Centered Sets, Bounded Sets and the Search for Ekklesia

"If we begin by asking, "When does a particular group of people cross the line and constitute a church?" our thinking will pursue a certain path. The problem with such a question is, it's just not big enough. If we are to come to an adequate understanding of God's people, we must begin with questions that embrace the whole of God's workings in the world. We need to see ourselves as God's people, in a broad context. Our understanding of the church needs to be large enough to embrace all the Bible has to say about what it means to be His people, and what it means to be in the world. The breadth of our definitions must be dictated not by the institutional boundaries that circumscribe certain activities, but by the totality of our calling.

"I believe there is a single truth that must lie at the heart of any adequate definition of the church. In essence, the church is people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who is transforming their character and giving them gifts they are to use for service. Every believer is to use whatever he or she has to serve one another- and his or her neighbors. Most of the big passages that have to do with God's people in the New Testament revolve around this truth.

"Paul summarizes this in Ephesians: "We will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. "

"So what's new? we ask. All this sounds familiar enough until we examine the implications of these passages. The verses may be familiar, but their practice is not. I believe there are four factors that must be present if we are to function as a church according to this definition.

Petersen rightly points out that generally out theology is sound, but our practice is not. In fact, most evangelical churches are orthodox in belief, but heretical in practice!

Petersen then lists four areas where this is true, and expands briefly on each.

  • the (active) Headship of Christ
  • the nature of the church as a community
  • the diversity of function in the body of Christ
  • the presence of the church in the world

Petersen then comments that If our lives as God's people are to be lived out in full view of the world, we need to take conscious, deliberate steps to be sure this is happening. This calls for resetting the boundaries of our definitions of the church.

Petersen proposes that the boundary markers for the church must be determined by where the gifts and callings of Gods people take them, rather than an artificial standard. He argues that if believers were encouraged and enabled to seize the opportunities God brings their way in the neighborhood and across society, and if they could proceed confident of support from others in the body, the church would be redefined. It would change from being a bounded set to being a centered set.

From Bounded to Centered

Bounded and Centered Set

Somewhere around 25 or 30 years ago, anthropologist Paul Hiebert proposed a new way of understanding social groupings. He divided them into centered sets, bounded sets, and fuzzy sets. More recently two books have renewed the discussion on this way of understanding social groups in terms of the way we understand faith communities. Frost and Hirsch use the centered set/bounded set model ("The Shaping of Things to Come"), and Guder et al use the model in their book Missional Church.

The concept is REALLY helpful for me personally, and is being used in a threaded discussion at ALLELON. Here is an excerpt from that discussion:

"Chapter 7 in Missional Church is "Missional Leadership: Equipping God's People for Mission." If anyone is reading this thread and hasn't read this particular chapter, borrow the book somewhere and read it. It's an insightful and helpful discussion.

"Frost and Hirsch are coming from a similar place, using a similar model, but they don't use the language of covenant as does Missional Church. But there is no contradiction in the two uses. Guder et al are really fleshing out the concept in application by arguing that a covenant model can be overlaid with the centered set model.. in fact they argue that it must be so if we are to be faithful and missional communities.

"Remember I said that Frost and Hirsch describe the centered set as "soft at the edges, hard at the center" and the bounded set as "hard at the edges, soft at the center." David, when you comment that centered set communities seem to become "fuzzy," I wonder if this occurs because we are reacting against the closed and bounded set experience, or maybe those who were trying to flesh out a new paradigm were in fact fuzzy about what they were trying to accomplish?

"The questions I am asking, as you can tell, are these:

** do centered sets drift because they lack definition?
** is lack of covenant implicit in centered set communities?

"But obviously, it needn't be that way since you are saying you like the centered set approach, but with a more defined center. Missional Church makes a good argument in that direction. Ok, I'll risk a summary now for those who haven't read the other stuff.

"Guder et al in their chapter on Missional Leadership essentially argue that at the center of a missional community is a bounded set. This set resides within the centered set, which defines the larger community of faith. Leaders move within both circles, but the direction for those growing in faith is toward the bounded set... toward covenant relationships and greater definition, which paradoxically will also imply greater freedom. The analogy of marriage works well and if you know the "Church of the Savior" they are probably a good example of all this.

Personally, I like their conception very much. I think some will find the model scary if they have recently come out of places that use covenant language as a means of control, or where leadership was otherwise not very healthy or well individuated.

I don't know if I like the way that Missional Church diagrams this..

Missional Church

While the diagram is directional and well represents process, it feels too focused and immobile at the right hand edge. For me it loses its dynamism. Well.. there you go, diagrams are static by nature, and metaphors have different appeal to different personalities. Maybe this is my reaction to what feels like the loss of paradox and tension in most models. On the one hand we need to know who is part of our community and the strength and health of their gifts and personality.. on the other hand we want to retain maximum flexibility so that we can respond to changing context and needs and allow people themselves to grow, change and discover.

David wrote, "When I am leading a church I hope my vision is clear enough to make some people not want to be apart but I also hope I have enough of Jesus in me to say to someone who doesn't feel my ministry style matches theirs .."

A missional community must be contextualized. A contextualized community is by nature limited, that is the strength and weakness of contextualization and so we can appear "exclusive" or cliquey to some people who don't share our vision. That bothers me, and I wonder how we can minimize that effect?

We want to have maximum diversity and flexibility while shaping our lives together in a covenant. Covenants aren't always written down, and covenant itself is a process that first occurs in relationships, so we hope to take the summer to just hang out and dream together and get to know each other. When we begin to add structure this fall we will look for a way to love and care for one another as house church elders while allowing a high degree of independence in individual church expressions. Maybe we can be a "chaordic" group.

I wish I was more familiar with chaos theory, because I think we are talking about chaordic and organic life and the analogies coming out of chaos theory would likely be helpful. In part this is because we are talking about something that cannot be merely structured into existence.. we are talking about dynamics of spirit and life.. I like to use the word "ethos" to describe this.

Last year I heard that the physicists who are researching quantum dynamics and who are working with the very smallest particles came up against another mystery. It seems that while there were some things that were definable, one of the largest questions remaining was about the power in matter. No one knows where it comes from. This caused one scientist to theorize that, "Perhaps the power is in the blank spaces."

Blank spaces are what we lose when we organize. Blank spaces are those elements of community that remain shrouded in mystery. In fact, community itself IS a mystery. You can plan it, organize it and pray for it and still not get it. It requires something spontaneous and unreachable by human effort and thought alone. It requires more weakness than strength, and we aren't very good at weakness. Leadership coach Margaret Wheatley wrote in "A Simpler Way,"

"There is a simpler way to organize human endeavor. It requires a new way of being in the world. It requires being in the world without fear. Being in the world with play and creativity. Seeking after what's possible. Being willing to learn and to be surprised.

This simpler way to organize human endeavor requires a belief that the world is inherently orderly. Life seeks organization. It does not require us to organize it."

In a recent letter a friend called me to take note of Rachelle's blog, echoing similar thoughts to my own about church and kingdom. Here is an excerpt:

"I really intend for this thing Im doing--were doing--to be primarily about facilitating a way of living. And the way of living that Im trying to learn, promote, and refine together is kingdom living. By that I mean I want to us find a way to really uncover the kingdom reality that Jesus says is already hereand to build more of that reality, to usher in more wholeness everyday."

And Jen Leman is on to something when she writes,

"i think in the old way of looking at things, the ultimate point of the leader was to provide a kind of example of a way to be. pastors and missionaries were the ultimate christians, right? if we didn't want to be follow them, there was something wrong with us. if we didn't want to be like them, maybe it was because something was wrong with them. the whole thing made everyone contemplative about all the wrong things and pastors ended up boxed in and lonely while the rest of us sat around wistful that they could never really be our mentors, our friends, the kind of people we really needed to help us become.

"I wonder if the point of the post-whatever-pastor is simply about holding space. not space so you can examine me and try to be just like me as your leader. but space so that you can think about who you need to become, about who you are already in relationship to this alternate reality we call the kingdom. "

I am intrigued by her use of "space" in this way, after my earlier thoughts above. But I'm going to leave that at the moment, while I continue to reflect on the opening of space and the "opening of way," as the Quakers phrased it.

Where this all gets a bit confusing is in the use of "centered." "Centered" in set thinking does not mean centralized in organizational structure and authority. Rather, think of centered as an organic model with values at the center, not particular people.

Metaphors can really help here, and Frost and Hirsch use some great ones..

"In the bounded set, it is clear who is in and who is out (fences, not wells), based on a well-defined ideological-cultural boundary --usually moral and cultural codes as well as creedal definitions.. but it doesn't have much of a core definition beyond these boundaries. It is hard at the edges, soft at the center."

The centered set, on the other hand, "is like the Outback ranche with the wellspring at its center. It has very strong ideology at the center but no boundaries. It is hard at the center, soft at the edges. We suggest that in the centered set lies a real clue to the structuring of missional communities in the emerging 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...

"We propose a better and more biblical way.. is to ... sink wells. If you sustain your connection with the water sources, you will find a whole host of people relating to Jesus from different walks of life. We allow people to come to Jesus from any direction and from any distance. The Person of Jesus stands.. at the center." (The Shaping of Things to Come)

Frost and Hirsch propose two metaphors as a way of leading so-called "millenials.." that of herding cats and leading horses to water. Cats are impossible to herd.. they are rugged individualists. But put down a dish of food when they are hungry and they will come to. It is said that you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink.. the authors argue that if you first give the horse salt it will drink. Their conclusion.. cultivate hunger, and provide the right kind of food and people will continue to relate to the center.

See also "A New Way of Thinking about Church"

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• © 2005-2008 Len Hjalmarson.• Last Updated in May, 2008