Center Set Thinking

In recent weeks I’ve stumbled back upon the notion of “Center Set Thinking.” It came as I was reading an article on the Blue Oceans website, you can find it here. The information I found pertinent is below:

Bounded Set VS Center Set Models

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Bounded sets are best pictured as circles. You’re either inside of them or outside of them. Centered sets are best pictured with a big dot on a page with lots of smaller dots. The issue there isn’t being inside or outside of anything. It’s motion. The big dot represents what holds the set together and the little dots are you, me, and everyone else. Are we moving towards the big dot or away from it?

As applied to following Jesus, the Bounded Set model is very dogmatic. You are in or out based on a certain set of behaviors. For instance, you become a Christian and are saved when you believe, say the Sinners Pray, and are baptized. Once you perform those behaviors, you cross over the line and are “in”. This certainty of being “in” is amazing comforting and stablizing. The downside is that it can lead to complacency because you are no longer concern with following Jesus because you assume he hasn’t moved.

In the Center Set Model, the only thing that matters is motion – are you moving towards Jesus or away from him? If you have attended a congregation for any length of time you have encountered people who are Christians according to the Bounded Set Model, but whose lives indicate that the direction of their hearts are pointed away from God. This is why repentance is such a huge deal. We must be constantly repenting, making course corrections, so that Jesus remains our goal.

I love the Center Set Model because it allows me to love and pastor people (without an agenda) who aren’t “Christians” but ARE Christ followers. The Center Set Model allows me to walk with impunity into the messiest circumstances and bring the Light and Love of Christ to bear. It doesn’t matter what sin is currently dominating someone’s life, if they turn their heart to follow Jesus then they are closer to him than someone sitting in church, but whose heart is disengaged or disinterested.

We have a few people who worship with us regularly who freely confess that they are not Christians and that they have doubts. I love that! I pray more people like that will join us, because even though they haven’t yet submitted their lives to Christ, they ARE following him. They want to know. They want to connect. And they are. God is working in each of their lives in tremendous ways, in large part, I think, because of their honesty.

Center Set thinking allows people to be in process. It allows people to be human, fragile, bold and courageous. It allows for freedom, doubt and miracles. A Center Set environment allows Holy Spirit to take a gangly group of sinners and transform them into little Christs, sons and daughters of God, through the power of Love. For the Word of the Lord is clear – He will wash us, He will cleanse us, He will present us to Himself radiant and spotless. Our job is to keep pursuing Him so that He can do His work and not keep running away because we think we’ve “made it.”

A word on belief and baptism
In no way to I mean to imply that belief and baptism are unimportant in our lives – they are essential ingredients in salvation. They are also just steps along the way of following Jesus, not hoops to jump through to get in the club. Getting baptized, confessing Jesus as Lord, and then living a life of rebellion will not save you, even though you fulfilled the “requirements”.

The idea of being “once saved, always saved” has done untold damage in the Church. It is totally possible to lose your salvation. It is totally possible to walk away from Jesus, even after having tasted of the Age to Come. For the Center Set mindset, this is no problem, because the issue isn’t “being in” so much as it is “getting close to Jesus”. Bounded Set people have real issues with the idea of losing salvation because they are looking for works to save them, not Jesus. If your aim is to passionately follow Jesus every day of your life you are in no danger of Hell, but if your aim is to do as little as possible and still make the cut, you are lost already, for you haven’t understood what Jesus came to do.

Being a Christian (following Christ) is about giving up everything that hinders us from loving Jesus fully and obeying him completely. It is about loving him and trusting that HE is the One who will save us, not our works or our theology. Amen.

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4 thoughts on “Center Set Thinking”

  1. I feel so blessed to have you as a Pastor. I appreciate intellectual depth applied to the life of following Jesus and the idea that I have a Pastor devoting such depth and quality of thought to the Word and to the life of following Jesus out here in Waverly is just a miracle. Thank you so much for your work and rigor on your behalf shared with us. Thanks to Dani too for complementing you with a constant mind for worship and creating an environment where the love of Jesus can thrive. And of course to Emory for inspiring both of you. It is very impressive how you are able to take a concept, which on the surface, has little to nothing that people would see as “church” and identify the major connections and sources of breakthrough which potentially exist. That is serious intellectual work and I appreciate you for doing it. I briefly glanced at the Blue Oceans website and it sounds very insightful. Do you have a suggested reading to start out with? I also appreciate your embrace of the “Non” Christians. I am a Christian because a Christian embraced me when I was still exploring and whose friendship didn’t chance an iota between my time of exploration and my full embrace of the Lord. I love the label, “Followers of Christ.” I was also thinking about your earlier question about Sunday’s service and what it takes to bring about such experiences. I think another question to ask is, What is it about the norms that presently exist that allow such experiences to take place. Each Sunday experience leaves me deeply nourished, in many ways, so there is a lot going right. Being clear about those good and fruitful things that presently exist is also important. My love to you and your family. Grace and Peace to you.

  2. Is it possible to find yourself inadvertently floating back and forth between these two concepts?
    Sometimes I feel like, as a believer and a Christian wife and mom, I wake up in the morning with more of a mindset resting on, “ok…I’ve got to get done things xy and z because it’s what a Christian does for her husband, children, friends, community and the like…” I feel like sometimes I get so wrapped up in grasping at the control I want to make things look the way I think they should, that this becomes my only focus. Do these things. This is what you’ve done everyday and it works so don’t fix what isn’t broken.
    Then there are those times where I stop and say, “whhhoooaaa. Are things xyz and all the ‘doing’ that you’re wrapped up in, are they the direction you’re taking from the Lord? Can you even hear His voice right now over your being so ‘in control’ and busy? Are you moving toward Him or are you telling yourself you’re being obedient and moving but acutally you’re just running in place? How is this in control thing working out for you anyway? Go to the cross. Drink from His cup. Ask Him where He wants you to move. Just be still and breathe Him in until He tells you where to move.”
    And that is an awesome place to be…until 10 mins later when I’ve set Jesus back in His box on the mantle and I’m back to being in control of nothing but running in place.
    Does any of that make sense or am I talking about something entirely different?
    Another post that is so so good, Ben. Love how the Lord uses you to speak wisdom and truth in His name. We have an awesome Papa who loves you fiercely.

    1. Great questions Leann. I’ll try to tackle what I think I hear you saying and if I biff it, I’ll try again. 🙂

      Christian is a difficult word. To paraphrase Lecrae “Christian is a great noun and a terrible adjective.” The phrase “I am a Christian” is meaningful and clear, the phrase “Christian music” or “Christian coffee mug” is neither. For that reason, even though it is clumsier and more cumbersome, I have come to appreciate “Christ follower” or even “disciple” in favor of “Christian”.

      So, in your case, you are a following Christ in the context of being a wife and a mom. You aren’t called to abandon those things, so what does pursuing a relationship with Jesus look like in that situation? Honestly, it probably looks like a lot of work and just getting things done because that is the season you are in right now. Can you love Jesus in the midst of that? I believe you can and do, just like you pursue connection with your husband in the midst of everything.

      I’m totally a “taking care of business” kind of guy myself. I write out a checklist almost every day and love crossing things off and feeling productive. I think the difference between Center Set and Bounded Set is the posture of our hearts, not so much our circumstances. With the season of life you are in right now, your day might very well be filled from morning until night with “doing,” and that is understandable. The issue is wether or not your finding your worth and value in getting things done or in being the one Jesus loves.

      Your value in God’s eyes doesn’t change wether “x, y, and z” are done or undone. So if you are knocking out “x, y, and z” in order to feel worthy of God’s love or the title Christian, then I’d suggest that needs to change. But if banging out “x, y, and z” is what needs to happen in the course of loving God and your family to make sure everyone stays healthy and feels loved? Then go get ’em tiger.

      I hope that answers your questions. If it doesn’t, please let me know and I’ll give it another shot. Thanks!

      1. “I think the difference between Center Set and Bounded Set is the posture of our hearts, not so much our circumstances. With the season of life you are in right now, your day might very well be filled from morning until night with “doing,” and that is understandable. The issue is wether or not your finding your worth and value in getting things done or in being the one Jesus loves.”
        Thanks for the help in understanding this Ben! I think I can sometimes find myself struggling with where I am finding my worth. This is good stuff.

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