies of the General Assembly were instructed to develop resources for congregations and mid councils to address racism and racial justice,” said Jerry Van Marter, interim communications director for the Office of the General Assembly.
With the approach to Big Tent shifting over time – from its beginning as a “conference of conferences” to this year’s more focused theme – Presbyterians still decide to come, or not, for a variety of reasons.
Debra Avery, a pastor from Oakland, California, will be attending her second Big Tent –drawn in part because this is the farthest west that Big Tent has ever been held. “Here’s an attempt to get it at least an inch west of the Mississippi,” Avery said. And “I got really excited because it’s actually talking about things that matter to me and my congregation.”
She’s coming early, for the Presbyterian Intercultural Ministries pre-conference, being held July 5-6. Avery thinks “having a conference that’s oriented around race and racism is important. … There’s no shame in being a mostly-white denomination. But until we address the systems of white supremacy in our congregations and our communities, we don’t have any hope of becoming anything other than that.”
Also, “I’m like a Presby nerd,” Avery said. “I love my people. I love the engagement and conversations we have. … I do seek out opportunities to hang with my people.”
Mark Verdery, general presbyter and stated clerk of Providence Presbytery in South Carolina, won’t be going to Big Tent, and doesn’t know a lot of pastors from his area who are. Verdery attended the second Big Tent, in Indianapolis in 2011, and “I thought it was a great idea to have a family gathering away from General Assembly, in a non-political atmosphere.”
But this year, pastors he queried said they couldn’t go because of scheduling conflicts or a lack of money in their continuing education budgets. He also thinks some Presbyterians are looking for a different approach from a national event – particularly, programming “that could equip leaders in smaller-member congregations.”
Many congregations struggle to adapt ways of doing ministry in an increasingly secular world, Verdery said. “We are in a new space in the church. It’s liminal, it’s anxious, it’s discontinuous, but it’s God’s space.”
While discussing racism is important – “racial reconciliation is certainly something we need to struggle with as a church” – focusing the bulk of Big Tent on that one subject may be putting “the accent on the wrong syllable” for many Presbyterians in the pews, Verdery said. “I struggle often with a sense of disconnect between folks in Louisville and folks in the trenches.”
Avery said she also wants the conference to address “how do we help our congregants recognize the world we’re in today?” In California, where she works, it’s not assumed that people go to church, and some families have gone four generations now with no religious connection. “We probably as a denomination need to be having more intense conversations about the state of the church on the ground,” Avery said.
To follow more of what happens at Big Tent, catch the Outlook’s Big Tent 2017 coverage: