Posts tagged #Bounded/Fuzzy/Centered

Talking About Peace Peacefully


The session had not gone well. It was part of the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference’s new pastors orientation that I helped lead about ten years ago. I had done the section on Anabaptist ethics. The segment on our peace position had turned into an argument. Although many in the room agreed with me, others attacked me. Perhaps because they felt attacked?

The next day flying out of Winnipeg I sat on the plane reflecting sadly on the session. I had used the same material that I had used in my Discipleship and Ethics class for a number of years. We looked at some biblical texts and I told my story of converting to Christian pacifism through experiencing the reality of war in El Salvador and reading Jacques Ellul. Often this class session at the seminary had an element of tension and argument because many in the room did not agree with my position, but the tension in Winnipeg had been much worse. Why?

In a moment of clarity and humility I recognized that I had done the very thing I teach against. I had operated from a bounded group mentality. I headed into the new pastors orientation with a bit of crusading zeal to move Mennonite Brethren towards being more Anabaptist. I hoped that I could use the fact that the peace position is in our confession of faith as leverage to get the new pastors to change their stance—if they were not already pacifists. Of course I sought to be persuasive, and give good arguments, but fundamentally my attitude was: this is not an option for a Mennonite pastor (or shouldn’t be). I saw those who argued against me as being on the wrong side of a clear line.

I had practiced line-drawing judgmentalism as a way of staying on the right side of a line myself—of being included in the group of true Anabaptists.

Then, reflecting deeper, I recognized that not just was I communicating a strong sense of “ought” in a litmus test way, I also personally felt a strong sense of ought. I was trying to pass a litmus test myself and stay on the right side of a line. I imagined the true Anabaptists among the MB’s (and other Mennonites) cheering me on for addressing this issue directly in this setting. I could also, however, imagine their cheers would turn to jeers if I did not press the issue. So with that group looking over my shoulder I felt pressure to not just talk about peace, but specifically about Christian pacifism in relation to the military. I had practiced line-drawing judgmentalism as a way of staying on the right side of a line myself—of being included in the group of true Anabaptists. Although not as intense, the same dynamic had influenced my teaching on peace in Discipleship and Ethics. In a course rooted in a centered approach I had continued to approach one topic in a bounded group way.

There is enough bounded group paradigm still in my being that thoughts like “what will they think of me?” continue to pull at me. Yet sitting on that plane I knew I did not want to repeat the bounded teaching I had just done. I wanted out. I brought all this to Jesus. I rested my insecurities about being on the wrong side of line in his loving embrace. I felt liberated—and not just emotionally. It liberated me to ask: what is Jesus calling me to do in the class session on peacemaking?

As I stepped away from my litmus test of true Anabaptism and centered on Jesus I felt energy for that class session I had not experienced before.

How can you become a more active agent of peace—no matter where you are on the just war-Christian pacifism spectrum? Think of ways that people in your communities, church, family, city, and nation trust force/power as the best means of dealing with various situations. Think critically about the myth of redemptive violence.

Rather than seeking to get students to line up in agreement with my position, knowing that many would reject or resist, I felt a calling to seek to move everyone in the class to become more active agents of peace—no matter where they are on the just war-Christian pacifism spectrum. I decided to address underlying issues relating to the gospel and the violence-condoning world we live in. I now ask students to think of ways that people in their communities, church, families, city, and nation trust force/power as the best means of dealing with various situations. I seek to lead them to think critically about the myth of redemptive violence. Mostly what I do now in that class is tell stories of Christians (individuals and communities) that imaginatively use other means besides force and coercion to address problems (diverse situations from breaking up fights, defusing riots, VORP, stopping thieves, church conflicts, to cooperative business models). I invite students to imagine how they might do the same.

I think the material I used to share in class is valuable, and I still include it, but now as part of the pre-class reading. Students read a biblical argument for Christian pacifism by Tim Geddert  and my story of converting to that position. They also read a document by the Christian Reformed Church that argues for a just-war position. I make some brief comments on the question of the appropriateness of Christian use of lethal force at the beginning of class. I underline that there is a whole continuum of positions on that question, and encourage them to think deeply and clarify where they are at on the continuum. Then I exhort the Christian pacifists to be active pacifists, and exhort the just-war people to really practice that position, take it seriously, and not just follow wherever the governments leads in any military action. Then I say: “The previous question about whether it is appropriate for Christians to use violence to defend justice is an important one. It does, not, however capture all that is entailed by a gospel of peace. Nor do I think it is even the most important thing for us to reflect on in this class session. Therefore, for the rest of the class I want to press broader and deeper. What does it mean to be agents of peace and reconciliation in our setting today? How can we live out this calling? I believe that God calls all Christians to engage these questions--regardless of how you answered the question in the previous section.”

What has happened as I have shifted from a bounded approach to a centered approach in this class session? The tension level has decreased dramatically. I have had students tell me, “I was braced for this class session. I almost skipped it. But to my surprise, I did not feel attacked and the class was very helpful.” Of course one way to lower tension is to lower demands, to take a fuzzy approach. I have not done that. I have changed the challenge, but the challenge is there. My experience with this class session reinforces my conviction that a centered approach facilitates greater change and transformation than a bounded approach. Previously the class contributed to change in a small slice of the students in the class—those who were unsure of their position and were open to explore. For those who already were pacifists they were unchallenged—the “choir” cheering me on. And those in opposition tended to dig in their heels, or just tune out for this class session—letting the Mennonite do his Mennonite thing. Now, however, most all of the students lean in, engage the material and display an openness to apply it in some way.

I have changed the challenge, but the challenge is there. My experience reinforces my conviction that a centered approach facilitates greater change and transformation than a bounded approach.

Writing this blog has also led me to reflect how a different setting calls for different application of the centered approach.

At the seminary, on the issue of Christian use of lethal force, students have different centers. That, I think, leaves me two appropriate options. I could have a class in which we acknowledge that and in a respectful, non-bounded, way dialogue about our differences. Or, the option I took, leave that question and move to the level of a common center and engage the topic of peacemaking from that shared center. The gathering of Mennonite Brethren pastors is different, or should have been. There should have been a shared center of the confession of faith’s stance. It still bothers me that people were becoming licensed to minister in Mennonite Brethren churches and openly disagreed with the confession of faith’s articulation of our peace position. Even so, my bounded-group approach to that reality was not appropriate or helpful. A centered approach to the problem of having pastors who did not embrace the church’s peace position requires much more than a one-hour session at orientation. It would require conversation much earlier in the process. If the potential pastoral candidate did not affirm the denomination’s position it would be important to discern if there is openness to journey toward that position--to begin dialogue about it. If the person states firmly that he or she will not change, then I think an appropriate centered response would be to suggest the person seek a different denomination that has a center more closely aligned with the potential pastor. A session like the one I gave could be a valuable part of a process like that, but not in the way I gave it.

I advocate for taking a centered approach in all areas. It is, however, especially imperative in this area. We must talk peacefully about peace. As former student and current TA David Ewert observed after editing this blog: “The medium must fit the message. A bounded approach to peacemaking is ineffective because it is self-contradictory. Peacemaking seeks to connect rather than separate people. Therefore humility is vital to the process of dialogue.”

How might you enlarge the number of people you talk with about peacemaking and enlarge the call to peacemaking through taking a more centered approach?

Posted on February 27, 2016 .

How to Invite People to Shift from a Fuzzy Paradigm to a Centered Approach


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.


Posted on December 14, 2015 .

Lost in Transition

Book Review

Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood

by Christian Smith

Sociologist Christian Smith and collaborators did in-depth interviews with more than 200 teenagers and published Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Seven years later his team did follow-up interviews and published two books: Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults and Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood.

The latter book paints a disturbing picture of the results of hyper individualism, consumerism and moral relativism. The book focuses on five areas: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life. It is the book that awoke me to the need to address not only bounded group religiosity, but also its opposite—a fuzzy approach. I encourage you to read the book with an openness to how the Spirit may awaken you to new initiatives and approaches called forth by the realities presented in the book.

The book displays the inability of many emerging adults to articulate moral justification for their actions. I agree with some critics who state that Smith may have confused the ability to articulate a moral position with the ability to practice a moral ethic. Recall the villagers of Le Chambon in Lest Innocent Blood be Shed, who when asked why they took such risky actions to save Jews from the Nazis, had little to say beyond, “how could we have done otherwise?” Moral reasoning is not the only, nor necessarily the key reason we act as we do. Narratives shape us; we imitate those we look up to; and we are shaped by cues of those around us. So, in terms of this website, to say that someone cannot offer a moral argument for something does not necessarily mean they practice a fuzzy group approach to ethics. To be able to coherently defend a moral position is of value, and I share Christian Smith’s concern over the erosion of this ability. But I am not persuaded it is the central issue he makes it.

Nevertheless, the book is important and valuable. It takes us into the lives of many young adults, and through their own words they graphically portray many destructive and painful results of a fuzzy group approach to life. Read it to get a feel for and better understand those living out of this approach, and to sense the imperative of offering a life centered on Jesus as an alternative.

Posted on December 9, 2015 and filed under book reviews.

Bounded or Fuzzy - What is the Problem Today?

I recently read Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith.

The in-depth interviews that sociologist Smith and his collaborators did with 230 young adults paint a disturbing picture of the results of hyper individualism, consumerism and moral relativism. The book focuses on five areas: confused moral reasoning, routine intoxication, materialistic life goals, regrettable sexual experiences, and disengagement from civic and political life.

It caught me up short.

I thought, “Here I am providing a solution to bounded group religiosity and many of my students have been absorbing society’s emphasis on tolerance as supreme virtue their whole lives. Their problem is not a bounded approach; they think like a fuzzy group.”

A bounded group creates a list of essential characteristics that determine whether a person belongs to that group or not. The group has a clear boundary line.

A fuzzy group has no clear sense of demands or expectations. In one sense a fuzzy group is the total opposite of a bounded group – one has very clear sense of in and out, the other is very unclear. With time there may be no distinction between those who belong and those who do not. 

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Although Paul Hiebert (from whom I borrowed these ideas) included descriptions of all three approaches-- bounded, fuzzy and centered--I had only taught and written about bounded and centered.  Bounded, not fuzzy, was the problem I had encountered in churches, and centered was the solution. Reading Smith left me unsure of that approach.

I considered totally retooling, continuing to use material on bounded groups in contexts like Honduras or Ethiopia, but not in Fresno. Yet, almost immediately I thought of students who, like thirsty plants, drank up my teaching on Galatians and related it directly to current or recent experiences in churches of bounded character. Clearly there is still a need to proclaim freedom from bounded group religiosity in the North American context.

So, I did retool, but it was not by talking about fuzzy groups rather than bounded. Starting in this spring I presented all three approaches--bounded, fuzzy, and centered--in the same class. I invite you to watch a video of that lecture.

My thesis is that a centered approach, as seen in Jesus and Paul, is a corrective to both bounded churches and to the “whateverism” and tolerance as supreme virtue of a fuzzy approach. In the next blog I will share some ideas on how to help people move from a fuzzy approach to a centered approach. That was the reason I started talking about fuzzy groups in class--to work at a corrective. But something interesting happened. Including an explanation of fuzzy groups aided students understanding of the centered approach.

After including fuzzy ethics in class this year, I have observed three key improvements:


Centered– Now more clearly a different paradigm

I have always stated that the centered approach, the way of Jesus, is a radically different paradigm than a bounded approach. Students appeared to grasp that more easily this year. By presenting a fuzzy approach as re-working of a bounded group, giving it a very fuzzy boundary line, I can describe a continuum from radically bounded to radically fuzzy. All on that continuum are of the same paradigm. The centered approach is fundamentally different. It is not on the continuum, it is a different paradigm.

Centered—Now more clearly not “Christianity-lite”

Over the years the biggest challenge I have had in explaining a centered approach has been helping people understand it is not relativistic. In contrast to the bounded approach they perceive it as too loose. I think I have gotten much better at showing it is not “Christianity-lite”  (listen to all the ways I try to do that in the current version of the class), but still some students did not seem to get it—until this year! Adding the fuzzy group to the mix enabled students to see and have a name for a relativistic version, and see the centered approach as something different. Students this year more easily saw that the centered approach includes a call to changed living flowing from a relationship with Jesus because they contrasted the centered approach not only with bounded, but also with fuzzy.

Centered--Now more clearly making ethical demands beyond tolerance.

This greater clarity lessened the pushback by those who had argued against the centered approach from one direction, but the same clarity brought pushback from the other direction. Some students who are more attracted to a fuzzy approach now critiqued the centered approach for having too strong of an ethical call. In the past they probably would have interpreted the centered approach in a fuzzier way because I presented it as the alternative to bounded, and they knew bounded was problematic. For them as well it was clear that the centered approach is different than the fuzzy approach. It does ask more of people than to just practice tolerance as supreme virtue.


Our culture continues to frame ethical dilemmas somewhere on this continuum between out-grouping boundedness and all inclusive fuzziness, leaning more and more toward the relative virtues of tolerance and personal authenticity. When you are wrestling with an ethical problem, I encourage you to recenter on Jesus--not to exclude but to discover a new way of being. 

How does the centered approach reframe something for you more clearly around Jesus?

What is an example of how you have found talking about or utilizing a centered approach helpful?

What other potential benefits do you see from adding a description of a fuzzy group to the discussion about bounded and centered?


Posted on November 24, 2015 .