Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Book Review: Wells and Fences

I was reading this week a little in Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch's The Shaping of Things to Come.  I was especially interested in the section called "Wells and Fences" (47-51). This is the place where they talk about the difference between "bounded sets" and "centered sets."

I find this an incredibly fruitful image for Christian universities and denominations.  I don't think many of us like the attitude of those who are preoccupied with where the fences go, where the boundary lines are. We don't like a preoccupation with who is "in" and who is "out."  Frost and Hirsch see this as the way the "attractional" church is oriented, where the goal is to get people to come into the group.

The "centered-set" approach, in the minds of Frost and Hirsch, looks at people more in terms of how far they are from the center, which in a Christian setting is Jesus.  Here's how they play this idea out:
  • "We believe that a centered-set church must have a very clear set of beliefs, rooted in Christ and his teaching" (48).
  • "In a centered-set church it is recognized that we are all sinners... The centered-set church will see everyone as equally fallen" (49).  
  • "In the incarnational mode the emphasis is well and truly on a cross-cultural Go-To-Them mentality" (49).
I'm way late to the game in thinking that there is a good deal of great stuff to build on here (the book came out in 2003).  I'll only throw out a few reasons why a hybrid of sorts is in order:
  • Historically, Christianity has been a bounded-set.  From a Pietist perspective (and to a large extent a New Testament perspective), the Holy Spirit has been the primary boundary marker.
  • A more sophisticated model thus has to take into account the distinction between the so called "visible" church and "invisible" church.  From a historic standpoint, there are boundaries.  We just are not in a good position to know precisely what they are in terms of who is in and who is out.
  • The Frost-Hirsch model also needs serious revision on two counts: 1) beliefs are a very flimsy basis on which to formulate a center, since it is the "heart" that is the center of a person's moral being and actions flow from intentions as a second order of business. Beliefs are the most insubstantial element of a person's moral make-up.
  • Additionally, 2) to build the centered-set approach off a sense that we are all sinners is wrong-headed in several respects.  It is not only based on a blatant misreading of the biblical texts but it flows from a mistaken moral standard of perfection in action.  Purity of intention is the moral standard, not performance.
  • Finally, Christianity cannot be sustained merely by "going to them."  This is in part the failure of the emerging church.  Without some structured organization, movements fizzle over time.  The house church movement is perfectly legitimate but Christianity will not persist without more structured organizations as well.
I'll stop there.  I am interested in what a hybrid might look like, one that has very general and inclusive boundaries around a center that then has very fuzzy edges.  Perhaps another day...

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