This is part two of a discussion on a post-Christendom context for Christian communities of faith.
A prevalent paradigm within most churches today is that of a bounded set. The traditional-attractional model seeks to have people cross over a boundary. You are either “in” or “out.” The concern is over who is “in,” who is “out,” and how to get those “out” “in.” So we have ministries for “outreach.” [Some have “in-reach” ministries, which are overtly directed toward those already “in” the congregational boundaries.] “Out”-reach precipitates another ministry called “assimilation” – how to get those who are now “in” to stay “in.” Assimilation is a result of an outreach mentality. We see ourselves (believers, the church), rather, as being the “sent ones” who are called to be “in the world but not of it.” If we are not “in” the world, how can our message be heard, especially in a time when the authenticity of the messenger is critical to gaining a hearing? One CLB pastor has told of his congregation comprised of people who love God dearly, are passionate about mission, but have completely lost the ability to connect with their local setting.
In their book, The Shaping of Things To Come,” Michael Frost and Alan Hirsh put it well:
“The traditional church makes it quite difficult for people to negotiate its maze of cultural, theological, and social barriers in order to get “in.”… and by the time newcomers have scaled the fences built around the church, they are so socialized as churchgoers that they are not likely to be able to maintain their connection with the social groupings they came from.”
Bounded-set thinking pervades deeper into social dynamics within the traditional congregation. Once a person is “in,” the next step is for the church culture to exert shaping impulses upon the individual that they become “committed” to the congregation and to serve and promote its functioning.
Think of this in terms of bounded- or center-sets. If you must stick with the traditional-attractional mode, then you are obligated to see your church as a bounded set. In that case, evangelism and outreach will consist of telling others that it’s better inside the set than out, and trying to get them over the line, into the church. Only when a community of faith is prepared to leave its space and enter into another subculture will it be able to effectively see itself as, and be, a centered set. In a centered-set, the concern is movement toward or away-from.
Think of these two dynamics as a cattle range. A bounded-set is pastureland that has a fence around it, where you can easily tell who is in and who is out. This fits with a Christendom model, where there are power structures that support this type of cultural oversight. But our culture has moved past Christendom; the world cares not what goes on within or, from the perspective of local congregations, outside of the walls of the church. Making the paradigm further irrelevant, the centered-set works within a system of control that no longer exists in the West. A centered-set, in contrast, is like range land in the Australian outback; the landscape is much too large for a fence, so the cattle ranchers dig wells that will keep the cattle near the source of water. In a centered-set, you can tell who is moving toward and who is moving away from the source of life, in this case, water; in our case, the water of life.
(to be continued)