Bounded Sets Vs. Centered Sets

Last night’s living-room discussion raised an interesting issue that deserves more elucidation and discussion here on the blog. The question is: how do you measure what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus?

Many churches choose to measure the boundary markers. The language is dichotomous: believer/unbeliever, member/non-member, in/out. And the boundary markers tend to be things that are external and easy to measure: behavior, attendance, signing off on a particular creed, dressing a certain way, doing the things that the “in” people do. If you do these things, you’re considered a “member” or insider. If you don’t do them, you’re an outsider.

Now certainly there are elements of truth in this model. We cannot entirely lose the language of believer/unbeliever, because Jesus makes it clear that those categories matter. But the problems with this model are obvious: externals become the main thing, rather than true heart transformation.

Instead of focusing on the boundaries, we want to put the focus on the center. What does it look like to passionately follow Jesus? Is your life reflecting the transformation that comes from His Spirit? Do you love people like He did? Are you living in light of the gospel more this week than last week? Is God more primary in your life today than yesterday? Is Christ everything to you?

When our focus is on the center, the boundaries become fuzzier. Some people will start to follow Jesus, and it won’t be totally clear when they “crossed the boundary.” Others will take longer to break patterns of sin in their life, but will truly be experiencing the knowledge of the grace of God in their souls. But the center is the main thing. The boundaries are peripheral.

This also means that for those of us on the preparation team, the bar is higher. Because “membership” in Coram Deo (whatever that comes to mean) isn’t about signing off on a doctrinal statement or taking a membership class or reciting the Apostles’ Creed while standing on one leg. It’s about whether there is evidence in your life that Christ is the center, and that the values of Coram Deo are your values. That’s both more subjective and more reliable than checking the boundary markers. Because you can fake the external stuff; but the heart has a way of showing itself.

To quote Jesus, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” “Make the tree good, and its fruit will be good; make the tree bad, and its fruit will be bad.” The reason Jesus was so bothersome to the Pharisees is that he had a centered-set view of the kingdom of God. The Pharisees were busy marking the boundaries; Jesus was busy dealing with people’s hearts. That’s what we want to do, too.


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  1. I agree about switching from a focus on the boundaries to one on the center. But if we start trying to judge people by the center than aren’t back to boundaries?

  2. Great post, and good Q from Kurt. When we say we desire ‘authentic’ (anyone else buzzword-weary?) transformation, I think we mean a heart transformation from self-centric to Jesus-centric, to an all-comsuming love for Jesus coloring our whole life and directing our actions. Isn’t this an internal and invisible transformation? Isn’t it gradual and continuous? Kurt, I wonder if it is even possible to “judge people by the center,” other than observing the ‘fruit’ of that person, but even that isn’t really objective in some measurable sense.

    What does our community have to look like, or have to do, to create an environment conducive to this kind of transformation? All of us recognize some limitation with the traditional church, but how are we going to be different, other than our intentions (and we all know what those are good for)? How do our values (strategy) translate into our structure?

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