A few weeks ago, I wrote about being Jesus-Centered and introduced the idea of “set theory” [you can find that here]. Afterwards, I shared 3 Reasons Bounded Sets are Detrimental to Faith and promised 4 more to come. Here they are.

4) Bounded Sets are Extractional Rather than Incarnational

As I wrote in the previous post, bounded set communities use devices like altar calls to invite people to leave their current group, or “set”, and join a new one. Without question, it is vital for new Jesus followers to become part of a community with other Jesus followers. That is crucial to growing in their faith. A problem arises when they are no longer connected with their previous set. 

If we have cultural boundaries that “good Christians” should not do, say, go to the pub, listen to or play certain types of music, then we are extracting someone who not only knows that world but likely has deep friendships within it. Who better to demonstrate what Jesus is like to that community?

Not only do we remove them from that world (set), we reinforce to those still in it that if you get involved with the church, you will have to give up/reject this part of your life that you love and all of the relationships within. 

Do you think that opens people to pursuing faith in Jesus or slams the door shut?

(Obviously, if the community that person was involved in was illegal or immoral, helping them leave that community is crucial. An interesting idea would be to consider how to do that in a way that will allow others in that community to eventually experience freedom as well.)  

5) Bounded Sets Change the Telos of Our Faith.

Telos is a great word. It describes the ultimate purpose or goal. So, how does bounded set Christianity change our telos?

When I would tell people that we didn’t do altar calls in Ithaca, a common question was, “Well how do you know when people become Christians?”

What they are really asking is, “how do you know when someone crosses the line (the boundary). How do you know when they leave their old set (not a Christian) and join our set (Christian).

That question only matters if getting people to become confessing Christians is the ultimate goal. Unfortunately, for many churches, that is the telos. 

And it is a significant reason why discipleship in the western church is in the anaemic state it is. 

There is a saying church leaders use, “You measure what matters.” 

  • What was your attendance last Sunday? Last month?
  • How much was the offering?
  • How many people raised their hands at the end of service?
  • How many people watched our live stream last week?

Most pastors and church leaders will know the answer to those questions because those things matter. So they get measured. And since many denominations require churches to report how many “salvations” they have had, it needs to be counted.

However, ask how many people in your church are in a process of discipleship? 

How many have grown in their faith substantially over the past 18 months? 

Those things aren’t measured. 

(They might tell you how many people are in their small groups and say something like, “discipleship happens in small groups.” But discipleship does not happen in small groups. Small groups are mainly designed to help people make friends, recognising that when people have friends in the church, they are less likely to leave.)

Now, the easy answer is to say that discipleship isn’t measured because it doesn’t matter. But the truth is, it is also more challenging to measure.

This circles us back to the problem. If a pastor or church leader wants to demonstrate that their church is accomplishing its mission, they look for tangible things we can measure. Generally, that means the three Bs: believers, bucks, and butts in seats. For multiple reasons, they are encouraged to focus on increasing those numbers. 

This is a large part of why so much effort goes into the “Sunday Service”. It is the church’s example of “teaching to the test” and allows us to point to something tangible that people believe matters.

Seeing someone make a decision to follow Jesus is amazing and beautiful. But it is not the telos. Seeing that someone become a disciple of Jesus and live out everything that means… that’s a far more worthy goal!

Jesus called us to make disciples…not decisions. Decisions are significant…when they lead to discipleship.

6) Bounded Sets Only Present an Illusion of Order

Back to the question in number 5. 

Without altar calls, “How do you know when people become Christians?”

While a person’s “decision” to commit their life to Jesus is not the telos, it is important. 

However, and this is crucial, I am simply not convinced that I or anyone else needs to know when it happens. (Do we look at faith as an event or a process?) 

I believe for many, this feels too chaotic. “Don’t we need to know?” 

I have a few questions in response. 

Say at the end of every service (when every head is bowed and every eye is closed…I see that hand), you ask people to say a prayer of salvation…and indicate that they did so by raising their hand. 

What has been accomplished? If the number was big, it probably had a little dopamine kick (almost like a social media like ❤️).

If you track these numbers and X number of people raised their hands at the end of a service, how many people raised theirs multiple times over the course of the year? 

Do you really believe that act…or even saying “the prayer” means that they are committed to following Jesus from this time forward? Could they have been caught up in the emotion, responded and then gone home and forgotten about it by Monday?

If a church uses the number of decisions or commitments to make a definitive statement about how it is progressing, it is deluding itself. These actions may make us feel like we have a grasp of what is going on…that everything is orderly and that the messiness of life is eliminated. 

But if we are dealing with people, it will always be messy. We can pretend it isn’t, but we aren’t helping anyone. If we want to be involved in people’s lives, we need to be willing to embrace the chaos.

7) Bounded Set Make Us Believe We Can Skip Relationships.

This one is perhaps more of a round-up of the previous 6 than a separate item, but it is vital. Go back to that person raising their hand on a Sunday morning or coming forward and saying a prayer. Do we really know what the raised hand meant? Has discipleship begun? Did they understand what they were committing to?

Did we communicate that raising their hand took care of their sin problem? Or settled their God problem?

For churches that do more than simply count hands, the next steps in the process tend to be educational. “Read John’s gospel.” “Read this book.” “Attend a series of classes, or this new believer bible study.” Because once they know the right things, they’ll do the right things. Right?

Imagine if we raised our kids that way? “Here’s a book.” “Go watch this video.” 

We can’t raise disciples that way, either. Why do we stick with them? Because they are what we know. But there is a far better way… we’ll look at that when we examine centred sets.

So, that is my list of 7 reasons I believe bounded sets are detrimental to faith. What did I miss? What do you disagree with?

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash