Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Friday, January 11, 2019

Centered Set pt. 2

The danger of writing about something like Centered set, for me, is that it seems a little like writing a blog post describing kissing to someone. It's not only awkward to read but it may put you off kissing forever.

The importance of describing my understanding of the application of this illustration to how we "do church" is primarily in my own relationship as a pastor of a specific local church. Shedding some light on my perspective will, i hope, create a door through which others may enter to understand why I do things the way I do things and hope our whole church will follow me in this understanding and practice.

Set theory gives us a nice illustration of three ways we can organize ourselves as a church. We can choose to be a Bounded set, a Centered set or a Fuzzy set. These are not intended to limit how we think about the church as a group of people who have been called out to form community or a new family – these are just illustrations that are helpful in the broadest terms to help us picture what our life together is like.

A Bounded set picture is probably the most familiar picture and easiest to get our heads around in our church context. You have a ring that represents the clear boundary between who is “in” and who is “out.” That ring represents the beliefs and behaviors (spoken and unspoken) that a person must adopt and adapt to in order to be on the inside. If you do not adopt and adapt you are on the outside of the set. Belonging to the set is based on clear, external markers.

The Fuzzy set picture is an illustration of a group with no clearly defined raison d’etre, no unifying center or obvious boundary. Values, standards and expectations on the members of the set are kept intentionally vague in a Fuzzy set. If you tried to nail down the participants in a Fuzzy set to define the nature of their involvement with the set, they might say that the only thing that matters is coming together but more likely they will give a wide variety of reasons for being in the set. Belonging to the set is based on the willingness of the participants to identify with a particular set for as long or as briefly as they choose.

I would describe the Centered Set as being wholly dependent on the Center and the gravitational pull of the Center to define the relationship of the individual to both the set and the other individuals who make up the set. I would define the Center of the Church to be Jesus as the autobasileia, the kingdom of God in person. Moving towards the center makes us a part of the set and creates the connection with one another in the set. The Centered set in this case is based on relationship – the individual’s to Jesus which in turn defines all other relationships by the direction of the primary relationship (moving towards the Center or moving away from the Center) of the individual.

In this use of the Centered set illustration then, the questions about “in” and “out” are instead questions of orientation – “are you moving towards the Center or are you moving away from the Center?” The complication this creates then is that it means we actually have to get to know other people and engage in conversation and relationship with them to develop an awareness of their orientation. Jesus said, “Stop judging by mere appearances and make a righteous judgment.” Centered set illustrates that appearances can be deceiving, and we can’t simply Tweet someone “out” or “in” to the kingdom life.

Sometimes people describe themselves as Centered set but then take one more step to give specific definition to what “moving towards” and “moving away from” looks like in such specificity that their Centered set is simply a cleverly disguised Bounded set.

Centered set is inherently messier than Bounded or Fuzzy set. Bounded allows us to make very superficial determinations about others and requires no proximity. Fuzzy set allows us to make no determinations about others and requires no proximity in relationship. Centered set requires time. Time to accurately observe the direction a person is moving. Centered set requires proximity. Proximity to accurately observe the outside and glimpse the inside of an individual – to see the evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

And we despise mess in our North American culture. Certainty, not mystery, is what we look for in our faith and in those who espouse it and desire to lead us.  

A Centered set means that the individuals in the set are becoming more like Jesus as they move closer to the center but not necessarily more like each other. Arguably to become more like Jesus is to become more like each other but not in any sense that would require us to become nonspecific or conform to a superficial appearance by which we identify one another as part of our set.

 In Jesus, God adapted to become man. He continues to adapt to those who follow him and are adopted by him. You don’t have to become a man to follow Jesus. You don’t have to become Jewish to follow Jesus. You don’t have to move and live in Israel. The pull of the Center is to become like Jesus in our day, and in our way. That may look different from another person who is on the same journey towards the same Center because their place and circumstances are different from my own.

(in part 3 I will describe some specific, real-life situations in doing life together in which Centered set is different from the others.)

Friday, January 4, 2019

Centered Set

I want to write about Set theory and how I use it as an illustration for doing life together. But to do that I need to write in at least 3 parts. First, my pre-amble where I describe the weakness and complication of Set theory in conversation about doing life together. Second, my own personal take on three components of Set theory as they relate to doing life together. Third, and most challenging to write or read will be a conversation about real life instances where Set theory helps and hurts as we try to work out what doing life together looks like.

Along the way I have had some questions, as a pastor and a follower of Jesus, about how we do life together…how we are supposed to do life together.

Following Jesus is not a solitary journey. Our story is a story about community and “one anothering.” Someone once said that pastoring would be easy if it wasn’t for all the people. But what is pastoring if it's not about all the people? From Paul’s epistles to the present day there have been vast amounts of writing and preaching committed to explaining how to do this life together. And while there are many similarities and overlap, like snowflakes, no two takes seem to be the same.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it can create a lot of confusion.

Bonhoeffer’s, LifeTogether, was a big influence for helping me think through how our relationships are supposed to work.

Another significant influence has been the use, in the Vineyard, of Set theory (or Social Set theory) – as an illustration of life together that Wimber borrowed from Sociology (and Mathematics). After Wimber, other Vineyard leaders and scholars have continued to use Set theory as an illustration to answer the question, “What does doing life together look like?” as well as the two questions that seem to preoccupy the evangelical mind:

How do we know if we are “in” or if we’re “out?”
And perhaps our greater pre-occupation -
How do we know if someone else is “in” or if they’re “out?”

Even Set theory, as it has been used as an illustration to try to answer this question, doesn’t always say the same thing. But analogies and illustrations are like that – the more specific we try to get the more it tends to break down.

So why use it?
Because it is, I think, a very useful illustration for doing life together. But what we have to do is let each person’s use of the illustration stand alone as it is dependent primarily on the perspective it is meant to illustrate and not as a doctrine in and of itself.

My take on the Centered Set, Bounded Set and Fuzzy Set (the basic components of Set theory) as they illustrate how we relate to others has been influenced by the way it has been used by others. Nevertheless, I can’t illustrate my thoughts with Set theory as if I my central ideas are the very same as those of others who have used this sociological theory as illustration. When we read what other people are saying about Set theory in this same context, we should not assume they mean the same thing or arrive at the same conclusions or are illustrating the same point to  the same end. 

Or to put it another way, just because I use Set theory to talk about life together does not mean, in fact probably does not mean, that I am accurately representing
the teaching and writing others have done on doing life together using the same concepts of Set theory to illustrate their own understanding.

Jack Niewold writes:
Set theory, or social set theory, describes the relationship between organizations and their cultural and social environments. My discussion of set theory primarily concerns the church. In concept, set theory is quite simple and easy to grasp. When one leaves the abstract level, however, set theory rapidly becomes much more subtle and complex. As formulated by Hiebert and others, social set theory postulates that organizations fall into one of three models: bounded, centered, and fuzzy sets.[1]

In other words, Set theory is great as an illustration but we get in the weeds pretty quickly if we try to break it down and try to find our specific answers within the simple illustration.

So that’s my pre-amble or pre-ramble.
I want to explain my own view of doing life together in my next post and I will be using Set theory to illustrate my understanding. If you come back to read that, please keep the above in mind as you do. And please note, as you do, that I am not claiming to exegete Wimber or anyone else who has used Set theory before me.

As we move into a new day and a new way of living, where church attendance patterns have changed and giving patterns have changed and traditional metrics no longer have much meaning, figuring out what life together looks like is more important than ever.