Bounded Set or Centered Set Church?

I read a lot of books about ministry and one argument I’ve seen proposed on several occasions now is that churches should move from a “bounded set” model of church to a “centered set” model. Most recently, I read this argument in Debra Hirsch’s book Redeeming Sex.

The language of bounded set and centered set, according to Hirsch’s footnote, comes from the social set theory which looks at how groups organize themselves. This modeling theory is then applied to churches.

A bounded set church is marked out by clear boundaries which determine who is “in” and who is “out.” According to Hirsch, “one’s inclusion, belonging, is based on how aligned one’s beliefs and behaviors are with those on the inside” (p 191). The more you align with the group’s beliefs and behaviors the more you are accepted into the group and the more you dissent the more you are excluded. Churches like this focus on conformity to the norm and for this reason don’t experience a lot of diversity or inclusion of outsiders. They have “hard edges” and a “soft center.”

In contrast to bounded set churches are center set churches. A center set church, according to Hirsch, “has a ‘hard’, well-articulated and vibrant theological center, but tends to be “soft” at the edges. It assumes that every person is somewhere in relation to the center – in this case, Jesus” (p 192). What matters in the center set model of church is not how close one is to the center, but which direction they are headed in. Someone could be close to Jesus (in belief or behavior) but moving away from him. Likewise, someone could be “far” from Jesus, but moving toward Him. In a center set church conformity to a set of beliefs or behaviors is less important than whether or not the person is moving towards the person of Jesus.

Hirsch, like others who have used set theory to describe churches, is a proponent of the center set model and an opponent of the bounded set model. Jesus, it is argued, opposed the bounded set thinking of the Pharisees. Bounded sets are moralistic and bad for the church. Centered sets are gospel-oriented and good for the church.

I really do appreciate the centered set model of church. This type of modeling has a lot to offer. It reinforces several important gospel-oriented truths. This modeling emphasizes the priority of the heart (direction) over external behavior. It recognizes that discipleship is a process. It sees how individuals often come to Jesus from a lot of different directions. A church of this sort will be well inoculated against a sort of moralism that is strongly culturally bound. In other words, there is a lot to like about a centered set model of church.

I am not so quick to completely abandon certain components of the bounded-set model, though, since I think the New Testament uses certain “bounded set” language. Jesus Himself often speaks in very binary inside/outside terminology. There are certain beliefs which are necessary to be “inside” the [invisible, universal] Church. Jesus definitely grew large crowds and a diverse audience (centered set) but ultimately people within that group had to decide to join or reject Jesus (bounded set). In Acts it was those who accepted the message of the gospel (belief) and who were baptized (action) who were added to the ranks of the church. Paul is operating from a bounded set model when he speaks of excommunicating the man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. Church elders are given the task of shepherding, which includes both leading thirsty sheep to water (center set) and watching out for wolves in sheep’s clothing who would infiltrate the ranks of the church in order to kill and destroy (bounded set). The pastoral epistles give a pretty clear list of behavioral characteristics for who can or cannot be in leadership in a church.

My point is not that bounded set theory is superior. I don’t think it is. I only want to say that both models can be used to describe different healthy and unhealthy aspects of church. An unhealthy bounded set church is one that sets boundaries in the wrong areas (see my blog post on good and bad “lists”). A healthy bounded set church maintains pure doctrine and spurs its members on to holiness and sanctification. A healthy center set church demonstrates love and hospitality to those who may not conform to the “norm” and rightly prioritizes the direction of one’s heart, consistently pointing people to the person of Jesus. An unhealthy center set church fails to guard the faith or protect the flock from wolves. I think a healthy church is one that adopts the right model for the right circumstance.

At our church we employ both models, though not consciously. We welcome all into our worship and really aim to demonstrate hospitality no matter where someone is coming from. We prioritize the heart. We understand the discipleship is a process and everyone is at a different place in their journey. We strive to point everyone to the center – the Person of Jesus. All of these would be characteristic of a center set model. But we also require conversion and baptism for official membership and ask individuals to agree to our doctrinal statement. Members are not “better” than non-members, and non-members can and do play a big role in our church, but certain requirements are important in order to maintain the fidelity and identity of the organization. We also require the board members adhere to the requirements set out for elders and deacons in the Pastoral Epistles. These are all characteristics of a bounded set church.

All models, like all metaphors eventually break down. They are useful, but only up until a point. I would only caution those who are so enamored with the center set model, to see its limitations.