Centered Set Church – Discipleship and Community Without Judgementalism  

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Leader’s Edge: Leadership

Centered Set Church – Discipleship and Community Without Judgementalism*

By Mark Baker

IVP Academic, 2022 
256 Pages 

Find it on Amazon*

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“I was compelled to write this book because I have seen and experienced the shame and alienation produced by bounded churches, the blandness of fuzzy churches, and the liberating transformation through Jesus Christ of centered churches.” Kindle location 285 

In this book Mark Baker defines and explains three different types of organizational cultures that can exist in churches: first, “bounded” churches that focus principally on the boundaries that separate them from outsiders; second, “fuzzy” churches that, in their efforts to avoid the weaknesses of bounded churches, essentially erase all boundaries and standards between “members” and others; and third, “centered” churches that seek above all else to be “Christ-centered,” focusing principally on God’s grace and acceptance toward those who are oriented toward Christ while avoiding the errors of bounded and fuzzy approaches.    

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Best Illustration

“Do some populations, such as those in recovery, need a bounded approach?” The practitioners in this chapter would answer the question by saying, “No, those in recovery do not need a bounded approach. In fact, they would be better served by a centered approach.” The practitioners would affirm that clarity, standards, and firmness are important in recovery situations. The distinction is not that a bounded approach is clear and firm, while a centered approach is not. Rather, the contrast is between the sense of conditional love in one and unconditional love in the other, between shaming judgmentalism in one and compassionate curiosity in the other, between a fixation on the standards in one and seeing standards as tools in the journey of recovery and transformation in the other. Kindle location 3,541 

Best Idea

“Gang members’ relational lives are riddled with abandonment, alienation, and attachment issues. And for most, the God they live with is part of that negative stew of rejection and shame. Boyle has seen the destructive power of a distorted concept of God, and he has seen that homies experiencing the loving embrace of a God looking at them with eyes of compassion and delight is a powerful contribution to healing. Boyle begins his books with chapters on God because one’s concept of God is of fundamental importance. His example underlines a key difference between a bounded and centered approach—how we perceive God.” Kindle location 3,431 

Best Take Away

“Management models based on planning and predicting instead of resilient adaptation to changing circumstances are no longer suited to today’s challenges.” Kindle location 48 

Our Recommendation

This book is a VERY comprehensive discussion of a seemingly simple but in fact complicated topic. Baker defines three different types of churches and then includes a large number of illustrations and explanations to elaborate on how Christians can practice the art of creating “centered set” or “Christ-centered” communities. The illustrations help the reader to understand how this approach can look in a wide range of circumstances. For those looking to develop a less legalistic and more gracious approach to church culture, this can be a very helpful volume.  

Best Quotes

“In college I recognized my legalistic self-righteousness, but I mistakenly thought that the legalistic rules were the problem. I viewed the solution as discarding the rules. I had not dug deeply enough. Although my perspectives about what it meant to be a good Christian had changed over the years, my drive to be right and my line drawing had remained constant. I had torn down one house and built another that looked completely different without realizing that both houses had been built on the same flawed foundation.” Kindle location 100 

“Because both houses were built on the foundation of line drawing, they had similar characteristics: gracelessness, conditional acceptance, fear, lack of transparency, lack of empathy, self-righteousness, and shallow ethical change.” Kindle location 106 

“I am not writing this book to convince readers to let go of their beliefs and values, but to describe how we can affirm our beliefs and live out our values without producing the negative characteristics listed above.” Kindle location 109 

“Vague Christianity is not interesting or compelling, life-giving or transformative, and as the emphasis on genuine Christian orthodoxy decreased, the number of people leaving increased.” Kindle location 148 

“If we are going to grow, we need people around us who can help us picture the kingdom of God by saying, ‘The path you are walking is not the way to life, but you can step into this kingdom life, because this is the life for which God made you.’” Kindle location 163 

“In response to the self-righteous judgmentalism of a line-drawing church, it is understandable that Dustin—and others like him—pulled out their erasers and wiped out the lines. In response to the relativism and blandness of fuzzy churches, it is also understandable that other Christians have pulled out their markers to draw clearer and bolder lines.” Kindle location 171 

“The intentions of both are positive, but the fruit is negative.” Kindle location 173 

“Paul’s concerns go beyond the Galatian church’s confusion about faith and works. Paul writes with passionate concern about the unity of the church community and how the principalities and powers were sowing division and enslaving people through judgmental line drawing.” Kindle location 205 

“In the world of Jesus, Peter, and Paul, Jews used the dinner table, along with circumcision and Sabbath observance, to separate themselves from non-Jews. By excluding non-Jews from the table, Jews could maintain their distinctive religious and cultural identity.” Kindle location 215 

“Paul recognizes that the solution to disunity, judgmentalism, and confusion about works righteousness in Galatia is neither to draw new lines nor to erase all lines.” Kindle location 257 

“Through the work of missiologist Paul Hiebert, both of us came to a deeper understanding of our past experiences and a clearer vision of the alternative that Paul models. The next two chapters will describe Hiebert’s bounded-set, fuzzy-set, and centered-set models. The purpose of this book is not merely to explain these categories, but to help churches become communities that are centered on Jesus.” Kindle location 274 

“I wrote this book for practitioners—pastors, small group leaders, parachurch workers, youth group leaders, and Sunday school teachers. Much of the content of the book also comes from practitioners.” Kindle location 278 

“Hiebert begins by asking, ‘When is someone considered a Christian? Should he be considered a Christian after he hears a story about Jesus and salvation through the cross and says a prayer expressing his desire to worship Jesus with other Christians?’” Kindle location 334 

“In exploring this question, Hiebert argues that the way people conceptualize church and the category of Christian will shape how they answer the question.” Kindle location 339 

“To ask, ‘who belongs?’ or ‘who is part of our group?’ can include the question of whether someone is a Christian or not, but also more than that.” Kindle location 342 

“Bounded sets. Hiebert explains that bounded sets have a clear, static boundary line that allows for a uniform definition of those who are within the group. In general terms, a bounded group creates a list of essential characteristics that determine whether a person belongs to that group. For example, a league soccer team is a bounded group.” Kindle location 346 

“Fuzzy sets. A fuzzy set is similar to a bounded set, but the boundary line is removed—or at least less clear. The grounds for distinction are rather vague, and so the group is fuzzy. In the soccer example, imagine a city park where people gather on Sunday afternoons to play pickup games.” Kindle location 352 

“Though bounded and fuzzy groups differ radically, they share the same paradigm about how to define who belongs to a group, though they are positioned at opposite ends of a continuum.” Kindle location 363 

“Centered sets. A centered set reflects a completely different paradigm. This third-way option is not on the bounded-fuzzy continuum. Rather than drawing a line to identify people based on their common characteristics, a centered set uses a directional and relational basis of evaluation. The group is created by defining a center and observing people’s relationship with the center. As figure 2.3 illustrates, the set is made up of all who are oriented toward the center.” Kindle location 365 

“Hiebert says that even though some people may be far from the center, they are part of the centered group if they are heading toward the center. On the other hand, some people may have been close to the center, but now are no longer part of the centered group because they have turned around and are moving away from it. Though the people within a centered group may not be uniform in their characteristics, they will all be heading the same direction.” Kindle location 372 

“After describing these three approaches to group membership, Hiebert applies the model to churches.” Kindle location 381 

“Bounded churches draw a line that distinguishes insiders from outsiders, Christians from non-Christians, or true Christians from mediocre Christians. The line generally consists of a list of correct beliefs and certain visible behaviors.” Kindle location 383 

“All bounded sets have a sense of exclusion of those who do not meet the requirements. Often that leads to the insiders having a sense of superiority and increased status.” Kindle location 386 

“In theory a church could be a bounded set and avoid the negative attitudes displayed in my line drawing in the previous chapter, but I have not seen that neutrality in reality. For a variety of reasons, the lines drawn by bounded churches foment judgmentalism and communicate a sense of conditional love.” Kindle location 389 

“Therefore, in this book the definition of a bounded church includes the technical definition of a bounded set described in the previous section as well as the additional element that the boundary lines produce a sense of inferiority in the excluded and self-righteousness in the included.” Kindle location 393 

“What churches come to mind when you read the previous paragraphs? Many of us might think of legalistic churches. And while the legalism of my youth provides a clear example of a bounded approach to church, my line drawing continued after I turned away from legalism.” Kindle location 404 

“Bounded churches can use a variety of things to draw lines that define insiders from outsiders, including rituals, spiritual experiences, political commitments, activism, attendance, beliefs, and behaviors.” Kindle location 409 

“The problem is not with having a line that differentiates between things that are acceptable and unacceptable, but rather with how bounded churches use those lines to separate and categorize people in a judgmental way. Fuzzy churches. Some churches recognize the problematic fruit of line drawing within bounded churches, and so they opt for what appears to be the obvious solution: they erase the line.” Kindle location 411 

“In a society that holds tolerance as the supreme virtue, a bounded church is problematic, whereas a fuzzy church is not.” Kindle location 416 

“Unlike fuzzy churches, centered churches can distinguish those who belong to the group from those who do not. In a centered church, God is the center focus. Therefore, the critical question is, to whom do we offer our worship and allegiance?” Kindle location 418 

“Two types of change happen in a centered church. The first is directional. Is someone facing the center or oriented in the other direction? From this perspective, conversion happens when someone turns toward the center. The second change relates to movement toward the center. Such movement varies because members do not move at the same pace. The group is unified by the first change because they are all oriented toward Jesus Christ. However, they are not uniform because the characteristics of the various members will differ due to their varying distances from the center.” Kindle location 422 

“Though a centered church makes a distinction between Christians and non-Christians, as Hiebert observes, the emphasis is ‘on exhorting people to follow Christ, rather than on excluding others to preserve the purity of the set.’” Kindle location 428 

“Both centered and bounded churches put energy and emphasis on what defines them. For a bounded group, it is the line of exclusion. For a centered group, the emphasis is on defining the center and maintaining a relationship with the center.” Kindle location 436 

“Since centered unity does not come from uniformity there is also space for differences not possible in a bounded church.” Kindle location 444 

“A bounded church focuses on defining and maintaining the boundary, whereas a centered church focuses on defining the center and maintaining clarity about the church’s center, which is, first and foremost, Jesus Christ.” Kindle location 448 

“Although not all bounded groups practice shaming, it is common in bounded churches. Drawing a line allows those on the inside to gain status and feel superior to those who do not meet the standards.” Kindle location 473 

“While a bounded church may appear to have unity because of the uniformity of its members, it is superficial. Bounded churches are characterized by gracelessness, conditional acceptance, shame, fear, lack of transparency, self-righteousness, and superficial ethical change.” Kindle location 509 

“My critique is not aimed at the people in bounded churches, but rather the paradigm. Sadly, practicing a bounded approach to church can even distort and undermine a church’s clear belief in and proclamation of God’s grace.” Kindle location 516 

“A bounded church can easily lead people to view God’s love and acceptance as conditional. This approach pulls people into contractual living, where if you do certain things, you’re in, but if you break the contract you are out.” Kindle location 536 

“By discerning group membership through people’s trajectories and their relationship to the center, a centered church remedies the problems that motivate a fuzzy church to blur boundaries while also avoiding the negative fruit that grows out of a fuzzy approach.” Kindle location 614 

“In contrast to the spirit of rejection and exclusion that emanates from a bounded church, a centered church has an invitational character.” Kindle location 746 


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