angie_thumbAngela Thurston

Reflections on Christianity21

This winter, I attended Christianity21, a three-day conference in Denver, CO that was billed as an invitation to “live a 21st century Christianity with 21 speakers who deliver 21 big ideas in 21 minutes each.” I have been hearing about the Great Emergence in Christianity for some time, but this was my first experience participating in an event that was wholeheartedly part of it. I went, thanks to a scholarship from The Urmia Project, in an attempt to understand more about how the teachings of The Urantia Book might inform and help us respond to current movements in the Christian church.

I approached this conference with interest in its content and implications. To contextualize my perspective, here is a bit about myself: I am a second-generation Urantia Book reader in my late twenties, currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree from Harvard Divinity School. My goal in entering ministry is to bring people into community for the purpose of realizing each individual’s potential to know and do the will of God, regardless of religious affiliation. I suspect that The Urantia Book’s concept of religion as a personal experience to be socialized based on goals, rather than creeds, might be well-suited for this moment in which large numbers of Americans—especially of my generation—are eschewing the institution of Christianity in favor of “spirituality” or “nothing in particular,” while still avowing belief in God.

Concurrent with my studies, I have been lucky to work with fellow Urantia Book readers on a number of exciting projects. One of these is the Fellowship’s upcoming International Conference in summer 2014 ( My involvement in conference planning has made me curious to see how other groups of religionists come together, and what we as Urantia Book readers might learn from and contribute to these models.

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I was surprised that the conference goers were overwhelmingly professional Christians—ministers, book writers, journalists, church planters, aid workers, activists—even the Pastor in Chief to the President. So the speeches were not merely speculative or reflective, or even abstractly theological. Rather, they were targeted appeals to the audience in the room. Speakers presented big ideas for the century that they actually wanted to implement, and they presented to people who could go about implementing them.

The 21 featured speakers were: Josh Dubois, Mike Foster, Noel Castellanos, Kent Dobson, Enuma Okoro, Phyllis Tickle, Charles Lee, Jonathan Merritt, Sarah Bessey, Romal Tune, Tony Jones, Jose Morales, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Paul Raushenbush, Sarah Cunningham, Bruce Reyes Chow, Sarah Lefton, Doug Pagitt, Ani Zonneveld, Jamie Wright, and Sarah Pulliam-Bailey.

Here is a bit about two of my favorite speeches, along with a few other highlights:

1) Paul Raushenbush

Rev. Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, great grandson of Social Gospel pastor Walter Rauschenbusch, is Senior Religion Editor for the Huffington Post. He framed his speech by identifying the Social Gospel as one source of wisdom for our time, but also as the cause of a split between mainline and evangelical traditions in America. Now, he said, we have the opportunity to bring them back together through his big idea: the Personal Gospel.

What makes the church, said Raushenbush, is that we honor and share our encounters of God and each other. Neither politics nor spiritual narcissism represents the gospel of Jesus; rather, his gospel is that God loves you and me, and we are brothers and sisters. This gospel is personal at its core, and becomes social when we honor and recognize and serve each other. Through such understanding, we as Christians discover a responsibility to take our encounters personally.

I was excited by the simple truth of Raushenbush’s message, which cut through the denominational trappings of Christianity to the core of the Jesusonian gospel as it is depicted in The Urantia Book.

2) Phyllis Tickle

The Grande dame of the Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle is the founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly, as well as a prolific author and lecturer. Hers was the only speech of the conference that garnered a standing ovation. Tickle focused on the question: What is God the Spirit? She traced the legacy of the Great Emergence and its many contemporary manifestations: emergent, emerging, new monastic, fresh expression, convergence, and others. Taken all together, she said, this new Christianity marks the kind of great transformation the church undergoes only once every 500 years. In our particular transformative moment, it is imperative to consider pneumatology: the nature of the Holy Spirit.

The Great Emergence is beginning to mature, she said, building international and lacework networks of communities and even electing what she described as an Emergence pope. But there is a kind of spirituality we still need to acknowledge. We must account for living in the Hubble era, a time of pure astonishment. We must account for the spiritual but not religious, account for the religiously unaffiliated. We must account for the meteoric rise of the renewalists—the pentecostal and charismatic movement that is sweeping Christianity. We must confront and overturn the idea that revelation stopped with Jesus Christ.

I was delighted that Tickle cited Urantia Book reader and integral philosopher Steve McIntosh to lead to a final point: God’s progressive revelation is tethered to our own evolution! Generally, her speech was similar in tenor and many particulars to a Harvard class I took last semester with Harvey Cox called Pentecostalism as Global Religion. The notion of the spirit moving, blowing, where it will—beyond the confines of denominations, rituals, and men in robes—has taken hold. Now the question is what will become of that movement.

3) Other Highlights

In addition to the 21 featured speeches, the conference included 7-minute participant speeches. From these, here are a few ideas that resonated with me and aligned with the teachings of The Urantia Book: Ben Collins, Executive Director of Collective: A Misfit Faith Community, re-focused the idea that faith is changing to mean faith IS changing—it is the experience of transformation, and the church ought to be a safe and catalyzing space for that change to occur. Jon Huckins, co-Founder of The Global Immersion Project, spoke about the need for peacemaking to be re-associated with Jesus. To follow Jesus, he said, is to take everyday action to move toward conflict and transformatively bring about peace. And Erika Marksbury, Associate Pastor at Saint Andrew Christian Church, focused on the importance of the stories we tell. We need to loosen our ritual hold on the violence and betrayal surrounding Jesus’ death, she argued, because the violent liturgy of our sacred moments seeds violence in our culture. The story to remember and re-create is the story of communion.


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Reflections and Implications

On a personal level, I found the event refreshing. It was refreshing to be in an environment that was both deeply Christian and pointedly irreverent. Having spent most of my life among liberal peers in secular cultures, it is unusual for me to be in a room where the divinity of Jesus is a given and people are swearing on stage. It is even more unusual to be in such a room where everyone is focused on energetically and practically imagining the future of faith.

I was with a cadre of Urantia Book readers—including Paula Thompson, Christylin Biek Larson, Pamela Chaddock, David Kantor, and Harry Menton—some of whom have been valiantly proactive about introducing the book to leaders of the Great Emergence. I was impressed by how many relationships they have already established, and how many Urantia Books they have personally bestowed. Paula and Christylin did a live episode of their blogtalk radio show, The Cosmic Citizen, from the conference, conducting interviews from the lobby. Along with Pamela Chaddock, they have long since identified this movement as one to be part of, seeking out leaders like Brian McLaren to be on the radio and participating in other events such as the Wild Goose Festiva.l

By contrast, I felt more like an interloper. When I introduced myself throughout the weekend, it was easy to say I was a student pursuing an MDiv and let the assumptions form as they formed. But I enjoyed the challenge of bringing the Urantia Book into conversation. Two interactions in particular were fruitful, I think. One, with a young Colorado pastor, became standoffish but then circled back to curiosity and a desire to keep in touch. The other, with a more experienced church leader, involved me shouting in his ear (at his request!) to tell him what the book was about, while surrounded by brazen hymn singing at a bar.

While I tried not to miss opportunities to introduce the Urantia Book, I focused more on trying to understand the people and the movement around me. I kept hearing really good ideas from the stage, and wanting to shout, “Yes! Follow that through!” Ultimately, it struck me that this movement has a central challenge: the quality of ideas coming from individuals is outpacing their scriptural underpinnings, yet they are still tethered to Bible-as-scripture. They might challenge the Bible and interpret it loosely, and the desire to move through it to Jesus is strong, but inevitably some of their personal insights into truth are going to contradict the Word. And at the moment, there are few voices there to say, “Yes! Follow that through!” Dare to manifest the religion of Jesus, even when it means questioning original sin, and the atonement doctrine, and hell, and even when it means being open to new sources of revelation.

Christianity21 was a professional and social gathering. It was not meant to replace church. Many of the featured speakers have founded untraditional Christian spaces, like Doug Pagitt’s Solomon’s Porch or Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints. They are consciously emerging from some of the church’s restrictive structures and doctrines, but at the end of the day, they still have local religious communities. In this regard I think the Urantia movement can learn from the trials and errors of the Great Emergence. They are innovating within a 2,000-year-old tradition, which gives them both more experience and more limitation. We are growing into a very new socialized religion, but we have no less need of local communities of faith. We have group worship at our annual conferences. That doesn’t replace church.

Since community still grows locally, even in a time of unprecedented global interconnectivity, this group of Christians is on track to figure some things out. And as their churches come to be less formal and more capacious, there may start to be room for some different types of thinking. In the mean time, we as Urantia Book readers need to be as active as they are. What questions are we asking? How are we answering them? Not just in theory but in practice. The folks I met at Christianity21 are not just ready to do the work. They are doing the work. They have some of the fourth epochal revelation and plenty of God within, and they are tending those endowments to bear a great deal of spirit fruit. They are active, and visible, and not on course to let up any time soon.

What fruits are we bearing? Why should they listen to us? They are seeking better models but not necessarily better sources. If we can apply what we know from our source to build better models, they will join us. If not, perhaps we should join them.

Want to get involved in interfaith activities like this one? Apply for a scholarship from The Urmia Project!