In 2004 Stuart Murray released “Church After Christendom.” The first chapter is titled, “Church After Christendom: Belonging, Believing, Behaving.”
This is really a critical chapter and a critical conversation. We have moved largely from “believing before belonging” to “belonging before believing.” People are hungry to belong; reluctant to trust that one way is right in a pluralistic context. Our experience in most churches has been “believe” and then you will belong. At METRO we offered people to “belong” before they believed. For a variety of reasons, this worked much, much better and often led to a faith commitment.
Thinking about this today after a conversation yesterday. When we invite people to belong only AFTER they believe, we tend to work to ensure they have a certain list of propositions in their heads. We don’t have any way to measure their hearts. It becomes too easy to push for a change in morals and intellectual assent rather than conversion of the heart. It’s obvious that it works this way, because we have churches full of people who can tell you what they believe, but they either do not or cannot actually live out the Gospel. We have many people who are still babies in Christ among us.
On the other hand at METRO, we invited people to belong and then believe. We saw that life is caught more than taught. Not only did this approach lower the barriers to their experience of God through a people on a journey with God, it allowed them to begin to test the truth in practice. They SAW the way we loved one another. They eventually became convicted of the reality AND of the goodness of God. The social and political reality of God’s reign convinced them of the truth of the Gospel.
Stuart Murray points out that the distinctions in these types of social frames – belong, believe – must be understood in light of changing culture and in light of the Gospel. The first chapter of Church After Christendom includes some notes on conversion and relates the Acts 11 story as a two way “paradigm shift” for Peter and the Jerusalem church. Because “belonging” in particular is a process and because conversion, while it may have identifiable transition markers, is also a process, it’s important to understand the limitations and utility of particular ecclesiological frames. We want to include all who we may, and we also want to encourage deeper commitment and faithful practice as we grow together in grace. How do we do both these things well?
It was Paul Hiebert who talked about community using set theory: bounded sets and centered sets. He saw that our current frames for understanding “membership” were inadequate. But it turns out that NEITHER the bounded set, nor the centered-set conception of community and covenant are really adequate in themselves for sustainable missional life.
In his book Stuart notes that conversion is about believing and belonging: it is both a story we commit to and a community we belong to. But as we move along in the process it is also a way of life. Moreover, belonging, believing and behaving are not different stages but different dimensions of a single journey. Progress in one dimension impacts the others, but rarely in a linear fashion.
Around the same time that Church After Christendom appeared, The Shaping of Things to Come also appeared. Starting on page 47, Frost and Hirsch open a discussion of wells and fences, using Paul Hiebert’s typology of “bounded” versus “centered” sets. Their discussion and metaphor are really helpful. Michael and Alan make an explicit connection to a dynamic they describe as “attractional” and the bounded set approach to conversion. The dynamic they describe as “missional/incarnational” they relate to the centered-set mode.
In the bounded set, it is clear who is in and who is out based on a well-defined boundary –usually moral and cultural codes as well as creedal definitions — but it doesn’t have much of a core definition beyond these boundaries. The bounded set is hard at the edges, soft at the center. It’s like the traditional ranch with high fences. Fences keep my cattle in and keep everyone else’s cattle out. Fences are mostly about possession.
The centered set, on the other hand, is like the Outback ranch with the wellspring at its center. The Outback ranch has no fences, just a water hole. There is no need to control the animals… they always come back for water. The centered set has very strong definition at the center but no boundaries. It is hard at the center, soft at the edges. In the centered set lies a clue to the structuring of new missional communities in postmodern culture.
The traditional church makes it quite difficult for people to negotiate its maze of cultural, theological, and social barriers in order to get “in.”.. and by the time newcomers have scaled the fences built around the church, they are so socialized as churchgoers that they are not likely to be able to maintain their connection with the social groupings they came from. So we lose contact with non-believers and we lose the ability to relate to them. We extract people from their natural habitats and substitute “attractional” and “come-to” structures for missional life.
However, we see in the Gospels a process of Jesus challenging those who are around him, those who are listening in the various places he wanders, to deeper commitment. The group following Jesus were really a “centered set,” a diverse group at various stages of belief, as well as a core group who were deeply committed to him and his mission. We see Jesus challenging the group, to hear him and believe him, but also to follow him — to take up their cross, to live in a new way, to imitate his life and proclaim the good news. So it seems that Jesus is trying to work with both a centered set and a bounded set. He wants to create a covenant community – a bounded set – within the centered set.
Stuart Murray notes that we need more than one category of belonging (37), and it is here that “membership” language has failed us. (And of course it is more than a language problem). Murray notes John Drane’s proposal:
[a] stakeholder model, in which there could and would be a place for diverse groups of people, who might be at different stages in their journey of faith, but who would be bound together by their commitment to one another and to the reality of the spiritual search, rather than by inherited definitions of institutional membership. (The McDonaldization of the Church, 159)
Murray goes on to say that centered-set churches need custodians of the story, and guardians of the ethos. Inclusivity and open-ended belonging without core maintenance is unsustainable. This is why many emerging and missional groups are considering monastic patterns based on a rule of life. They are creating a bounded set within a centered set. Groups like TOM exist around a rule, as does the Northumbria Community or The Simpler Way. We really need two structures of belonging: an open community membership and a “core” membership, open to those who voluntarily accept its demands (Murray, 37).
Interesting, this is the same argument that Roxburgh, Dietterich et al proposed in Missional Church in 1998 (201 ff, “the shape of missional communities”). It is also the same conclusion that Jim Belcher arrives at in Deep Church (98 ff). In a long forgotten book, Jim Wallis writes,
“The renewal of the church will come not through a recovery of personal experience or straight doctrine, nor through innovative projects of evangelism or social action, nor in creative techniques or liturgical worship, nor in the gift of tongues, nor in new budgets, new buildings, and new members. The renewal of the church will come about through the work of the Spirit in restoring and reconstituting the church as a local community whose common life bears the marks of radical obedience to the lordship of Jesus Christ.” Agenda for Biblical People, 1976
In “Untamed,” Alan and Debra share some of their thoughts on the open/closed, bounded/centered set conception of church life. They argue strongly for a centered-set practice. But then on page 155 they offer a diagram that looks much like a bounded set in a centered set, with a “leadership level” in the center. While not explicitly affirming a blended conception, they have stepped closer to the idea than in previous writing. The whole imagination surrounding a rhythm of life or “missional orders” has to do with dealing effectively with process and inclusion while recognizing that there are those who are further along the road. We want to welcome all who want to belong, while also walking with them along the road to discipleship, assisting and encouraging and challenging as they give more and more of their life to Jesus.
“The restoration of the church will surely come from a sort of new monasticism which has in common with the old only the uncompromising attitude of a life lived according to the sermon on the mount n the following of Christ. I believe it is now time to call people together to do this.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
All this is why I wrote the Missional Church Fieldbook. The Fieldbook is designed for small groups of people to explore missional theology and practice, while moving toward a deeper level of commitment to the journey together.