Marbles, Magnets and Spiritual Maturity:
Imagine that you have two bags of marbles, some in each bag made of glass and others made of steel. You dump one bag on a floor with a square drawn in the middle of the room. Some marbles come to rest inside the square while others are outside the square. It’s easy to determine which are in and which are out.
You dump the other bag or marbles in a room that instead of the square has a large magnet in the centre of the room. The steel marbles begin rolling toward the magnet while the glass marbles remain still. The closer they are to the magnet the more rapidly the steel marbles move, but out on the edges it is more difficult to tell which marbles are rolling toward the magnet and which are standing still.
These different rooms represent different ways groups of people, including churches, organize themselves. The first room is called a “bounded set.” There are clear boundary lines that define whether a person is “part of the group” or “not part of the group.” In the church these boundary lines likely include agreement with a set of beliefs or doctrines; participation in some religious rituals such as a particular form of baptism, responding to an altar call, or saying a “sinner’s prayer;” and adherence to a set of behavioural expectations such as not getting drunk, refraining from sexual intercourse outside of marriage, or refraining from a variety of “worldly entertainments.” (It is likely that bounded set churches in Colorado are busily writing a new line on their floor this winter.)
There are advantages to being part of a bounded set. It is easy to determine who is “in” and who is “out.” One consequence of bounded sets can be tightly knit communities. Accountability and mutual discipline are more easily achieved because expectations are more likely to be clear and defined. Bounded sets offer their members a level of personal security by providing already established answers to questions of doctrine and morality.
But there are disadvantages, too. Bounded set churches find it difficult to welcome newcomers, especially those who do not come from a background of similar faith. Outsiders feel judged by the knowledge that they are clearly outsiders. Bounded set Christians are especially vulnerable to the perception of hypocrisy because they are, in fact, especially vulnerable to hypocrisy itself. Boundaries can be mysteriously porous. Boundaries around sexual integrity, for example, are often more rigid and strictly enforced than those around other areas of integrity. People may gossip about a sexual impropriety, for example, and while the sexual impropriety is confronted and disciplined, the gossip is not. Bounded set communities are especially vulnerable to abuses of power by those who see their role as protecting the boundaries, themselves.
Perhaps the greatest temptation to a bounded community is to spiritualize and deify boundaries that were originally set for pragmatic reasons. At one time in frontier North America dance halls were also places of prostitution. To this day dancing remains a boundary for some even though the circumstance that gave rise to this boundary has long since passed.
Centre-set churches offer a different way of understanding belonging. The magnet in the middle of the room may be Jesus, a particular experience of the Holy Spirit, or a clearly articulated mission. Belonging is not a function of standing within certain beliefs or behaviours but is, in this case, determined by whether or not a person is moving in the direction of the centre that defines the church.
There are advantages to a centre set church. Centre set churches find it easy to welcome others who are moving toward the same target despite significant differences in perspective or background. A single, clear purpose is easy to articulate in such a community. Because answers to theological and behavioural questions are not prescribed for those who belong, a centre set church requires participants to be responsibly thoughtful about how they think and act. People who enjoy a degree of ambiguity and freedom to question find the many possibilities of a centre set church liberating and enjoyable.
But there are also disadvantages to a centre set church. Accountability can be more difficult because people are free to disagree and often do. People who enjoy and need a high degree of structure and direction often find the centre set church dangerously open to a wide array of ideas and opinions. Leaders in centre set churches can easily grow discouraged shepherding such a freedom loving flock into a discernable direction. After all, the marble moving toward the magnet from the north side of the room is covering different territory and actually is moving in the opposite direction from the marble rolling from the south side of the room.
Bounded set Christians like to quote verses like “You will know them by their fruits,” and “narrow the gate and straight the way.” Centre set Christians prefer the parable of the wheat and tares. Centre set Christians find comfort in mystery; bounded set Christians find comfort in certainty. Bounded set Christians like answering questions. Centre set Christians like questioning answers.
There is need and place for both centre set and bounded set churches in the big, universal Church of Christ. No church or person is entirely one or the other, but most of us have a preference one way or the other and most churches end up one or the other as a result of the ways that centre set and bounded set believers tend to interact with each other.
We are part of a tribe of churches, the Canadian Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, that operates as a centre set. Theological stances are all over the map from very conservative to very liberal. Some CBOQ churches require baptism by immersion as a believer for church membership, others do not. In some of our sister churches membership entails a commitment to refrain from drinking alcohol while in others the adult leaders celebrate surviving another youth group night by going out for a beer. The magnet in the centre of the CBOQ is a commitment to shared mission near by and overseas.
But that is not to imply that all CBOQ churches are centre set congregations. It is also a mark of our diversity that some churches are centre set while others are bounded set. It is this kind of diversity that generally guarantees that a room containing 20 Baptists usually produces 25 opinions.
For most of the past quarter century Spring Garden has functioned fairly consistently as a centre set congregation. Our centre is Jesus who reconciles us to the Father and promises us the Holy Spirit. We welcome people from an astounding assortment of backgrounds who find their way into our community because they are moving toward Jesus.
The current pastoral team includes one pastor who grew up Convention Baptist, one who grew up in the United Church, another who had his earliest faith experiences in the Associated Gospel Churches, one from the Salvation Army and a lead pastor who grew up Roman Catholic. The pews are even more confusing! Not only do we represent a wide assortment of Christian denominations, but on any given Sunday you may well find yourself sitting next to a Moslem, a Hindu or a Jew of the non-Messianic variety.
In this mix we consistently worship, celebrate and proclaim Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, Saviour and Lord of all. We welcome anyone to join us as we move from our many different starting points in the direction of Jesus. In classic centre-set fashion we extend an equal welcome to bounded set Christians on our journey but we recognize that not everyone will be comfortable with such a high level of ambiguity and may choose a community with more clearly defined boundaries. And that’s ok.
In the glorious chaos of the centre set it is important to always place before ourselves the centrality of Jesus Christ, the relationship He opens for us with the Father and Spirit, and the way of life He invited us to walk. We don’t have a long set of rules to follow, but we do expect people to bring their own lives into the light of Jesus’ teaching and example. We honour theological diversity but we expect people to engage thoughtfully and honestly with Scripture.
I think it is harder for a centre set church to teach people how to believe and live because people must move to that themselves. But the long term benefit of this exploration is that when we arrive at the truth we belong to it and it belongs to us.
As I come to the end of this musing I am left with a final thought. I am a centre set person and a centre set pastor. I think the main reason this is so important for me is that despite my years of education, private study, seeking, wrestling, praying, weeping and rejoicing I simply am not smart enough to tell you what the truth is. I can only point you to the One who is, Himself, Truth.