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The Lectio Letter - Issue #76 - Who's in and Who's Out and Who is in the Centre?
The question which Baker has us think about throughout his book is whether following Jesus is about a line we cross or a direction we face. True; following Jesus does mean moving in a new direction and will, therefore, involve making some hard decisions at times, but to be centered-set, as Baker wants churches to become, is more about a life-long journey towards Jesus rather than just overcoming some sins that we categorize as worse than others.
— Englewood Review of Books on Centred Set Church, Mark Baker
“A bounded church demands people move across the line, but then it becomes fairly static—you are in, not out…A fuzzy church is fuzzy; it is difficult to call for movement or change. A centered church, however, invites people on a journey. It is not static because we have not yet arrived”
It’s coming to you a few days late I’m afraid, but it’s a bumper edition this time!
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So many of you reached out to say that you enjoyed my 3 part interview with our friend Anne on mental health and discipleship. If you happened to miss that you can read the first one for free here, while the following two are here and here and are only for paid subscribers.
This time around I’m sharing some insights from a book I’ve been reading by Mark Baker called “Centred Set Church”
I came across this concept a few years ago and the quotes at the beginning of this email describe it well. It was transposed from Mathematics by Christian Anthropologist Paul Hiebert and helps explain how groups belong and offer a way to understand how people gather around the person of Jesus and become His followers.
CS Lewis talks about the reality of this in his classic work Mere Christianity;
The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together.
Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.
This kind of nuance is not often attended to in the theoretical realms of theology, but in the practical world of discipleship, it becomes necessary to see the kind of nuance that Lewis is mentioning here.
I hope this article provokes some fresh thoughts for you about how we view those who gather with us in Church communities and helps you think about your own discipleship. It is not a perfect model, but I think it opens up a fresh way of thinking about who around you is really turned towards Jesus in and how we can often get caught up in a kind of religious politeness that doesn’t retain the vitality the following Jesus truly offers.
I hope you enjoy this Lectio article. Feel free to leave a comment or a question after you’ve read it, I love receiving those.
I’ve been reading South African Methodist Trevor Hudson’s “Seeking God” which draws on his insights from exploring the Ignatian Spiritual practices and learning from the life of Dallas Willard in a practical and down-to-earth way.
Westerman - Blue Comanche has an old world stripped-down sound that reminds me a lot of Damien Jurado
Amazingly gifted Ezra Collective (Jazzy/Afrobeat) from London performing a Tiny Desk Show
Easy Stir Fry Rice
I adapted this recently from Bon Apetit’s 15min meals
This is a recipe where you measure (as the video says) with you heart ;)
Left over rice
Cook garlic, ginger and spring onions in butter until the butter browns (for a nuttier flavour).
Then Add rice, pour over some soy, lots of siracha (adjust for taste) then dash a little sesame oil
Cook until you hear dry pops which indicates the rice is crispening.
Add left overs (I added some sausage) but Rachel added a fried egg.
Super easy meal!
I haven’t seen this yet, but this documentary “Turn Every Page” about the relationship between writer Robert Caro and editor Robert Gottlieb looks lovely. The trailer gives it a “Pretend it’s a city” kind of vibe;
Who's in and Who's Out and Who is in the Centre?
Who is saved, and who isn’t saved? Why do some people spend years in a church community and never seem to grow spiritually? And why are so many individuals leaving traditional churches for a more accepting and anything-goes approach to life and faith?
These sorts of challenges have always been part of the church's history, but our contemporary age is amplifying them in a new way. In his book, Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community Without Judgmentalism, Mark Baker steps into this conversation and builds upon the work of Christian anthropologist and missionary, Paul Hiebert. As an anthropologist, Hiebert explored how humans form groups and navigate belonging and inclusion.
Before we dive into the contrasting the models from Baker's book, l would like to start with a story:
James becomes a Christian after a coworker invites him to church. He has always wanted to be a 'good person' and felt there must be more to life than he was experiencing. The answers he finds in the church make the intuitions he has about what is important in life coherent and convincing. He is baptised and begins to attend church meetings each week.
Over the years, James begins to learn about his church’s distinct beliefs. It strongly believes that only adults should be baptised, whereas the other church down the road believes baptism is also for children. He discovers, through his church's responses, that engaging in sex outside of marriage is an issue that they take seriously. Other church members assure James that sins, such as gluttony and pride, are also serious, and that all sin is an offence to God.
However, after observing how the church reacts to an affair and then one of the elders son's moving in with his girlfriend, he intuitively understands that these sins are seen as the most serious wrongs that can be committed according to his church. The church simply doesn't tolerate this kind of behaviour and upholds a strong biblical value on these issues.
While the church theoretically believes in restoration in practice, some sins are tolerated, some are counselled, and some are left unresolved. This causes individuals to drift away or become passively excluded.
Meanwhile, in conversations at work where James is trying to share his faith, he is met with strong reactions where co-workers claim that Christianity, although claiming to be a religion of love, is actually judgemental and archaic in its beliefs. His company is developing a PR effort to show its support for minorities with messages of inclusion and unconditional acceptance. At the same time, one of his nephews comes out as gay, and James’s family watches to see how he will respond to that.
Not surprisingly, James begins to wonder whether his church has got things wrong. After all, he was originally attracted to Christianity because of how it welcomed the poor, the needy and the outcast. Wasn't Jesus’ harshest criticism towards the religiously pure of his day and wasn’t Jesus radically inclusive of those who were outside of the stated religious boundaries?
During this time of pondering these questions, James meets another Christian called Brian.
Brian goes to another church that meets in a cafe on Thursday nights. Brian tells James that their group gather together around a "faith journey,” welcoming people wherever they are at. Some of them have been involved in other churches like the one James is in, and have experienced spiritual abuse, exclusion and burn out. In Brian’s church, people gather to heal as well as to welcome and embrace the surrounding community. James drops in one Thursday night and discovers a group of wonderful people who warmly welcome him.
They talk about “encountering the divine,” healing love, and living out Jesus' radical call to see love in the world. They also share their pain of having been a part of and then excluded from, “judgemental” churches. Conversations about "spiritual trauma" abound, and they often speak of the need for healthier 'faith communities.’
James slowly starts hanging out there more often on Thursday nights and begins to attend his usual Sunday service less. He hears that his church has just kicked out another youth group teen for staying over at her boyfriend’s house, and now he has had enough. James doesn’t want to become a pharisee and this new group he had met on Thursday seems so welcoming. He will now make the Thursday night church his spiritual home. At least he can invite friends from work and not feel embarrassed.
Baker describes the church that James originally attended as a bounded-set community. Bounded-set communities are common, not only in churches but in any kind of affinity group. These groups are defined by their boundaries, with a clear awareness of who is in, and who is out. The community’s energy is spent on maintaining its boundaries.
Boundaries in these churches are often defined by what is deemed as 'biblical truth,’ for example, what you believe about baptism or sex outside of marriage. However, the markers can also be more subtle than that. It can be what bible translation is believed to be the correct one, or which teachers/writers you listen to or read. It can even go as far as what kind of clothes, car or house is appropriate and acceptable, and which aren't.
Bounded-set communities have a clearly defined boundary line that allows for a uniform definition of those who are in, and those who are out. What defines bounded-set communities is who they are.
To clarify this, let's look at the game of soccer for a moment.
A bounded-set soccer game would be played by a team that is in a league. You wear a uniform and are expected to perform with a certain amount of ability to be included.
In this cultural moment in history, where inclusivity and acceptance have become highly prized values, bounded-set churches are most naturally perceived by those who have left them or are outside of them, as judgemental, exclusive, and out of date. Indeed, just as James experiences, the louder the culture surrounding us insists on its value for love, kindness and welcome for everyone, it may seem, if you slightly blur your vision, unsettlingly similar to the Jesus of the New Testament. We can begin to wonder if "bounded-set" communities are actually the modern location of the religious elite Jesus criticised so harshly.
As the tension between historical Christian beliefs and cultural appropriateness increases, many forms of church have emerged that focus less on the boundaries and more on being a welcoming, non-judgemental space.
The challenge for these communities is that they are often made up of the smouldering remnants of previous versions of church where people have been hurt or disappointed. The fuzzy-set churches often define themselves by what they are not, rather than what they are. If they do try to define themselves by what they are for, their ethical vision may bear a striking resemblance to the progressive culture that surrounds them.
Such groups define themselves as tolerant, and their implicit intolerance only emerges when someone refuses to be tolerant in the way they define tolerance. In reality, many of these groups are just as 'boundaried' as the groups they have left. It is only the boundary marker that has changed. What defines fuzzy-set communities is who they are not.
If fuzzy-set communities were to become a soccer team, they would turn up at different times, anyone would be able to play, and some weeks they might play ultimate frisbee rather than soccer. It is not often clear whether there is a team or not, because you can choose whether you want to come or not. The rules of the game are inconsequential.
The fuzzy-set seems to solve the problem of the strict rules of “in or out,” but there is a whole host of other problems. For example, the fuzzy-set cannot really offer people a sense of belonging because their priority is to keep the boundaries of their community open.
Baker advocates for what he calls centered-set churches. A centered-set church has the person of Jesus at the centre.
In a centered-set church, people are drawn towards the centre because the centre is a life of following Jesus, not only believing certain things about him. While the focus in a bounded-set is on the boundary which secures the purity of the group, and the fuzzy-set focuses on not having boundaries to secure its own definition of purity, the centred-set has a clear focus on Jesus in the centre as its purity.
According to Baker, two kinds of changes happen in a centered-set church. The first is that people turn around and focus on the centre. This is the act of conversion. The second is that people begin to take steps towards the centre, and that is the ongoing process of discipleship or apprenticeship to the way of Jesus.
This orientation to the centrality of Christ, rather than to the boundary lines, helps us make sense of the ways that both Jesus acted and how Paul spoke, especially when we consider the letter to the Galatians.
Firstly, Jesus seems to consistently step over boundaries set by the religious context of his day to draw people who are on the edge of what is considered the "in" group.
Secondly, he continually confronts the religious elite for posturing themselves as focused on God when in fact they are focused on the boundary markers. In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he reminds them that focusing on boundary markers such as circumcision or who they eat with is not the point. The point is to live out our allegiance to Jesus as King.
In a centred-set community, the unity is around our common orientation to Jesus as the centre and around the steps we are taking to become more like him. If a centred-set church was soccer, everyone would be welcome to come and play. If more people than can play a game arrive, more games will be started. However, at no point is it okay for someone to pick up the ball and begin to run with it. This is not a rugby game. It is a soccer game.
This may all sound quite simplistic. The first time I read about these models, I thought, “Yes, but what about…?” (fill in the blank), and Baker spends most of the book answering those kinds of questions. But what this perspective has helped me with is to engage people (Christian or otherwise) by asking the following question:
“Are you turned towards Jesus, and are you taking steps, even failing ones, to follow Him?
If we are not, it doesn't matter if we attended a church service for many years or whether we learned to say the right thing and act the right way. That is just polite religiosity with rule-keeping. In one sense, if we are turned towards Jesus and seek to walk in obedience to him, it doesn't matter if we fall or fail. It only matters that we are lifted back up and encouraged to continue being a follower of Jesus.
Secondly, I have observed that churches that tend towards bounded-sets don't have a good track record of shaping someone's character to the extent that they continue to act well when they are no longer close to/involved with that community. An example of this might be when a person from a youth group goes to university and abandons the moral convictions that seemed so robust in the context of their church. Or, a church member who serves faithfully every Sunday is sent out as a missionary and, in moments of stress, develops an anger problem directed towards her co-workers.
In these situations, it is most likely that the greenhouse effect of the community allowed them to perform their faith, but as soon as they have the sense that they are no longer under the watchful eyes of those they respect, their convictions fail. They hadn’t been taught to orient themselves to the centre. They were taught to keep within the boundaries, and those boundaries are no longer there.
Baker tells the powerful story of how cattle ranchers in the Australian outback ranched over massive swathes of land. They couldn’t afford to build or maintain fences to keep their cattle together. Instead, they dug wells. The cattle remained near the well due to need and desire, and this relieved the need for fences.
In our evangelism, discipleship and leadership, we need to continually direct people toward Jesus as the spring of living water. If we attempt to disciple people via rules, bounded or fuzzy, we will not form a people who seek Jesus in every space of their lives.
A woman has spoken of her surprise at receiving the exact copy of the book that she signed and sent to her late father in 1984.
Ros Ford, from Alfriston, East Sussex, purchased a copy of Texts and Pretexts by Aldous Huxley for her husband Adam's birthday.
The order, through book warehouse ABE Books, was sent from a shop owned by Michael Moon in Whitehaven, Cumbria.
Inside was the message Mrs Ford had handwritten decades ago.
..But then why does Jesus command us not to judge? This passage suggests two primary reasons. The first is that we’re incompetent; we’re no good at judging. The second is that we lack the authority; we have no right to judge.
Think about what’s happening when you judge someone. You’re doing it because you think you can, otherwise you wouldn’t do it. But Jesus is saying, “You know what? You’re not any good at it. You think you are, but you’re not. You’re convinced you see clearly enough to judge, but every single one of your judgments is a misjudgment.”
“…Judgmental Christians are embodied contradictions of the story the church lives to tell. They make the mercy, grace, and love of God less rather than more plausible to the people who hear us talk about it. And Jesus wants to free us from all that. He wants to relieve us from the burden of an angry and judgmental spirit.
And how does he do that? How does he take away the burden?
What is Time for?
A thought-provoking article on what we live for. Leisure, work, money?
The example of restless, workaholic Augustine is important. It is not true that he doesn’t have time. The fact is he, like us, is of two minds about leisure. He wants it and he doesn’t want it. He’s committed to other things: his job, his students, his patrons, his rest, and his social advancement above all. That is worth dwelling on for a moment. But there is a deeper problem: It’s not just that he doesn’t want to make sacrifices; he is actively avoiding leisure. He, like us, is afraid of it.
I've always shied away from drawing grand or apocalyptic conclusions about where this - or any country on this continent - is heading.
South Africa, in particular, is a place of such extremes. There's such energy here, and resilience, and an enduring generosity of spirit.
At the same time, this is still a frighteningly violent nation, now also warped by corruption, and plagued by hunger.
How do you begin to boil all that down into a neat prediction?
“Forgiving beheaders, praying for enemies – it’s a daily reality for Coptic Christians.”
The Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London speaks with Plough’s Alan Koppschall about the Copts’ outsized witness as a persecuted religious minority in Egypt.
Alan Jacobs on Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (spoliers abound)
You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep. I think this is as close as Wes Anderson has ever come to explaining and defending his very peculiar style of filmmaking. What he’s telling us is that the most vital and the most painful things in life cannot be confronted directly, explicitly, artlessly. There must be masks — contrivances, artifice — that distract us, lull us, distract our agitated minds. Tragic experience, to be properly worked through, must wear the mask of comedy. And perhaps for the deepest griefs a single mask is insufficient; you may need several. So here we see layer after layer being peeled away, but no matter how many layers we remove we just find more artifice.
And I think this is Anderson saying that he wants to make art about some of the most profound of human experiences — but doesn’t know how to make it explicitly and directly about those experiences. Or doesn’t want to. Or doesn’t believe in doing so.
How Colours got their names
"Anything that makes a city a worse place to drive makes it a better place to live."
If you enjoyed this newsletter, have a question, or suggestion, feel free to leave a comment;
Finally, if you think someone else would be interested and enjoy this, please do share it with them,
That’s all for now…