Thomas Bergler went to the white board and invited students in a class at a Christian college to list some traits of spiritual maturity. They were very resistant—said things like: “nobody is perfect” or, “to make a list like that would be the same thing as being judgmental” (Mars Hill Audio, Vol. 115).
He had encountered what I described in my previous blog as a fuzzy group approach. Why is there an increase in a fuzzy approach today?
In part it is a reaction to the problems of a bounded approach. If strict lines of judgmental exclusion are the problem, then erasing them is an obvious solution. As one student wrote this fall, “One of the things that I had not thought much about was just how easy it can be to react to a bounded group approach by becoming fuzzy.” A fuzzy church approach, however, is not just a product of people fleeing from bounded churches. Many in society see tolerance as the supreme virtue, and individualistic moral relativism has increased. The combination of these two means that many Christians are pulled toward a fuzzy approach, and many new Christians bring fuzzy group thinking with them as they begin life in Christian community.
Although a fuzzy church does provide an antidote to judgmentalism and exclusion, it creates new problems. When the supreme concern is to not label anyone else as wrong, or “out,” ethics and the community itself quickly become ill-defined. It may feel loving, but to truly love someone will, at times, mean saying “no,” setting limits, or calling them to something. As another student this fall observed, “From a fuzzy approach, my allowing [my friend] to behave in any way she saw fit neglected to name and address the unhealthy decisions she was making.” As I now teach and have written a centered approach provides an alternative to the bounded approach, and also avoids the weaknesses of a fuzzy approach.
The question of this blog post is: how do we help people to shift from a fuzzy approach to a centered church approach?
Not an easy question for me to answer. It is not my reality. I grew up drinking from the wells of modernity, not postmodernity. Moving from bounded to centered is something I have experienced. I get that in the inner core of my being. What I know about moving from fuzzy to centered I have learned from others—including some of you. I have addressed this question in class three times, and done it differently each time. I am still working on this. So I share these ideas on how to aid this shift with the hope that they will be helpful to you, but also with the hope that you will share your insights with me—add to them, suggest revisions or corrections.
As Jesus so powerfully models, a loving embrace most effectively erases the oppressive lines of a bounded approach and heals its wounds. It is also fundamental for helping a person step from fuzzy toward centered. Why? Because a fuzzy-approach-person, a person who holds tolerance as supreme virtue, is very wary of ethics being used as a means of judging and condemning. Unfortunately many churches, especially evangelical churches, are seen as exactly that--judging and condemning. So in response to this reality we must go out of our way to show the opposite. Bruxy Cavey urges us to practice aggressive grace, front-load acceptance as Jesus did. Love is central in making clear to people that we are not a bounded church, and also must be the seasoning in all that is done.
Have a stance of humility, practice confession and apology
A bounded approach exudes a sense of superiority—we are right, you are wrong. A valuable way of undermining that and lowering the defenses of a person embracing relativism in reaction to boundedness is to be humble and practice confession and apology. (For a couple of great stories that display this point, and more depth on the previous point see my online lecture.)
Strengthen the Center - Work to create trust in and passion about the center.
Introduce them to Jesus.
Faith depends on who we follow, and that depends on who we love. Believing in a person--having utter confidence in someone--creates a very different set of expectations than believing in 'beliefs.' For Christians, faith means cleaving to the person, the God-man, Jesus Christ, joining a pilgrim journey with other lovers and following him into the world." Kendra Creasy Dean (Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church)
Promote the practice of spiritual disciplines to strengthen relationship with the center.
Instruction about God’s ways, commands, the Creator’s “grain of the universe”: A bounded group has rules, laws and commands. Therefore, to reframe them in a centered way is valuable. In the case of the fuzzy group, someone steeped in individualistic moral relativism there may not be commands there to reframe. Therefore, we must teach the content of the center. But it is not just informing, giving the information about God’s ways…
Paint a vision of the Kingdom of God, feed their imaginations of a different way of living: Think of the well example from Australia. What is pulling? What is drawing them in, shaping them? But it is not just painting the vision; it is also important to call, to invite participation in the vision
Intentionally call people to participate in God’s mission: This is a significant step away from fuzzy relativism. To be FOR something is a key step toward also recognizing some other paths are destructive.
Call to conversion and repentance: In a centered approach the key move is to turn toward the center. A fuzzy group does not have a center. It implies that the difference between two alternatives is subjective and personal preference. To turn to Jesus is to turn away from some things. Fuzzy group people very likely will resist, or at least be surprised by this. To do this in a centered way, however, rather than a bounded way will help lower resistance. The character of conversion is different in a centered approach: not a judgmental “We are right, you are wrong” as much as “come and join us in this way.” BUT it is conversion. The character of it is different, but still there is a sense of calling from a path judged to be negative for the person and others.
NOTE ON LANGUAGE: A centered church must embrace and practice the concept of conversion and repentance, but we do not necessarily need to use these words which will set off alarms for a fuzzy person. Look at this example from Bob Hill preaching in a mainline liberal context. Many in his audience are in the fuzzy/relativisitic category. What do you observe about how he calls for conversion without using the word? From a sermon on Mark 1:14-20:
“To lay hold of faith, you may just have to turn. You may have to leave the nets, or leave the nest. To lay hold of the future you have to let go of the past. To lay hold of life we may need to summon the courage to leave. To leave the inherited for the invisible. To leave the general for the particular. To leave existential drift for personal decision. To leave the individual for the communal. To leave renting for ownership. To leave auditing for registration. (Some of us have been auditing the course on Christianity long enough. It’s time to register, buy the books, pay tuition, take the course for credit, and get a grade!) To leave engagement for marriage. . . [it] takes courage to turn. Faith, as human response, is a decision, a choice, that inevitably includes some risk. As D. Bonhoeffer wrote on this passage, ‘When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die.’” Robert Hill, Marsh Chapel, Boston University, 1/25/15
Now, building on all of the above, we turn to the direct work on ethics and behavior—how to do this with people who have a fuzzy approach?
Be intentional about character and virtue formation: This is helpful because it does not trigger a fuzzy person’s resistance; it is not language/command based. How is it developed, promoted? It is: shaped by stories of character and virtue, by observing others, through repeated practice of virtuous actions (examples: service projects, intentional invitation, inclusion and embrace of outsiders) by affirming and thus reinforcing displays of character and virtuous action, and through rituals that highlight and celebrate virtuous action (examples: footwashing, offering, passing the peace). Not to mean we abandon commands….
State imperatives, language of exhortation that describes some behaviors as right or better than others, in a centered way: Avoid or refram problematic language, including words like the one I just used: “right.” Rather than “right” and “wrong”: helpful, hurtful, alienating, life-giving, inappropriate.
Provide direct teaching about the downsides of individualistic moral relativism and tolerance as supreme virtue.
Challenge people to reflect on what is lost, and point out that tolerance as supreme virtue is not really honoring or valuing people. The “you think what you want, I will think what I want” approach lacks true engagement and respect. It communicates that the other person’s ideas are not worth paying attention to.
Provide direct teaching about a Centered approach and how it differs from bounded and fuzzy.
Practice and thus model a centered approach.
To return to where we began, the character of the church is most important. It is not so much talking about naming and a centered approach as living it. People will see and feel the difference. Create a climate of loving acceptance; model disagreeing respectfully with others within and outside of group; and practice loving confrontation in a centered way (Gal. 6:1-5).
What are ways you might put some of this into practice?
What might you add to the list?
Revise or change?
As you work at this please let me know what you learn and what would be helpful for me to know as I continue to teach and write about this challenge.