Centered Set

(Welcome to Credo Friday where I am trying to make a record of the things I believe, the things that shape me, not things I’ve shaped myself. These are not original thoughts they are only core beliefs that have made me who I am, fuel how I do what I do and are the ‘why’ behind choices I make and directions I take.)

I’ve come to believe that the illustration of a “Centered Set” is the healthiest model for sharing life together as followers of Jesus. I also concede that it is hard and messy. By its very nature, Centered Set requires us to communicate in healthy ways, emphasize interpersonal relationships (which don’t come easily to most of us) and to pursue spiritual formation over the information/education approach we typically associate with discipleship.

This is a helpful but imperfect illustration of the distinction between a Bounded Set in which we draw the lines based on the metrics we choose to measure and the Centered Set where the emphasis is on relationship to the center. Also to be considered in this (mis)appropriation of set theory is the Fuzzy Set.

As human beings we love metrics and certainty. A centered set makes both of those more elusive. In a Centered Set approach to life together, calculating the number of baptisms or number of “decisions” for Jesus is not an accurate metric for how many new followers of Jesus have become a part of your church. Our felt need for measuring things and comparing ourselves is hindered by the Centered Set approach and I acknowledge that this approach then is unattractive to Type A individuals, people who need to keep score in order to enjoy a game, people who are driven by accomplishment and achieving measurable goals.

And to be honest, that’s what a whole lot of life in pastoral ministry, church life, for pastors and parishioners, is often all about.

Once upon a time I was part of a non-denominational denomination that published a weekly magazine. After all the articles and updates, at the very back of the magazine, space was always reserved for reports – how many new members, how many baptisms. We were all supposed to turn these in to the publishing office and be listed by city, state and church name. A missionary friend in the same “movement” of churches always called this the “Scoreboard.” He had been around long enough and been to enough churches and churches meetings in our “non-denominational denomination” to know what he was talking about. He understood how we all looked at the entries on those pages.

Early on in ministry I was part of a meeting that took place, a fly on the wall, where I heard the pastors of large churches talking to the pastors of other large churches in a “safe space.” As everyone started whipping out their stats to measure, a common expression around that room was “giving units.” Behind those closed doors, the pastors weren’t talking about congregants, parishioners, adherents, members, followers of Jesus or even sheep. They referred, no doubt affectionately, to the people who attended the churches they pastored as “giving units.” It was not the last time I heard pastors use this term when referring to the people they pastored.

All of this to say that I understand that the Centered Set model I’m talking about is problematic because it never makes room for reductionistic labels like “giving units.” It doesn’t make metrics easy. It makes it almost impossible to verify who is in and who is out in a moment as it relies on a trajectory over time as much as or more than it does a single instance. It’s almost, if I can use an analogy from farming, as if a farmer went out and sowed some seed in a field. And then, if you can imagine this, that night another person, a scoundrel, came and sowed a different kind of seed but ultimately one that looked close enough as it grew to the other that it was impossible to uproot the scoundrel’s plants without doing damage to the good seeds. So the farmer, who is wise in the way of growing things, declares to his hired hands, an angelic bunch, wait until the harvest and then we’ll sort them all out.

Of course we can immediately see all kinds of problems with this approach, no matter how wise that farmer might be. This story also illustrates the Centered Set.

When I first discovered the Vineyard denomination/fellowship of churches, a few things captured my heart, mind and spirit immediately. First was the authentic, accessible worship, I could relate to the songs – the lyrics, the style, the heart. I could also appreciate the no-hype way in which they were led – the only experience being aimed for was between God and people and putting on a show, using techniques to manipulate the crowd were not painfully obvious. I deeply appreciated not being told to smile, sing louder or that there were angels flying around the room in the glory cloud. Second, I was drawn to the kingdom theology I heard being articulated. It made sense to me. It connected the dots. It resonated deeply for me and what was on the edge of theology 35 years ago is now mainstream via N.T. Wright. Third, I loved the centered set approach I heard from the leadership about how we do life together. It sounded like Jesus to me as I emerged from a world in which doing life together often didn’t.

I was moving into Vineyard life from a Movement that said, “We have no creed but Christ, no book but the Bible” and “Where the Bible speaks, we speak. Where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” And at the Bible College I attended as part of that Movement, I could get kicked out for growing a beard.

What was clearer and clearer to me as a part of this Movement that sought unity by a return to “the Bible only” was that it wasn’t the Bible but our interpretation of the Bible that was the basis for our unity. As long as you agreed with our reading you were in, if you followed an alternate reading of the Text you were out because there was only one right reading, we knew it, we had it and if you didn’t agree with ours, you were out. We made allowances for pious brethren in error and we hoped they might one day receive the whole gospel from us (from which the Holy Spirit retired after penning his best seller) so we tolerated their presence when we gathered.

I think this becomes the challenge to any movement in regard to unity. Our entropy seems to involve line drawing. John Wimber, who led the Vineyard to being an international movement of churches, talked about our sweet spot being the main and the plain in Scripture – even as people used then and now their “main and plain” reading of Scripture to call the Vineyard apostates, deceivers, a cult and new agers (we probably qualify as “old agers” now though, eh?). But even in the Vineyard, there is a compulsion to draw lines. And over time, draw more lines. To sort out those bad seeds, the nasty weeds, and purify ourselves so God won’t have to.

Because this is too long for most people to read, I’m breaking off this post here with Part One. Next week, God willing, I’ll post a part deux that actually explores Centered Set and how it functions (or doesn’t) and why I would leave the Vineyard (or any other movement/denomination) in order to practice this way of doing life together if it ever became necessary.

Published by APastor'sStory

Trying to squeeze this life for all the juice I can get out of it.

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