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The Centered-Set Church

The Centered-set Church

In preparation for the upcoming sermon series on Compassionate Community, I’ve been reading a book called Deep Church by Jim Belcher, which addresses the current conflict between the ‘traditional’ and ‘emerging’ churches. Belcher wants to suggest that there is a ‘third way,’ a kind of church (and Christian life) that affirms the strengths but avoids the weaknesses of both kinds of churches.

One of the key distinctions that Belcher makes is between what he and others call ‘bounded-set’ churches, ‘centered-set’ churches and ‘relational-set’ churches. Bounded –set churches are said to put doctrine before faith, making doctrinal knowledge and standards of behavior a gate test for participation. Relational-set churches are the emergent churches that have taken postmodernism most seriously, and thus make doctrine, and truth relative, affirming, for example that ‘truth is found only in community’ and ‘the Bible is only one of the voices in that community.’ Centered-set churches, on the other hand, allow revelation, Scripture, to be God’s authoritative word, but do not make doctrine a gate test for initial participation.

Belcher quotes two Australian authors reinforce an image of the centered-set church that I find attractive: “Having laid out the bounded-set church, Frost and Hirsch described the centered-set church. The first priority is not to draw a tight border to determine who is in. A centered-set church is defined by its core values, and people are not seen as either in or out but rather by their relationship to the center. In this sense, everyone is potentially part of the community.”

“These churches are Christ-centered, according to Frost and Hirsch. Centered-set churches see the gospel as so refreshing that lovers of Christ will not stray too far from him. And outsiders will be drawn into the community like thirsty pilgrims seeking water. They illustrate this in their book The Shaping of Things to Come:

In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighboring farms out. This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches cover an enormous geographic area, fencing the property is out of the question. In our home of Australia, ranches (called stations) are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die. That is a centered set. As long as there is a supply of clean water, the livestock will remain close by.

“Centered set churches focus on the well at the center – Christ.”