by Michael Norton, Space City Fellow 2021–2022
As a former 5th grade math teacher now training teachers, I felt particularly proud when I recently learned that church communities could be modeled by mathematics. We finally have proof that there’s an answer to the age-old question, “When will I ever use this in real life!?” Fear not, however; no degree in upper level mathematics is required here. Any experience with churches, lifelong or short-lived, deeply personal or distant and indirect, is all the background knowledge you need.
Paul Hiebert, a math-student-turned-seminary-professor, applied the mathematical principles of set theory to characterize church communities as either bounded sets or centered sets. A bounded-set (a bounded church community), is formed by creating a boundary that defines who is in and who is out. The purpose of the bounded set is to move outsiders in and energy is invested in maintaining – and eventually defending – the boundary. Outsiders “cross the boundary” by first believing the “right things” and behaving the “right way.” Belonging, a one-time event, is the end of the process.
By contrast, a centered set (community) is formed when a center is defined, and objects – or people – are simply noted for their movement in relation to the center. The purpose of a centered church community is to draw everyone toward the center – Christ and Him crucified – regardless of their “distance” from the center. The process begins with belonging to the community, and then beliefs and behaviors, or moving toward the center, will follow.
The framework continues as a descriptor of church communities, and others have written with far greater clarity and insight than I have here.1 Like all models, this proposed paradigm too, bumps up against the limitations of describing complex realities with simplified thinking, but its simplicity is its utility. Most importantly, this framework is about community, not doctrine or membership. Said more clearly, we must create centered church communities. Let’s consider, then, our belonging to and our identities within a centered church, acknowledging that we are both members and creators of that community.
Today I have multiple fidget toys on my desk, and as a bored and antsy teenager in church, I always doodled on the membership envelope in the pew in front of me. I would have spun the pencils but they were too tiny to twist between my fingers. I hadn’t thought about those membership cards – or those non-fidget pencils – until this recent seminar about bounded and centered church communities. What strikes me now about that church’s emphasis on membership is not that the church wanted members, but that membership on the church roster was synonymous with being a member of the church community. Such is the shadow side of regularly asking congregants to “join the church” rather than treating everyone as immediately belonging to the church community.
Again, we’re not talking about doctrine, that is, it’s not about creating a welcoming community by adopting universalism. Rather, this is about the conflation of being a member in the church community and having membership to that church. Your hand is a member of your body; it doesn’t have membership into your body. Similarly, our people are members of our church community, regardless of their membership status. They have, in that practical sense, joined the church community as a presupposition; they belong at first contact. The action of belonging, then, is not found in their movement across the boundary, but is rather found in the centered church’s “boundary,” which extends to anyone who—in either dramatic or imperceptible ways—has turned even a single degree toward that center. Put simply, the boundary reaches out to us just as Christ does.
Five years ago, I sat on our church balcony, decidedly not a member of our community. I had, at that time, flatly rejected God. I wasn’t turned toward the center. I came back two years later and felt immediately part of our community. I was still very distant from the center, as much as I was when I sat on the balcony two years prior. And yet I didn’t need membership in City Church to be a member in our community; I didn’t need a certain set of beliefs to belong. I am indebted to our community for welcoming me even though I still held onto the many reasons for which I’d rejected Christ.
Which brings me to the relationship between centered churches and our individual identities. In our current social and political context, individual identities are increasingly paramount. One of the challenges with our hyper-focus on individual identity and inclusivity is that many organizations are bounded sets trying to be inclusive of all identities. That simply can’t work; bounded sets can’t be all inclusive.
The beauty of a centered church is that it doesn’t put undo emphasis on identity, neither forcing members to believe or behave in certain ways in order to belong, nor having to constantly define & update its own identity by its boundaries. This is how a church that preaches “nothing else except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” can be theology rich, grounded in the Gospel, and yet welcoming to those who are far from that center, as I was. In contrast, as a bounded set tries to become inclusive, it continues to widen its boundaries, and eventually the organization ceases to exist, and no one belongs to anything, because there’s nothing to belong to.
For “outsiders” of all kinds, there is a strange, paradoxical attraction to organizations that resist forcing individuals into certain beliefs as a condition for belonging. At the same time, we long for those organizations to maintain a clear center and focus on what is central to the organization. In between the resurrected Jesus as the center and an open invitation to those who feel on the margins, I believe the church can truly live up to its calling. I know, because I experienced it.
1. Special thanks to Pastor Jaime Jimenez for an excellent explanation and reflection about bounded and centered church communities.