It was a regular Monday morning for me. At least it started out that way. I was sitting in the patio area of a local restaurant in San Diego enjoying my breakfast and reading through the paper. Actually I have made a habit for years of praying through the USA/Today Newspaper in the mornings. What I mean is that I pray the paper by simply reading it and allowing the Holy Spirit to stir anything I read and let it move my heart and spirit towards intercession.
I have always chosen the USA/Today as it gives me the National/International stuff to pray over as I normally get my local news through the evening TV shows. The USA/Today also has a little section with a blurb from each state, some of which may catch my eye for specific prayer.
The current editorial section on Mondays has been running featured articles about the controversy of religion in today’s culture, and it was on this Monday morning that I came across and read the following comment in an editorial response to piety in America and the Golden Rule. It bluntly said:
“How many people do as they please during the week and then put on a show at church on Sundays? This isn’t what true Christians do.”
I left the paper for someone else to read, but kept hearing the rumbling of this statement in my spirit as I got up to leave. This editorial indictment was like a stake in my heart. Little did I know as I got up from breakfast that the impact of that morning was not over and would increase a hundred-fold.
As I made my way through the restaurant to pay my bill, I walked passed a table where a man was feeding his paralyzed wife her breakfast from his side of the table. I caught myself staring several times as I watched him prepare each spoonful of food and timed it to reach her mouth (her body was shaking), and then watched as he stared at her as she completed swallowing each bite and then waited for the next one.
This is one of those seminal moments that are life changing. I feel like that little picture is what David talks about in Psalm 84:5, when he says, “And how blessed all those in whom you live; whose lives become roads you travel…” (The Message) It was like I was given a moment to read their road, to read part of their journey. I virtually staggered to my car, reeling with both statement from the paper and this picture of living sacrifice. Knowing I was captured by these pictures I also knew I would be processing, praying and journaling these events for days to come.
Now obviously, I don’t know if this man was a Christian, but I can tell you it looked and felt a whole lot like Jesus. I also know what these corresponding events made me feel like. I know that I am longing and contending for the church to be redefined on the basis of what we do, or how we live, and not just how we think. We all seem to be waiting for this kind of change, for something that will happen to make today’s church more attractive to our culture.
I am not a rocket scientist, but I do know when God has backed me into a corner trapped between truths. The editorial statement in the paper and the picture of the raw practical love between this couple had gotten my attention. I was undone. And it was a set up linked to another article called the Attractional Church that someone had sent me a few months ago.
In the article it stated that the early church experienced significant continual growth even during the decades of persecution, and gave the reasons why.
“And yet the early church grew and grew and grew, even without intentional evangelistic strategy or ministry. How? By being the most attractive community in the Roman Empire. The early Christians rescued abandoned babies and raised them as their own. They gave burials to all, regardless of economic status. They cared for the sick and dying,even if that meant their own deaths. It was said of the early Christians “they alone know the right way to live. It wasn’t until after Constantine that conversion became a matter of advantage rather than attraction, or eventually by compulsion. Only after Constantine did people reject the church on moral and ethical grounds and begin to accuse Christians of hypocrisy. Prior to that, the church was known asthe people of compassion, love and peace. It was interesting to ponder how the church could recover that kind of pre-Constantinian attractiveness in our post-Constantinian, post-Christian, postmodern context. For those of us who have struggled with being “evangelistic,” it’s encouraging to know that the early church grew not because theywere distributing gospel tracts but because they were practicing hospitality, neighborliness and social concern for the poor and marginalized. That still seems to me to be a prophetic counterculture stance in today’s context.”
A Relational Paradigm
Somehow our preoccupation with our belief systems, our meetings, our programs and everything it takes to protect them has actually made us almost invisible to our world and how to impact it.
I remember when we had our first Unconference with Graham Cooke in San Diego several years ago. A local newspaper showed up to write an article about Graham and Third Day Churches. They quoted him as saying.
“The church in the west is living in some sort of bizarre alternative universe. A large part of the evangelical church is Pharisaical. The church is set up to keep people in place,” said Cooke as he reclined on a couch. Cooke believes the church is what keeps people from God.” The church is missing it. What we are doing is largely irrelevant to a whole bunch of people.” Cooke suggested that God may not answer people’s prayers for revival because God doesn’t want to birth new Christians into the current church.” Cooke said (as we have heard him say many times) that the church must move from a “functional paradigm,” based on business and systems, to a “relational paradigm.”
Bounded, Centered Or Fuzzy Sets
25 years ago plus, anthropologist Paul Hiebert proposed a better way of understanding social groupings. He divided people and how they connect into three possible groups: centered sets, bounded sets, and fuzzy sets. Years later I would listen to John Wimber refer to these sets in trying to explain what he thought the Vineyard Movement was to be.
Bounded Set: This type of categorization emphasizes essential characteristics and uniformity of the characteristics while maintaining a clear boundary separating what is and is not part of the category. Also, the essential characteristics are static, not subject to change. A piece of fruit, for example, must in substance and shape be like every other piece of fruit belonging to the same category; it is or is not a particular kind of fruit, and it will always be the kind of fruit it is until it is consumed or decomposed.
Centered Set: This type of categorization emphasizes defining the center and how things relate to the center (either moving toward or moving away), that things are not uniform as some are closer to the center than others, and that the boundary is not so clear because the main factor is the center and the relationship of the things to it. An example, Hiebert suggests, is a magnetic field: all the particles are in constant motion, but the electrons move toward the positive magnetic pole whereas the protons move toward the negative pole.
Fuzzy Set: This type of categorization emphasizes how things relate to a reference point (or a number of different reference points representing different categories), making the boundary fuzzy. An”either-or” dichotomy is not characteristic of this categorization. A thing may be partly, halfway, or 88% inside a particular set. For instance, a person’s race could be an indiscernible mix of Latino, Quiche and African.
These metaphors are pretty atypical of most of the church groups or church life we have all known. In our church world there are bounded sets that tend to be rigid, legalistic and hard to penetrate or get in. There are also those fuzzy set churches who are soft, sometimes liberal, and even considered loose with little convictions or standards. And then there are those centered set churches or groups that have a softer edge than the bounded sets, but usually function from a clearer and more deliberate center or core, unlike the fuzzy sets.
Len Hjalmarson goes on to say www.nextreformation.com, that it is not that bounded sets are always bad and centered sets are always good. Boundaries do exist. Salvation is a bounded set. One is either in Christ, or not in Christ. Discipleship is a centered set. To be a disciple is to be constantly moving toward the center, which is Christ.
But if we use the centered verses bounded set model, our understanding of what is the center must be very clear. For example from the central teaching of the Kingdom of God in the New Testament the church is not that center, the center is Jesus: the Head of the body. All members of the body are to function in relation to the center: Christ.
It has been said that generally our theology is sound, but our practice is not. In fact, most evangelical churches are orthodox in belief, but heretical in practice. So what is it about us that we say we believe in Jesus but we do not love and impact our world as He did?
The boundary markers for the church must be determined by where the gifts and callings of God’s people take them, rather than an artificial standard. If believers were encouraged and enabled to seize the opportunities God brings their way in the neighborhood and across society, and if they could proceed confident of support from others in the body, the church would be redefined.
And this shift in how we think as the church would most likely cause a change from us being a bounded set to becoming more of a centered set modality.
I guess my point is this. We can spend all of our time polishing the walls of our bounded set systems, making sure we are precise in our doctrines, dotting our i’s and crossing our t’s, keeping anyone out who may not totally agree with us. Or we get so sloppy and so culturally relevant that we actually have nothing to offer the world because we have become the world. Or, we center in on Jesus and who He is, and what He wants to be released to do through us to make a difference in our world and become centered-set, or centered-strong in Him.
If we really submit to the Jesus style of 24/7 radical discipleship and mission, it will be less about our meetings, less about our apologetics, less about our sermons, less about us building stronger walls to keep our bounded sets bounded and secure and more about living daily with passion filled lives in a broken world, with Jesus at the heart of it all.
It will be more like that loving husband feeding his handicapped wife.
It will be more about venturing outside of our bounded set, Christian fortresses with our ninety-minute inspirational weekend meetings and recklessly joining in the exploits of God in a desperate world. It could mean dropping our doctrinal differences and walking hand in hand with other brothers and sisters into the streets of our cities, making a real impact by seeing what God sees and responding as He responds.
It could mean that even in the 21st century we might choose to be like that “attractional church” that actually threatened the status quo of Roman Empire by its actions and not just its artsy articulation.
I am tired of my Sunday or weekend performances; I want to touch my world and impact it for God. I don’t want to be so doctrinally driven that I must spend all of my time and energy polishing the book and protecting my club through a stiff functional paradigm.
I want to be so relational with God and others that my life overflows with outrageous and contagious love and affects everyone around me. Maybe they could say in the old film, “Field of Dreams,” “Build it and they will come.” But that doesn’t work anymore. You can build the finest cathedral in town, create the most vibrant ministry with the cleanest infrastructure and that doesn’t mean it is attractive to the lost.
Our buildings and programs don’t attract. Our belief systems and our precise teachings don’t attract. It is our lives filled with unbounding love and sacrifice. It is not just what we believe but how what we believe impacts the way we live. I don’t want to be ignored anymore as I simply try to survive in my Christian ghetto. I want to turn my world upside down.
This time we get to “be” the message. Be giving, be kind, be sincere, be patient, be caring, be generous, be forgiving, be impartial, behonest, be understanding, be outrageous, and “be” Jesus to our world and then they will have cause to ask us why we are the way we are.
In the last scene of the current movie about a modern Noah, called “Evan Almighty,” God (played by Morgan Freeman) smiles, laughs and dances. That is the kind of Attractional Church I want to be a part of.
Gary Goodell is a former evangelist, pastor, college dean and instructor involved in ministry stuff for almost 50 years. He and his wife Jane live in San Diego, California USA and he is a father of two and grandfather of seven. As an author and consultant he is an itinerant mentor working with the international church planting movement known as Third Day Churches, that he and some friends founded in 2001. Third Day Churches now involves leadership and ministries in over 20 nations.
His two books, “Permission Granted To Do Church Differently in the 21st Century,” and “Where Would Jesus Lead?” are both available online.