Centered-Set, not Bounded-Set
Author Dave Schmelzer explains the difference between a Centered-Set and a Bounded-Set approach to faith.
In a bounded-set, you’re either in or out. In a centered-set, it’s all about motion.
Imagine a piece of paper with a circle drawn on it. The thing about circles is that you’re either inside of them or you’re outside of them. So we (Kyle & Vince, the pastors here) grew up in Chicagoland. If you’re from another part of the world, sorry. You’re outside of our circle. We don’t mean to exclude you, but you just are. We are Cubs fans. If you support a different baseball team, sorry but you’re outside of that circle. And so on until the circle can go down to just us. Let’s call the circle a “bounded set.”
Now imagine a second piece of paper with a big dot right in the center of it. This shows a different kind of set. The dot in the center represents what holds the set together, and, let’s say, on this piece of paper there are a million other smaller dots which represent everyone on earth. For each of those dots (us) it’s not about whether we’re inside of something or outside of something. It’s just about motion. Are you moving towards whatever is at the center or veering in some other direction? We’ll call this a “centered set.”
We wonder if this helps us think about how churches might serve (or not serve) people. For our purposes, let’s say we want to be a centered set with God or Jesus at the center of our set. If so, then this would suggest we put our focus less on whether someone is inside or outside of “faith in God” or “faith in Jesus,” and more on whether someone is moving toward the center (God or Jesus). On where someone’s arrow is pointing, as it were.
Under this theory, questions of faith like “what are the right opinions or beliefs to hold?” feel less important, and instead our questions are about how practically we actually live out faith, moment to moment. Like “what does it look like to point myself toward Jesus right now, in my current circumstance?”
Approaching faith in Jesus this way, in our experience, opens us up to the prospect of profound connection with just about anyone.
It’s worth noting: a lot of churches seem to operate from a bounded-set mentality, and understandably so. They understand 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. Their invitations to do so feel like an act of kindness to them.
For example, let’s say you’ve got a bounded set we’ll call “Michigan Evangelical Christian” that has treated you very well. And let’s say you meet someone who’s a Bengali Muslim. Perhaps you say, “Jump into our bounded set! You’ll get Jesus! And you’ll love it!” But then you realize: wait, there’s a lot more than just Jesus in this bounded set. This jump would involve my Bengali Muslim friend changing a lot: how they dress, how they relate to the opposite sex, their politics, their diet, and so on.
The challenge of course is we all already have bounded sets; we all already have cultures, backgrounds, and communities that have shaped and formed us. Usually, churches (or people) operating from a bounded-set mentality don’t realize this. They don’t take into account how much additional culture beyond just Jesus their bounded sets entail. And it can come as a shock to them that their good intentions might be received by some as insensitive or harmful.
That seems to set up a lot of the religious division and animosity we find in our world, doesn’t it? We don’t want to dismiss bounded sets as not being important or sometimes great things. Again, we have our own bounded sets for sure. (Go Cubs Go!) But, at this church, we wonder: what if Jesus fits better into the Centered-Set model? Can that offer us all a good gift?