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.)