There are a few phrases we frequently use when we talk about the Table, the church we are planting here in Dublin. One of them is “Jesus-centred”. I wanted to take a few posts and explain what we mean by that phrase and why we consider it so central (no pun intended) to everything.

First, let me provide some background. Paul Hiebert was a missiologist with a math background and was interested in set theory. Hiebert talked about three basic sets: Bounded Sets, Centred Sets and Fuzzy Sets as a way to think about Christian communities and Theology.

I first heard the idea of centred set churches in Vineyard in the late 90s, as it was something John Wimber discussed frequently. Wimber’s focus, at least as understood by most Vineyard pastors, was creating churches where a wide range of Christians could feel at home. The focus was bridging the best of the charismatic/pentecostal experience and the best evangelical theology. 

That felt like a significant step forward. My previous church experiences focused on their distinctives…what makes us different from other churches. What keeps us apart rather than what unites us.

It was when I read The Shaping of Things to Come, by Hirsch and Frost, a few years later, that the concept of Jesus-centred clicked more deeply for me.  

Over the next few posts, I want to develop this idea and share why I am convinced that a Jesus-centred approach is the best way forward.

I won’t dig into Fuzzy Sets, as they don’t add that much to this conversation. If you want to learn a bit more Wikipedia would be an excellent place to start.

In this post, we’ll dig into bounded sets, and the next one will get more into centred sets.

What is a bounded set? 

Think of a circle with a line around it. There are items or elements within the circle and outside of the circle. And in a bounded set, it is abundantly clear what is in the circle and what is not. 

For example, imagine a set for Red Sox fans. It is a large set, and I am in it. (Although following another last place season, those inside the circle are decreasing). If you created another set for Red Sox fans who live in Ireland, I am still in, but it is a much smaller group.

If someone named O’Reilly who lives in Boston said, “I have Irish heritage and I am a Red Sox fan, I should be in this set too,” you can easily say no. You may be close to the circle’s border, but you are clearly on the outside. You don’t live in Ireland.

That is a benefit of bounded sets—the boundary is clear. You can easily see who or what is in and who or what is out.

What does that have to do with churches? The fact is, most churches operate as bounded sets with clear boundaries. There is a list of things you need to believe. There are things you need to do…and things you need to not do if you want to be in. 

For most churches, the belief that Jesus is fully God and fully man would be an essential part of that boundary. Other churches would add things like:

– what version of the bible you read,

– whether or not you go to movies,

– whether you believe the world was created in a literal seven days or not,

– whether you drink alcohol or not.

If you have spent time in a bounded set church, I’m sure you could add to the list, but you get the idea. 

Again, the benefit of bounded set churches is that we know clearly who is in and who is out. And as a part of a bounded set church, I know what is expected of me.

So, if I am in this set and want to remain in it, I need to continue to hold certain beliefs and not question them (at least publicly). Likewise, I need to continue to do and not do other things…and if I do them, I need to make sure people don’t see me and don’t learn about it. 

How do we get people into a bounded set church?

If we are a bounded set church, how do we get people into our circle? One key way we do this is the altar call

Think of what the altar call does; it invites people to leave their current set and join ours. All you have to do is walk to the front of the church, say a prayer, and you are now in our church’s set. And since you are in our set, we now call you a Christian. You will generally be on your own to figure out what that means, but make sure you come to church every Sunday, listen to the sermons, and you’ll gain a clearer picture of how to remain in this set.

Of course, for the altar call, or this mode of “evangelism”, to work, you have to convince them that their set is wrong. That much, if not everything, they believe is wrong (perhaps evil), and their life will be so much better if they leave their set and join ours.

So, why isn’t this model more effective? Why aren’t we regularly seeing multitudes, switching sets on Sunday mornings?

Think about politics in the United States right now. Most people are in a bounded set and believe that the other set is the source of all problems. If only we could eliminate “those people”, our country would be much better.

What is the likelihood a partisan in one set wakes up one day and decides, “everything I have ever believed is wrong. The other side is right! I’m switching teams.” 

That does not happen. A person’s political beliefs are deeply engrained and don’t change like that.

I mentioned my “Red Sox set” earlier. I can’t imagine looking over at the “Yankee set” and ever considering moving over there. {{shudder}}

But this is precisely what bounded set churches do. They attempt to get people to reject some of the core aspects of who they are, leave their community and step into a brand new circle. 

Wrapping up 

The clarity of the bounded set is appealing to many. We like certainty. We like being part of something. We like knowing what is expected of us and what we can expect of others.

But are those boundaries helpful or harmful? Do they help further the Kingdom of God or hinder it? What do you think?

Next week I’ll write about centred sets and how they present another way of looking at faith.

Photo Credit: The photos are of a ring fort in Co. Kerry taken in 2020.