Sorry for the lack of posts recently. I worked 75 hours last week. Whew! Thankfully, I got off early today, so I have time to write a blog post, and (more importantly) spend time with my wife and three girls!
In a previous post, Randy Siever made the following comment:
St. Patrick seemed to accomplish this by allowing outsiders to be part of his community life. This was not the usual way the church did evangelism, but he allowed people to belong before they believed. He just went into an area and considered everybody “in”. You had to opt out to not be part of his community (this is where the “parish’ idea got developed into it’s modern understanding, and historically why some areas of the US still refer to geographic areas of their cities as “parishes”…if you live there, you’re part of the parish.)
What would a church look like if that were the strategy? What would evangelism look like if people could actually belong before they believed? I don’t really have many answers here, just questions. But I think we have much to learn from our fathers before us when it comes to this kind of issue.
This is exactly right and where I see myself headed as a pastor church planter carpet cleaner…or whatever.
Belong Before Believe
At a recent Glocalnet church planting conference, Bob Roberts talked about how churches are generally made up of three things: Believing, Belonging, and Blessing. In other words, they focus on doctrine, fellowship, and service. The typical church requires that a person believes the same way they do before they will allow that person to feel accepted in their fellowship or to get involved with service in and through the church. They require belief as a prerequisite to belonging and blessing.
Bob Roberts suggested that the biblical model, and true discipleship, allows people to enter into “church life” through any of the three areas (Note that “church life” is NOT to be equated with “eternal life.”) So in this way, if a person longs to be part of the close-knit fellowship of the church, or join the church in building homes in the community, they can do so without signing a doctrinal statement. Discipleship churches allow people to belong or be a blessing without first believing.
Bounded Sets and Centered Sets
I ran into the same idea in The Shaping of Things to Come by Frost and Hirsch in which they talked about Bounded Sets and Centered Sets. Most churches are Bounded Sets, where there is a set of guidelines and rules (doctrinal, behavioral, political, etc) and everybody who agrees with those guidelines are allowed “in” and those who do not, are kept outside until they conform. A Bounded Set is like a fence which separates tame horses from the wild ones. The fence keeps the tame ones together, controlled, and countable.
Frost and Hirsch go on to recommend moving to a Centered Set. In a Centered Set, there are no boundaries, but only those who are closer to the center than others. Those who are closest to the center are involved and active. The center in “church life” of course, must be Jesus and following Him. Anybody can be part of a Centered Set as long as they want to live like Jesus, love like Jesus, and learn from Jesus. (Again, remember that “church life” is not to be confused with “eternal life.”) They don’t have to believe just like you do, or behave just like you do to belong to your fellowship or join with you in blessing the community. Following the agricultural imagery, think of a Centered Set as a watering hole in an arid wilderness. Ranchers in such areas know that they don’t need fences and barns. All they need is a well or a spring, and the livestock will not wander more than a one day walk from the water. Some live and remain right on the edge of the water, while others may only visit once a day. In such a set, there is much less control, oversight, and expense.
I really think this paradigm shift could really help many churches become more missional in what they do and how they interact with others who don’t agree with them doctrinally. For more on this topic, here are some links:
John W. Morehead
Tim Nichols says
This sounds intriguing, but I’m having trouble getting my head around it. What would “let him be to you as a heathen and a tax collector” (Mt.18:17) look like if there is no boundary?
It seems as if in your own discussion, you’re having trouble discussing this without boundary-language as well: “Anybody can be part of a Centered Set as long as they want to live like Jesus, love like Jesus, and learn from Jesus.” Everything after “as long as” sounds to me like the condition one would have to fulfill in order to be part of the church — want to live/love/learn Jesus — that is, the boundary.
Did I miss something here?
Laura Lee Reid says
Yes. Except a man be born again he cannot enter … he cannot see the Kingdom of God.
So one may choose to walk a moral, loving, behavioural way ‘like Jesus’ but what do they gain? One can’t work or behave in a specific way to receive ‘eternal life’. I think ? the visible Church is steadily crawling out on a limb that is not supported by Biblical truth, and when it snaps the fall and fall out will be great. As for me and my house we will stay on the straight and narrow road, turning neither to the left or to the right, keeping our eyes focused on the Pearl of Great Price, Jesus Christ, Himself. I want to be in the company of the five virgins who were ready, not out and about running behind every fancy that passed by. God knows! Watch and pray! Quit you like men! No man putting his hand to the plough and looking back (or off to the side) is fit for the Kingdom of God. So let’s repent and return and God that He alone knows how to run His Church and let us listen to the Holy Comforter in Jesus’ Name. Amen
Jeremy Myers says
Good question (and good to hear from you!). The way I currently view it, all sets by definition have some sort of defining characteristic. Without a “center” or a “boundary” there is no such thing as a set.
I like the idea of a centered set because it seems to be more directional. All in a centered set are constantly swirling around and moving ever closer (hopefully) toward the center, which in a “church set” is Jesus.
A centered set, I think, has a feeling of “arrival” (Once you’re in, you can just sit and soak) while a centered set has a feeling of “movement” (We’re all on a journey and need each other for the road ahead).
I don’t know if this helps any. The best way I have come to understand this is to actually be a part of a “centered set” church. The church I currently am part of has atheists, buddhists, homosexuals, etc etc and all are encouraged to join in the activity, serve, interact and get involved. All, however, are constantly challenged to consider the claims and teachings of Jesus, while also being allowed to voice their disagreements and criticisms.
Regarding Matthew 18:17, how should we be treating “heathens” and “tax collectors”? How about the same way Jesus did…by loving them, serving them, and drawing them ever nearer to Himself.
Tim Nichols says
Maybe it’s not an either/or issue — maybe a set needs a center *and* a boundary.
You’re framing “belonging before believing” as a center vs. boundary issue, but I think it could (maybe should) be reframed as a center *focus* that forces a redrawing of the traditional boundary. (Or maybe it’s possible to have boundary w/o center — and therefore, w/o direction — but not center without boundary). It could be that all sets have boundaries, but the divide is between “centered” and “centerless.”
The fact that you have atheists, homosexuals, and Buddhists as part of your church doesn’t mean the church doesn’t have an in/out boundary; it just means the boundary isn’t in the traditional spot. Richard Dawkins is not a part of your church, by any reckoning, correct? (Not that he wouldn’t be welcome — but at the moment he doesn’t seem to want to come.) But Buddhist X is a part of your church. In boundary terms, Dawkins is outside, and Buddhist X is inside. The boundary may be “I want to be part of this” — but it’s still a boundary.
As to heathens and tax collectors: A person who is put out of the church is being loved, no question — but he’s being loved by being expelled from the assembly, in order that he might repent and be restored. If you’ve no boundary, how do you obey this command (cf. 1 Cor. 5, etc.)?