Most of the frustrations I’ve had with hearing and reading Christian beliefs is they are usually very exclusive. If I could draw a simple description, most approaches look like the picture I’ve posted.(1) In bounded set thinking we create a circle around our beliefs and put certain people we agree with in our circle and others out. We don’t do this to be jerks but because of our loyalty to the Bible and to distinguish ourselves from the many diverse spiritual beliefs in our world today. In this kind of thinking it’s very easy to define ourselves by what we are against. We can quickly close our circle tighter and tighter by aligning ourselves with certain pastors, authors, and political preference. Without knowing it, we can alienate ourselves from the very world God deeply loves. It’s the select few that are right and everyone else is wrong and if you want in our circle then you have to admit you are wrong. (which no one wants to do) The emphasis is on getting others on the outside to agree with me. This bounded set automatically turns any conversation to a “me vs. you” dynamic. It can be offensive, abrasive, and ultimately not constructive. I’ve been guilty of this spiritual territorialism and it has often left me hoping for another way.
What I’ve discovered is a refreshing alternative. In centered set thinking the issue is not about who’s in or who’s out but which direction are we headed. We’re no longer inclined to accidentally judge people on how far or close they are to God but which way are they pointed. This has liberated me in regards to common controversial Christian issues. The person with correct doctrine but pointed in the wrong direction is worse off than the person with misguided beliefs but humbling pursuing God. In a centered set, the tax collector’s prayer is rewarded over the Pharisees. (Luke 18:9-14) We are free to open the doors of faith wide and accept people for where they are. Spiritual elitism fades away and an authentic conversation can begin. A centered set also humbles me. See, it’s no longer about adopting certain “correct” beliefs, marking that off my spiritual to do list and thinking I have everything together. A centered set forces me to daily ask the question, “Which way am I headed?” Am I traveling closer or farther away from a loving God today? I care less about which club I belong to and care more about who is along for the journey. The goal has not yet been reached in a centered set. After all, the connotation of a “follower of Jesus” is movement and direction. You simply cannot say you are following anyone and stay in the same place for very long.
Finally, a centered set allows for freedom. We can hand those with different beliefs a gift rather than take something away. We are free to validate rather than diminish. We no longer need to feel threatened or defensive.
I hope this helps you as much as it has helped me. May we all head toward a loving God today.
1. This ideas was initially developed over 30 years ago by missiologist and anthropologist Paul Hebert in his book Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues. His ideas were then popularized by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch in their book, Shaping of Things to Come, and in the book edited by Darrell Guder, Missional Church.