A few weeks ago, while working on a project, I stumbled across a wonderful description of how another denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, says they read the Bible –
We in the Evangelical Covenant Church read the Bible as a centered set rather than a bounded set. We are concerned with the central message and affirmation of the Bible. We are not interested in setting protective barriers around the Bible. We do not seek to protect the Scriptures with creeds, confessions, or rigid theologies. We seek more than truth in the Bible; we seek life. We are “centered set Pietists.” We do not set up boundaries and borders but rather points of access for people to find new life in Christ. (John Phelan – www.covechurch.org)
I was so intrigued by this statement when I first came across it that I immediately went out looking for other things that the Evangelical Covenant Church has affirmed and/or explained about themselves. And I must admit to having a little ecclesiastical “crush” on them after looking at their publications. What I’ve finally concluded about this strange reaction of mine is that what I find so attractive about the Evangelical Covenant Church is what I also find so attractive about us “Disciples,” at least in theory. The way the Evangelical Covenant Church describes itself is how I think of myself as a Disciple – a “centered” rather than “bounded” community of faith.
Our own refusal to “fence” the Lord’s Table – to try to restrict the access that people have to the bread and cup of communion, and to the presence of Christ and participation in His saving acts that they embody – is a practice that is born of a deep theological conviction for us as people of faith. As our most recent denominational identity statement puts it – “We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.” Being “centered” for us as Disciples has to do with our commitment to the extravagance of God’s grace, an appreciation for the scope of Christ’s saving work and a real confidence in the abundance of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
I believe that thinking and acting like a “centered set” church rather than a “bounded set” church not only helps to explain who we have been in the past, but also holds great promise for how we can move confidently into the future.
Jeremy Myers writing at http://www.tillhecomes.org draws out some of the implications of this –
Bounded Sets and Centered Sets
A bounded set is where we create a boundary, a theological border, a doctrinal fence, and separate those who are inside the fence from those who are out. It is an “us” versus “them” mentality where everyone on the inside is accepted, loved, and welcomed, while those outside the fence are kept away until they can change their beliefs and behaviors to fit the entry requirements.
The pastor and elders and leaders of the church or organization often serve as the gatekeepers in such situations, welcoming those who belong while admonishing those who don’t to “change their ways.”
Bounded Set Illustration
If it helps, you can think of a bounded set as a Western style horse corral. The cowboys build the fence to keep the horses from wandering away. Outside the fence is where wild beasts and rustlers reside, just looking for a chance to kill or steal a horse.
In this situation, the fence serves to protect the property of the cowboys, and also makes it easier for them to feed and care for their herd. Occasionally, a wild animal gets into the corral, where he is summarily shot.
Sometimes, however, the cowboys go out and capture some mustangs from the wild, and bring them back to the corral. But before these wild horses can be introduced to the rest of the herd, they must be broken. They must learn to enjoy the safety of the fence.
Usually, the wild horses are tamed, and introduced to the rest of the herd. Though they may still long for the freedom of the open range, they eventually learn that life inside the corral is pretty good. There are no predators and the food is easy to obtain. It is safe, warm, and clean, and there is plenty of time for food and friendship with other horses.
Bounded Set Churches
One can easily see the many similarities between the image of the horse corral and what is today the most prominent model for church. Doctrinal statements and membership requirements serve as the fence. The Pastor and Elders are the cowboys, who do most of the protecting and providing so that the horses can feel safe, warm, and clean, leaving plenty of time for food and fellowship.
As long as the horses have a good group of cowboys, it’s not a bad deal. The only real cost to the horses is their freedom.
The other model is a centered set. In a centered set, there are no boundaries. There are no walls. There is no fence. There is no dividing line between “us” and “them,” no rules or guidelines to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” Everyone is loved, welcomed, and accepted, no matter what. Everyone automatically “belongs.”
But how is this different than just a random mass of people randomly milling around? Because of what is at the center. A centered set has no boundaries to keep people out, but it does have something compelling at the center which pulls people in. There are no gatekeepers turning people away, for everyone is on equal footing, being pulled toward the center.
In such a way, while everyone “belongs” in the set, involvement in the set is not based on who has made it through the gate and is now inside the fence, but rather is based on the proximity to the center, and the direction they are moving. Those who are closest to the center, who are clustered around the center, will be the most involved with each other. Those who are further out, but who are also moving toward the center, may also be involved with each other as they are drawn in. But they are not looked down upon for being “further out” for everyone, at some point or another, were also “further out.”
Everybody recognizes that it takes time to be drawn in, and some move faster while some move slower. Some even move backwards. In fact, lots of people do. Many get closer in to the center, and do not like what they see, and so start heading back in the opposite direction. But everybody understand this, because everybody has done it.
The pull toward the center is never so strong that it cannot be resisted, and everyone has resisted and drawn away from the center at one point or another, and so they understand that people sometimes pull back. But no matter how far someone pulls back, at no point do they ever stop “belonging” for there is no outer boundary that can be crossed.
Centered Set Illustration
If a horse corral helped picture the bounded set, a water hole in the African grasslands might be a good picture of a centered set. In many cases, there will be only one watering hole for miles and miles in any direction. This means that animals that live in the area will never stray too far from the water, especially in the dry season.
During the rainy season, they may stray further from the hole, but they always know where the water can be found, just in case the rains do not come. And during the dry season, when the rains do not come and the grass withers away and the ground is parched, it is not uncommon to find hundreds of different animals all sharing the same watering hole. Animals that at any other time of year might stay away from each other, or even prey on one another, will live in relative peace and safety near the water hole. Lions, zebras, deer, and birds will drink from the same water, and while the rains are absent, will not stray too far from the water, for they know that the water is their life.
There are no fences to pen them in, and no cowboys to keep the peace, and yet the draw of the water is enough to accomplish both.
Centered Set Churches
While centered sets are not the common way of doing church today, they are becoming more common, and will be, I believe, the predominant model of the future.
People of all backgrounds and beliefs will be welcomed at the table to join in the conversation, to participate in serving the community, to learn from and challenge each other, and to encourage one another to move ever closer to Jesus Christ. In such an atmosphere, there is room for people of all faiths, all backgrounds, all races, and all creeds.
As a Disciple (big “D” as in denomination), this kind of thinking excites me. But, as a disciple (little “d” as in a follower of Jesus Christ), this kind of thinking makes me nervous. Coming to terms with this, what I’ve concluded is that all of the powerful and positive potential of being a “centered set” church that excites me so much as a big “D” Disciple hinges almost entirely on the passion and precision with which Jesus Christ “holds” as the center around which the church rotates, something about which I have increasing concerns as a little “d” disciple. Being a “centered set” church “works” when the center around which the church and its people turn is both clear and compelling. But what happens to a church when the center’s neither clear nor held with much conviction? What happens to a “centered set” church when the center becomes fuzzy?