The Shaping of Things to Come

Everyday I’m learning more about what a centered set church might look and feel like. I keep on running into quotes from The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21 Century Church by Michael Frost. So that is now on the top of my “tobuy” list.

here are a few quotations:

It is important here to distinguish betwen centered sets and bounded sets, for that goes to the heart of the two modes of church we’ve been discussing. The attractional church is a bounded set. That is, it is a set of people clearly marked off from those who do not belong to it. Churches thus mark themselves in a variety of ways. Having a church membership roll is an obvious one. This mechanism determins who’s in and who’s out.

The missional-incarnational church, though, is a centered set. This means that rather than drawing a border to determine who belongs and who doesn’t, a centered set is defined by its core values and people are not seen as in or out, but as closer or further away from the center. In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out. Though some people are close to the center and others far from it, everyone is potentially part of the community in its broadest sense.

…If we return to the metaphor of the net, we might see a group of very committed Christian people befriending a number of not-yet-Christians in a variety of settings. Some will know each other, others will not, but the network of friendships will intersect at a variety of levels and degrees. Some of these not-yet-Christians will be close to identifying themselves as Christian, and others will not want to at all. But it’s in the committment to strengthening these bonds that the missional-incarnational mode functions best….

For us, the center should be Jesus Himself. The gospel is the central imperative for Christian mission. Since the core of a centered set is Christ, a church should be concerned with fostering increasing closeness to Jesus in the lives of all involved. We believe that a centered-set church must have a very clear set of beliefs, rooted in Christ and His teaching. This belief system must be non-negotiable and strongly held by the community closest to its center. A centered-set church is not concerned with artificial boundaries that bounded-set churches have traditionally added. In bounded-set churches all sorts of criteria are determined for the acceptance or rejection of prospective members (smoking, drinking alcohol, living together outside of marriage, differing views on Christ’s return). In a centered-set church it is recognized that we are all sinners, all struggling to be the best people we can be. But we also believe that the closer one gets to the center (Christ), the more Christlike one’s behavior should become. Therefore core members of the church will exhibit the features of Christ’s radical lifestyle (love, generosity, healing, hospitality, forgiveness, mercy, peace, and more), and those who have just begun the journey toward Christ (and whose lives may not exhibit such traits) are still seen as “belonging.” No one is considered unworthy of belonging because they happen to be addicted to tobacco, or because they’re not married to their live-in partner.

Belonging is a key value. The growth toward the center of the set is tha same as the process of discipleship.

Let’s face it, there are many paid-up members of respectable churches who might not “live in sin,” but whose lives are marked by greed or gluttony. The bounded-set church has determined a socially acceptable standard by which to exclude certain peoples. The centered-set church will see everyone as equally fallen. It will accept all people but will make Christlikeness a key community goal…

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  • GL

    Stumbled upon your blog and I’m interested in this center set theory. I study sociology (near the end of a PhD), but the discipline (like others) is fragmented, with sub-fields of sub-fields of sub-fields. All to say, I am unfamiliar with this notion of centered set vs boundary set. In fact, I think I can say, with some room for doubt, that probably EVERYthing I’ve studied in sociology sees group identity in terms of boundaries.

    Thus, I’d like to read the academic sources that you know about. It may be that church folks are innovating in this area, so perhaps they are the best people to read. Or maybe they were stimulated by academicians in other realms and are expounding on the concepts for church/missional use.

    One thing among many that I don’t understand about this is how it seems to enfold people who actually might not want to belong. You say belonging is everything, but you ALSO say no one is excluded. I can imagine having a conversation with a Jewish friend here at the university and telling him, “You’re in my centered set.”

    “But I don’t want to be. I’m devoutly Jewish and though I respect your faith, I emphatically don’t want any part of your faith.”

    “Too bad. NO ONE is excluded. Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe, what you do or don’t do, you’re in the set. You may be at the fringe, not moving to the core, but you’re in there. There’s really nothing you can do to get out of a centered set.”

    And of course there’s the irony that bounded set people and groups are also in your centered set, albeit probably at the fringe.

    Granted, I’m having some fun with this but I actually seriously do want to understand. I.e. my fun is not “making fun” of you or this idea, but rather having fun. It sounds interesting and if there is something or a lot to this notion, then I want to learn and adjust accordingly.

    We can also email directly. I don’t want to post my “real” email but my blog email is feedbackcg (a) yahoo.com. From there I can contact you directly from my other, “real” account.

    Please hear that I’m curious, interested. I hope the wee bit of humor didn’t suggest otherwise. I’m not looking to rain on this parade but rather to learn.

  • very good. i had heard of this idea of center set vs. bounded set along time ago from a mentor but did not realize that it was a ‘published’ idea. strangely enough, someone recently recommended that book to me. i guess i’ll have to read it!