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
OR EVEN TRYING TO
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.
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.