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  • Brian Chilcote

The Centered Set Church

We human beings can't seem to escape our natural affinity for hierarchies, pecking orders, in- and out-groups, us-versus-them and general line-drawing between ourselves and those "other people."

Or can we?

A brave few of us have found ways to push against the overwhelming gravity of tribalism. Any cursory glance at the history of our species proves our addiction to conflict with very little relief except for a very few influencers and their followers.

Albert Schweitzer, in his book Quest for the Historical Jesus, says, “[Jesus] lays hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close. It refuses to turn, and he throws himself on it. Then it does turn; and crushes him” (p. 370-71)* If anyone could overcome human resistance to truly loving our neighbor and our enemy, it was Jesus. The movement he began started off well, but it wasn't long before battle lines were drawn and conflict ignited over who was in and who was out; over who was greater and lesser.

Luke's gospel foreshadows what happens when the church begins to organize itself. In chapter nine he writes, "An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, 'Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.'”

Jesus' ethic was at the same time old and new. Inviting his followers to a compassionate, welcoming posture, he used metaphors like the demeanor of a child, a city on a hill, curative salt, a kind Samaritan and plank-obscured vision to draw attention to the ancient tradition embodied in God's promise to Abraham: "…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

So what happened? We find ourselves today at the far end of a long history of constant rivalry between factions bent on insisting that their own version of reality is the only true story. The church, an institution consisting of regular human beings, has largely not succeeded in finding the kind of unselfish unity that Jesus envisioned for the repentant.

Some of these tendencies are biological- Homo Sapiens came of age when the world was a very different place, when survival depended on small clans succeeding in competition for scarce resources. For most of our 300,000 years as a species, we had no use for cooperation on scales larger than an extended family group. It's difficult for our brains to keep up with the stress of having to navigate cooperative societies that number in the hundreds, thousands and even millions.

And yet we have a remarkable plasticity to adapt. It is possible for us to set aside tribal instincts for a greater good. Look at the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's, or the end of apartheid in South Africa in the mid-1990's. This is not to mention the countless altruistic acts that happen every day for the sole reason that many individuals and collectives think that living by the golden rule should be normal.

The messianic Jewish faction started by Jesus and his disciples took on a life of its own soon after he left the scene. The conflict he experienced only intensified as the movement clashed with belief systems and ideas of both Jewish and Hellenistic origin. The scant records we have of the earliest church contain enough mention of internal strife as to confirm the hypothesis that it's easier for religious communities to fight than to get along. What were the flashpoints? In most cases the primary location of conflict was over who was in and who was out; how to determine who is with us and who is against us, and what a person needs to do in order to qualify as a member in good standing, and by extension, eternal life.

Mark Baker in his book Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community Without Judgmentalism uses the logic of "sets" as used in mathematics and other fields to describe three very different ways of organizing faith communities. Baker employs the ideas of missiologist Paul Hiebert to describe these three paradigms: the Bounded Set, the Fuzzy Set and the Centered Set to shape answers to questions like, "How do we define who is and is not a follower of Christ?" and "Once a person does identify as a Christian, what is expected by both the community and the individual?" Baker's outline of the centered set model recommends reforming the way churches lay out dividing lines.

Bounded sets can be characterized as using collectively understood static lines of demarcation that define who is in the group and who is out. The criteria for determination usually follow set characteristics, for example, police officers are academy graduates, wear a uniform, are recognized by a hiring authority, patrol in well-marked vehicles, are recognized by their fellow officers, etc. Their training and supporting political powers matter a great deal- not just anyone can show up a crime scene or emergency and start doing police work.

Fuzzy sets are far less concerned with the borderlines between members and non-members. Consider a basketball court in a public park. You can find roughly the same core group of people playing pickup games on any given weekend, but if a newbie wants to play, a team will include her. Unless she's a terrible player, most of the informal teams that come and go at the park will allow her to play. There is no membership other than an affinity for sports and the ability to play the game. No one expects the same teams to show up every weekend. There are no coaches, practices or fees paid. The question, "Are you a member of the weekend pickup basketball game crowd at the park?" makes no sense because the dividing lines are almost non-existent.

Centered sets are removed from the continuum from bounded to fuzzy sets. Instead of drawing lines between agreed-upon official criteria, or eliminating dividing lines altogether, a centered set group is identified by a directional relationship with a centering principle. The centered set consists of an orientation toward the center without regard for their distance from it. A centering principle can be almost anything: a skill, an interest, a shared affinity, a belief system, an informational topic, a type of entertainment, etc. Closest to the center are the enthusiasts, possibly with some training and experience, who enjoy helping those furthest from the center to orient themselves and move closer in.

Applied to churches, it's not difficult to determine which two paradigms are in the majority here in the west. As discussed in the beginning of this article, one could make a supportable argument that from earliest days, the bounded set emerged as the leading organizational principle. All the way back to the first century, the struggle to forge an identity out of traditional Judaism while absorbing Paul's drive to include Gentiles, plus maintaining a well-defined distance from Hellenistic mystery cults and Emperor worship, the Jesus movement settled into a default of ideological line-drawing. Should circumcision be required? If someone is said to have received the Holy Spirit, did that indicate automatic inclusion on its own? What did it mean to "turn from idols?" In spite of some success at breaking down social caste barriers, by the second century we find Irenaeus and others hardening the walls around orthodoxy.

Bounded sets, more than fuzzy or centered sets, have exclusion encoded in their genes. Once a tribe goes down that road, judgmentalism and power gradients season the entire enterprise. As discussed earlier, it's what humans do naturally for perfectly coherent reasons involving safety, security and abundance. Our brains still think that determining who is in and who is out could be a life-or-death decision. Leaving the bounded set behind takes focused effort and sustained opposition to what comes naturally.

Many of us have formed our Christian beliefs and practice in a bounded set model. Denominations usually define themselves based on perceived errors of other groups, and admitting that there is more than one reasonable and legitimate way to live in the way of Jesus feels like trauma. Any alternative to our church or denomination's absolute truth could result in condemnation to eternal torment. And so our boundaries go from lines in the sand to moats around our castles where it feels safe and predictable.

The fuzzy set reaction against a dehumanizing bounded set approach is to erase as many lines as possible. While this might sound appealing, it creates some new problems as it does away with others. In fuzzy set churches, there is little in the way of compelling motivation to grow or mature. The enthusiasts at the center of a fuzzy set encourage others to do whatever works for them in an optional pursuit of a vague notion of what could be. It can also be confusing when differing ideals clash and there are few intellectual tools to help sort through them.

Some other problems with fuzzy set groups:

Struggling to clarify truth is less important than keeping struggle to a minimum. Fuzzy sets, in an attempt to rid themselves of judgmentalism, go too far and shrink back from making any decisions between pro-social and anti-social behavior.

Avoidance of any objective authority beside individual preference. When one feels the need for advice or challenge, they find a softness that isn't helpful, no wisdom beyond their own devices. Contrast this to traditions that draw on centuries of experience and debate about right courses of action that form external sources of authority that inform and critique our beliefs and behaviors.

Oddly, fuzzy set churches can morph into bounded set churches by raising their tolerance value too high. Once you start accepting only those who fit your model of anti-boundedness, a line is drawn. The group begins to open itself to anyone BUT people who aren't accepting or flexible enough to fit in. Baker quotes a student who captures the idea: "I fooled myself to believe that because I'm a gay-affirming feminist who drinks fair trade coffee, I am accepting. However, I'm only accepting to those who agree with me." **

Before we say more about the centered set community, let's outline a few more negatives of bounded set communities:

Shame plays an important part in managing deviance from the agreed-upon norms. Shame, of course, is public in nature as opposed to guilt which is an introspective perception of badness. It is measured by the magnitude of others' opinions of us. Disapproval, humiliation, rejection, loss of status and shunning are the bodyguards of status in the group.

Formal and informal exclusion are the consequences of "shameful" behavior. Sometimes people self-exclude because they know they can't measure up, while at others, there is an official act of exclusion (excommunication). All too often, exclusion occurs prior to any effort to approach the bounded set group; everyone knows that certain behaviors automatically disqualify, and unless there's a very obvious and strenuous effort to change, admittance is barred.

Disintegration of self is common. Many members of bounded set groups must hide or suppress parts of themselves or dissociate from beliefs they know are unacceptable. It feels like lying to fit in, and breeds a lack of safety with people under stress from having to guard against confiding in the wrong person.

Bounded sets are usually antagonistic toward outsiders, which alienates all sides. References to "The World" are not positive, but are used to describe the enemy in a culture war that threatens the in-group. Bounded set churches are certain that secular society is literally godforsaken, making interaction and cooperation between any outside group much more difficult, even those of a similar creedal constitution.

Fear is a recurring theme for the bounded set.

According to Baker, the centered set is a pro-social effort to move beyond fear-based bounded set tribalism by moving the group identity distinctives from exterior borders to an interior center.

Imagine you own a large parcel of tropical forested property on which you build a nice house with views in every direction. Being a fan of wildlife, you soon wonder how you can add the excitement of rare birds and animals to your slice of paradise.

One option is to construct miles of fences around your property, and maybe some netting placed in the trees to corral the best and brightest native birds. After your compound is complete, you then scour nearby parks and roadsides for any animal that could possible make a home in your yard. Safe from prowling leopards and marauding hunters, your menagerie is safe and sound and under control like a life-size terrarium!

The second option dispenses with fences and instead focuses on a food and water station that appeals to as many creatures as live in that environment. All day and night they come to eat their favorite foods and drink their fill before wandering off to do what animals do in the wild.

Which one is healthier? Which is better for the lives of all involved? Which one is more exciting and unpredictable? A centered set advocate would argue for the latter for many reasons, not the least of which is that it produces a much healthier community than the former with its barricades that keep out new life and signals to the inmates that indeed they are safe, but also trapped.

It's not obvious how to establish and manage a centered set community in the context of a majority of bounded or fuzzy sets, so the second half of Mark Baker's book surfaces some helpful details about the particulars of how it might work in real life. In a future post here on Pull Up a Chair, we'll outline more of the practical aspects of transitioning from a bounded set to a centered set church.

Mark D. Baker, Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community Without Judgmentalism InterVarsity Press, 2021

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