Centered,Bounded, or Fuzzy?

A fruit is either an apple or it is not. It may be big, small, green, ripe, rotten, of one variety or another, but if it has the characteristics that define apples it is inside the boundary line. Maintaining the boundary line is essential for a bounded group. Without a clear boundary individuals lack security of identity, and the group may disintegrate.

A bounded church gives great attention to defining and maintaining the boundary line which clearly separates Christians from non-Christians, or true-Christians from mediocre Christians. The boundary lines not only injure the excluded, but those inside as well. The lines hinder transparency as members find it hard to express their struggles honestly for fear of losing their standing in the church. The boundaries may bind them together, but also can leave them bound and gagged, unable to share things from the depths of their being.

In reaction to the damage done by bounded churches and the judgmental lines of division they draw some seek to correct the problem by erasing the lines or making them blurry. This, however, creates a different set of problems. A fuzzy church does not communicate a clear sense of what discipleship means. It does not call people to something—beyond perhaps the call to not be judgmental. Over time a fuzzy church may lose its sense of identity—there may be little distinction between those who belong and those who do not.

But there is an alternative to bounded or fuzzy--another paradigm through which we can be the church.

In a centered church, the center, God, is the focus--not the boundary. Therefore, the critical question is: to whom does the person offer his or her worship and allegiance? In terms of Galatians we might imagine Paul asking centered questions like: “Are you living according to the new creation reality created by God’s action through Jesus Christ? Are you trusting God for your security, or placing your security in certain rituals and beliefs? In which direction are you heading?” 

Operating from the centered paradigm facilitates sincere and deep relationship because unity comes, not from uniformity, but from common relationship with the center. There is space to struggle and even fail. All recognize they are in process—moving closer to the center. Since their security is in the center, the centered approach naturally leads people to focus on the center—Christ. A bounded approach does the opposite. A bounded church may talk of God being the center of all, but the paradigm itself naturally pulls people’s focus to the boundary line that defines the group and provides their security.


Open Lecture: Bounded / Fuzzy / Centered Churches

Mark Baker

Through all the years I have taught the Discipleship and Ethics course, foundational elements have consistently been the book Religious No More: Building Communities of Grace and Freedom and Paul Hiebert’s work on bounded and centered groups. I have had many great discussions with students in class which have helped me improve and fine tune my explanation of Hiebert’s work and its connection to ethics. The video lecture and PowerPoint from the Fall 2015 online version includes the recent clarification of adding fuzzy groups to the presentation. Students from the past may appreciate this as an opportunity to review and to observe how I have made changes to the presentation based on their questions.


Bounded and Centered Set Thinking

A very short video that communicates the basic concepts related to bounded and centered approaches. Dave Schmelzer, author of Not the Religious Type, talks about the importance of centered set thinking in terms of relationship and pursuing a life of vibrant faith.


Learning From Paul: Centered Ethics that Avoid Legalistic Judgmentalism and Moral Relativism,

by Mark D. Baker

A paper presented at the Ecclesia and Ethics Online Biblical Studies and Theology Conference in May 2013. Mark explores the centered set ethical vision cast by Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Throughout, he demonstrates how crucial this framework is to living well in Christian community and being faithful in witness.


Will D. Campbell: Radically Centered on Jesus

In 1983, after spending four years in Honduras, I (Mark) left the extreme poverty, widespread injustices and violent turmoil of Central America as a pacifist, but not yet an Anabaptist.

Critiquing and seeking to change U.S. foreign policy consumed me. My hope for change in Central America lay in politics. I was living out bounded group religiosity measured by one’s commitment to social justice and aid to the poor. As I describe in the second chapter of Religious No More, I lived a Christianity lacking grace for others and myself.

That summer I read Will Campbell’s autobiographical work Brother to a Dragonfly. He, like I, had experienced a second conversion to a social-justice oriented Christianity. As I read I cheered him on -- my kind of Christian.

But then Campbell had another conversion, a new encounter with the radically gracious God revealed in Jesus. It led Campbell to critique and turn from many of the things I had been applauding. In critiquing himself he also critiqued the Christian I was at that time.

Those pages penetrated to the depth of my being. That August afternoon I had a choice: dismiss Campbell and the rest of the book or convert with him. I converted with him. It was a turning point in my life, a turn toward Jesus and a centered approach, a turn toward Anabaptism, and a profound experience of God’s grace.

In this documentary Campbell, a self-described Anabaptist, recounts that moment of conversion and describes ways his life changed after centering on Jesus.


Way of Love: Recovering the Heart of Christianity  By Norman Wirzba


The painting exudes a calm beauty, but the large gaudy gold frame clashes with and disturbs the peace of the painting. In the foreword to Way of Love, Diana Butler Bass compares this painting she bought to many people’s theology. Metaphorically, Jesus is the painting. He is a painting that exudes love, healing, justice, and flourishing; but many people have put the Jesus painting in a theological frame that clashes with and distorts the picture. She writes:

In these pages, Norman Wirzba reframes the painting. He reminds us that Christianity’s focal point is a vision of God’s love that creates, sustains and redeems the world. Then, in each succeeding chapter, Professor Wirzba carefully strips away layers of gaudy paint on the four sides of the old frame—Creation, Fall, Salvation, and Heaven—and rewords and reuses the old pieces to construct a new frame that directs our attention back to the center of the canvas. In the process, both the painting and the frame sprint to life as a way of love that draws readers into a greater sense of meaning and joy. And Christianity emerges from encrustations of doctrinal rigidity and institutional regulation as a path of the heart (x).

Many of you have read or listened to Wirzba reflect theologically on food, the land and farming—in Discipleship and Ethics class or the resources section of the food page on the website. His passion for those topics surfaces in this book, but the book is first and foremost about God’s love and the love at the heart of Christianity. He works consistently, page after page, to keep that central and to think about all the themes in the book through the lens of God’s love.

Although it does not include all the topics generally included in a systematic theology book, it is in that genre both because it is organized in a systematic way and because he uses his tools as a systematic theologian to write skillfully on the four main themes. But in other ways it is not at all like most systematic theology books. He is a great writer—clear and engaging. It feels as much like a book of stories as it does a systematic theology book. Most chapters include a lengthy narrative.

I recommend it as a great resource for enhancing a centered approach in ministry. He does not discuss the bounded/fuzzy/centered framework explicitly, but I made connections to it in a number of places in the book. As I often say in class, a key aspect of the centered approach is thinking carefully about the center—this book aids in doing so. Also, love is an essential characteristic of a centered approach. Therefore, to think about Christian theology and practice with an intentional focus on love contributes to imagining how to enhance a centered approach.

I also recommend this book as refreshment from, and, for many, healing from theological framing that has left too many Christians beaten down, fearful, dry, shamed, etc. Although it is common place to say “God is love,” we do not often do what Wirzba has done. He takes that very seriously and asks what happens if we truly put that at the center of our theological thinking and our Christian practice. What happens is we get a book like this one--a book that refreshes and encourages. Fear and shame melt away, and the reader is challenged in a way that compels and excites, rather than accuses and burdens, to follow the way of Jesus.