Faithful Church Life: Moving toward the Center

Joel B. Green

Drilling for oil in deep-sea conditions introduces some challenges, and not only because it’s a long way down from the ocean surface to the ocean floor. There’s also the problem of how to account for ocean waves strong enough to fracture and break the platform supports, allowing the platform to float away from the drilling site. A typical solution to this problem has been tethering the platform to the ocean floor so that it is free to move in whatever direction the waves might take it, while keeping it centered for purposes of drilling.

The metaphorical possibilities for thinking about church presented by deep-sea drilling came to mind as I read Mark D. Baker’s new book, Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community without Judgmentalism (IVP Academic, 2021). The church needs to be tethered to its center as it engages wider cultural currents and too easily allows one or another of those cultural currents to serve as its chief navigator. This is especially true today, given the ease with which religious communities identify themselves with various political or social movements or positions or figures. I’m not sure, though, that this is the first place Baker would have wanted my mind to go as I read his book. Here, he is less concerned with the church’s rigidity vis-à-vis the broader culture within which it carves out faithfulness of thought and life, and more interested with what we might call inter-ecclesial boundary-making and line-drawing.

Introducing his book, Baker provides a helpful anecdote that identifies the problem he wants to address. Although he had “come a long way from [his] high school legalism,” he reports being stunned as a young adult at a Bible study. The teacher “drew a line that angled uphill and said:”

“Many evangelical students see their life as a progression from the legalism of their youth to a more mature Christianity, which stresses issues of lifestyle and justice and explores authentic Christianity. It appears they have moved forward.” I thought, Yes, that’s me. Then he drew a circle and at different points wrote legalism, simple lifestyle, freedom to drink, and issues of justice. He pointed to the circle. “They move along, but they are not going anywhere. They just change one means of judging themselves as superior for another.”

Baker’s account is telling in three ways germane to the way this book unfolds. First, this book is self-involving for its author. He isn’t talking about those people over there, those others with tendencies toward judgmental boundary-making. His repeated references to his own narrative disarmingly ensure that we all find ourselves implicated in this message.

Second, this story subtly introduces the transformation this book invites: a movement away from “bounded sets” and “fuzzy sets”—which define hard boundaries between them and us or that shun all such distinctions—and toward “centered sets.” The model with which Baker works derives from the earlier publications of the missiologist Paul Hiebert. What is fresh about Baker’s approach, and this is the third point, is how the model of “centered set” is worked out in relation to all sorts of ecclesial practices and habits of speech. Since Baker came face to face with his own need for ongoing transformation in a Bible study, it isn’t surprising that he explores what “centered set” means in the range of ways the church expresses its vocation: in worship, in education, in mission, in preaching, in recovery programs, in its understanding of membership, in community fellowship—and on and on the list goes.

What might it look like to lead a centered-set church? Here are down-to-earth considerations and exemplars, as well as penetrating and hopeful engagement with those who might question whether this is even (or always) possible.

Mark’s Gospel relates an exchange between Jesus and his disciple John:

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.” Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us. I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.” (Mark 9:38–41 Common English Bible)

I’ve always found this episode amusing, tragically so. John doesn’t say, “Because he wasn’t following you,” as though the measure of faithfulness were somehow tied to Jesus. Instead, he observes that this exorcist “wasn’t following us”—as though, somehow, we control what following Jesus should look like. This tendency toward boundary-making is visible elsewhere in the New Testament, too. We might think of the opening of 1 Corinthians: “My brothers and sisters, Chloe’s people gave me some information about you, that you’re fighting with each other. What I mean is this: that each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ ‘I belong to Apollos,’ ‘I belong to Cephas,’ ‘I belong to Christ.’ Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you, or were you baptized in Paul’s name?” (1 Cor 1:11–13). We can only imagine what ideas or practices each of these bounded-set clusters used to set up as walls isolating themselves from the others.

Baker directs our attention to neither of these texts, preferring instead to interact especially with Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He thus reprises some of the work he did in his earlier book Religious No More: Building Communities of Grace and Freedom (InterVarsity Press, 1999; repr. ed., Wipf & Stock, 2005)—though now with the leaven of even more of his extensive experience in church, parachurch, missional, and educational settings, and with the added analytical tools provided by his interaction with Hiebert’s work. This combination of reading Scripture and drawing out the wisdom gained through years of ministry in a variety of contexts and from interviews with other ministry leaders both clarifies the perennial nature of the challenges of bounded and fuzzy sets and underscores the timeliness of this call for a centered-set ecclesiology.

The strength of Centered-Set Church, though, is not in its analysis of the problem or even its sketching of models by which to portray the way forward. As important as these are, the genius of this book lies in its dialogical focus on the lived experience of Christian communities practicing encouragement and intervention, discerning what it means to orient ourselves toward the God we know in Jesus Christ. This is the sort of book ministry leaders will want to read together and discuss with their teams.

Posted Mar 21, 2022

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