Centered-Set Faith - Vince Brackett
I’ve been thinking about college a lot this week. A few of us from the church spent some time yesterday on north park’s campus (it was the first weekend for students) letting people know about this community. And so I’ve been thinking back to experiences when I was college-age.
::It was while I was in college at DePaul University here in the city:: that I experienced the 2nd major conversion of my life — I mean conversion more broadly than the way the word is usually used in religious settings — like any massive, foundational shift in your approach to life or your understanding of life.
It was extremely timely, because I was starting to feel trapped in a tension.
See, a few years earlier, I’d had my ::1st major life conversion:: which made me a praying person, a believer in God.
I hadn’t grown up spiritual, but I lost my mom to cancer when I was 15, and through some school friends who went to church ended up having a series of experiences I could not explain that brought me comfort and peace and the space to grieve I didn’t even know how to look for, and assured me there was hope for my life. I remember feeling the phrase, “You are not crushed” impressed in my mind over and over during those first-ever spiritual experiences for me. The sense that even though life includes senseless suffering, there is a good God bringing Hope into my life.
Truly a life conversion - given I’d never given much thought to relationship with God before.
So fast forward some years to ::college-aged Vince:: — a guy who had not grown up spiritual or fervently church-going, but who because of this 1st conversion experience was now seeking out spiritual nourishment and church teachings and experiences as much as possible. I wanted more of this God that had been so incredibly consoling and life-changing to me.
And ::THAT’S:: where the tension started to grow.
I was discovering more and more that the world of “fervent American churchgoing” had a lot more attached to it than just the amazing God I had experienced.
::There was A LOT of culture.:: Of course! Any group of people doing anything together have a culture. But the thing of note with this church culture I was noticing more and more was that I didn’t feel I fit in it very well.
First off, very surface level, but singing together — and in the specific church I ended up in — singing together very passionately. That was not something I personally had ever been around before, except for the seventh inning stretch at the Cubs game — but that kind of passion is, you know, aided by certain substances.
But it was much more than surface level. For example, how come no one knew my Saturday Night Live references? Did church people not watch SNL?! Guys, seriously, Saturday Night Live is how I learned about culture and the world and the news when I was a teenager. This was pre-smart phone, pre-Social Media, pre-You Tube, pre-podcasts. And it was also the SNL era of Will Ferrell and Tina Fey and Tracy Morgan… I mean, one of the golden ages of the show!
Anyway, I learned that all of the people my age at this church had grown up in this church together, and they had had really different cultural inputs from me when it came to TV and movies and music. As a result, we just laughed at different jokes, we made different references.
On a more concerning level, some of the people I had gotten to know at the church I ended up in (and found perfectly wonderful in personal interactions) I realized after a little while were, gasp, Republicans! You gotta understand: I had grown up in Evanston, Illinois, one of the most Democratic towns in America. So this was huge culture shock for me! I remember walking past the office of a staff member at this church and seeing on their wall a map of the U.S. with states colored in based on how friendly this person felt that state’s policies were to his Republican sensibilities, and I did a double take when I saw it — I didn’t know that was a thing. What if this guy knew my background? Would I be less acceptable to him? What would he say if I tried to argue that the Jesus way might suggest something different than he thinks? Would he question my faith?
This was my growing tension. Church was doing two kind of opposite things at once for me:
On one hand, it was awesome — church was building my connection with this loving and consoling and hope-bringing God (I was learning how to pray and recognize God speaking to me, I felt my value system and vision for life expand as I learned more about Jesus, and I was experiencing WAY deeper friendships with peers than I ever had.)
BUT, on the other hand, I was feeling like more of a cultural outsider in church by the week. And it was starting to lead to more than just mild discomfort. It was starting to feel like the recommendation to me if I wanted to keep growing my connection with God was to assimilate into American churchgoing culture and adopt it as my own.
As I’ve gotten to know many of you here in this church who grew up in American churchgoing culture, that culture is NOT all wonderful just because it has some Jesus in it — it’s a culture that can lead to lasting struggles with shame, perfectionism, repression, performing for fear of vulnerability. I certainly didn’t want to adopt that! I had my own cultural baggage already (because every culture does!).
So what was I going to do?
::Well, there isn’t really a courageous or inspiring story to this on my part.:: I just was in the right place at the right time to experience my 2nd major conversion in life — and it freed me from this tension.
College is a time when you’re constantly absorbing new things and ideas, and I absorbed something that ended up changing my life. It’s, strangely enough, an image from math, BUT it changed the way I think about faith. It’s the difference between a bounded-set and a centered-set. Some of you will be familiar with this, as we talk about it from time to time here.
Centered Set vs Bounded Set
::So, imagine a piece of paper with a circle drawn on it,:: and then ::a bunch of dots:: that represent people. The thing about circles is that you’re either ::inside of them or you’re outside of them::. Your circle can be about whatever — people who live in Chicago, people who support the Cubs, whatever. The circle is called a “bounded set”, and here the boundary markers are the most important things to understanding how all the people in the set are connected — Do they wear Cubs jerseys or another team’s jerseys? Do they know the players, like really? (Or are they just bandwagon fans) — Boundary markers are everything.
::Now imagine a second piece of paper with a big dot right in the middle of it,:: and then, again, ::a bunch of smaller dots:: that represent people. This shows a different kind of set: ::a centered-set::. Here, the most important thing to understanding how all the people are connected isn’t boundary markers (because there is no boundary); it’s what’s in the center. The connection for any given person comes down to ::her or his unique relationship with that center::. Are they facing the center or some other direction? Are they moving toward the center or standing still?
So what if we think about ::these images as two different ways:: to understand faith in God?
It’s worth noting: a lot of American churchgoing culture seems to operate from a bounded-set mentality, and in many ways understandably so. Churches see they’ve got a circle with some good stuff inside. And they’re genuinely loving people so they want people outside of their circle to jump into the pond, swim around, and see that the water’s great.
But what was hard about that approach for someone like me?
I already had a bounded-set — a culture, a background. I wasn’t looking for a new one. I was just looking for something my bounded-set didn’t have: more experience with Jesus.
This new bounded-set I encountered “American churchgoing culture” had some of the experience of Jesus I was looking for, which left me so grateful, but the focus on boundary markers — how we talk here, how we act here, the stories we tell here, the jokes we laugh at here, the media we watch or listen to here or don’t watch or listen to (as the case was with SNL), the opinions or beliefs we hold, etc., etc. — the focus on these markers was eventually too much tension for me.
Faith as a centered-set, on the other hand, was an alternative! And the freedom in that seemed endless to me, which is why it felt like a true conversion to learn about this.
It made me feel free to bring all of myself and my culture and my story (as a kid who didn’t grow up spiritual) into my faith. My prayer life blew open, because I realized I’d been praying all my life, I just didn’t know it. Anything that had turned my direction toward Jesus, the center, toward a bigger view of justice and human dignity, toward self-sacrificial love and personal growth — any such thing my entire life had been prayer — and now I had the joy of being aware of that.
Suddenly, prayer felt like it was happening all the time for me, like I had a constant companion at all times — guiding me. As I was in college, I was trying to figure out “what am I going to do for the rest of my life?”, and it felt like God encouraged me toward starting this church. I happened to fall in love with my now-wife during that time, and it felt like God helped me do that relationship well, after doing relationships poorly in the past.
::Jesus’ famous turn of phrase was that:::
“I have come that you may have life — in all its fullness.” (John 10)
“Life to the full” — which every marketer who is trying to sell us something uses today in their advertisements — but, setting that aside, the deep thing Jesus is talking about here is so centered-set:
The “fullness” of your life is not lost on you, all of it is included and incorporated as a part of who you become — because it doesn’t matter where you are on the plain; there is no circle to be inside of or outside of; life isn’t meaningless until you’re inside a circle, nor is it made more meaningful by focusing on boundary markers so you don’t fall out of the circle (many of my friends who have grown up within the American churchgoing culture would tell us this).
::Learning about centered-set::, I also felt freer to do the reverse of bringing my whole self and story into my faith — I felt freer to bring my faith into my story and culture and background that hadn’t included much spirituality. I no longer tried to avoid talking about faith with my family members (which was what felt most attractive when it seemed like the only option for sharing my faith was to try to give a sales-pitch for a bounded-set that I wasn’t even wholly enthusiastic about).
From a centered-set perspective, sharing my faith just meant talking about the center that I was feeling drawn toward: God helped me feel comfort after mom died. Faith is making me feel more alive. I feel like Jesus has given me a direction and a vision for my life. Those are self-evidently good things — my family was thrilled to hear these things. And I was excited to share them.
::Jesus taught that:::
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. [And] the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13)
So centered-set, right? What’s the focus of Jesus’ two images? The focus is the desirable thing at the center of the story that feels so valuable, so worth it we’d sacrifice anything for it. A focus on boundary markers could never inspire that sort of desire and sacrifice!
::It’s like the difference between faith being an electric fence and faith being a well in the desert:: (that’s another image Jesus actually used). An electric fence is motivating to a degree — to keep me from straying. I don’t want to be electrocuted, so I’ll avoid the fence. But how much desire and sacrifice does not wanting to be electrocuted inspire in me? Not much.
On the other hand, a well in the desert is motivating on a different level — it’s not about being afraid to stray. It’s about wanting and needing to stay close. I need water to stay alive and healthy! And I will sacrifice a lot to make sure I and people important to me can have access to water.
Faith is a well providing the water we need, NOT an electric fence to keep us from straying. The Kingdom of Heaven is ::a centered-set, NOT a bounded set.::
It can be lost on us modern readers, but much of the discussion going on behind the words of the New Testament of the Bible can be interpreted as St. Paul trying to shift the predominately-Jewish early churches from a bounded-set mentality to a centered-set mentality.
We see numerous references in the New Testament to what was evidently an over-focus on Jewish cultural boundary markers of the time, which therefore stole the focus away from the inspiring Jesus, and put it on boundary maintenance.
::In that context, Paul wrote things like:::
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3)
There you go. Faith in Jesus is a centered-set, not a bounded-set.
So, at this church, ::we think about centered-set a lot:: — it’s the primary image we use when people ask about our philosophy here.
And we think it’s the reason for the unique demographics of the community we’ve become, which really feel fun to us:
We’re extremely diverse when it comes to types of religious background (or lack thereof), and over 40% of the people who call this church home were not regular attenders of a church before connecting here. That’s really fun. That colors who we are and how we feel — which is: we feel deeply spiritual, I think, that’s obvious by what we spend our time doing together, but we don’t feel very “churchy,” if you know what I mean.
Centered-set is the reason, we think.
- Centered-set means we don’t assume everyone has the same shared experiences and backgrounds and cultural references and inside jokes, because that can draw unnecessary boundary markers that keep some people in and some people out.
- Centered-set means we don’t spend much time trying to answer: “what are the right opinions or beliefs for you to hold (so you can be in)?” And instead we try to answer: “how might you locate and connect with Jesus right now (because he’s got the water you need)?”
- Centered-set means that we keep our focus here away from boundary markers that might apply to some of us so they’re tempting to focus on, but really they’ll just distract us from the much more inspiring thing at our center: Jesus, the God of self-sacrificial love.
I love the community this has formed us to be. I really do: All the people we’ve gotten to meet along the way who would never have gone to a church if not for BLV, and the way we’re able to operate with a level of humor and humility that I’m told is not often found in churches.
This feels like the treasure hidden in a field and the pearl of great price to me.
BUT that means then that we, here, have to be willing to sell everything else we might have to keep this. We have to be willing to give up any church “boundary markers” that might make us personally feel at home, in the name of being a part of something more expansive: a centered-set.
Does this grab you? Because we are actively looking to empower more leaders and carriers of this vision here. We need your help!
Some suggestions if this grabs you…
First, If you’re someone who has spent a lot of time in churches, ::ask God::: what church “boundary markers” (that make you personally feel at home) are you asking me to give up to help this church be a centered-set? We’ve been talking a lot over the summer as we looked at the book of James about white and male and generational wealth privilege — and how for someone like me to truly be about equity I have to make sacrifices. This is about sacrificing religious privilege.
Second, if you’re one of those over 40% of us who were not previously attending a church but feel connected here to this vision, ::ask God::: who are you encouraging me to share my story with? You have a story! Don’t be shy about it. Your story can bring other people hope and needed-encouragement and connection with God. So share it!
And, finally, ::one suggestion for us all for our personal lives::: forget about the electric fence, look only for the well. What if God hasn’t set up an electric fence? What if God’s great vision for you isn’t keeping you within a boundary, but rather giving you the water you need, giving you life in all its fullness.
In my experience pastoring people, nearly everyone has to work REALLY hard to make this their default, me included — because it’s not just people with lots of churchgoing in their background that develop the idea of a bounded-set faith of electric fences — It’s the water we swim in in America that makes us conceive of God as a punitive task master zapping us when we stray too far so we’ll stay within in the bounds.
But we CAN unlearn that — the more we interact with the true centered-set God, Jesus. Because Jesus, himself, is just so magnetic and kind and loving and generous to give us the water we need, I think, experiencing him that way can override any bad theology you’ve had programmed into you.
I would love to pray for us right now to experience Jesus that way, if we’d like to… Stand with me, if you will…