I’ve been in many conversations of late about the idea of bounded or centered sets and how that concept could help define what it means to be a part of a community following Jesus. I think I was first introduced to this thinking in The Shaping of Things to Come. One of these conversations a few days ago led me back to the idea of covenant vs membership, but first let me explain the idea of bounded and centered sets.
A bounded set could be thought of as a pasture. If you want to contain a herd of sheep, you can build a fence around the area where you want them to stay. This would be like a church community that has guidelines for inclusion. These are sometimes stated, but there is usually a perception of some unspoken guidelines that exist as well. One only has to meet the criteria, and they are ‘in’. Much of the focus becomes the question of who is in, and who is not.
A centered set could be thought of as a water source. If you place a water trough at the center of where you want the sheep, they will never stray too far from that source. In a sense, you are containing they just by providing an essential need in the center. In a church community, this source would (hopefully!) be Jesus. We continue to lift up his life-giving message and draw people to that. Rather than focus on who is in and who is out, we focus on who is moving toward.
I’m a fan of the centered set. One of the dangers of the bounded set is the tendency to focus on the boundaries in that model. Our teaching often leads people to live just inside the fence and make sure they are safely ‘in’. The centered set is not without concerns for some. I’m not even sure what this might fully look like in practice, but it is a difficult idea for many because it is a lot harder to measure. Most of us like to be able to measure things so that we can track progress.
Now, back to covenant vs. membership, and why I’m liking the covenant concept. Membership is a measurement of being in or out. It naturally affiliates with the idea of the bounded set. Covenant, on the other hand, is a measure of relationship, not distance. It matters not to me how far away you are from the center, but whether or not you are struggling toward it. I will commit to you, and you commit to me, and let’s make this journey together.
May we continue to lift up the message of Jesus, and may we bind ourselves to those who are walking toward fully embracing the Life that he offers.