I’m pretty excited about Blue Ocean Faith Distinctive #2.

by Dave Schmelzer

I meet Muslims who follow Jesus

Awhile back I was in Beirut and a friend who lived there introduced me to some of his friends. They knew I was an American pastor and one of them introduced himself to me as a “Muslim who follows Jesus.” This was a new category for me. “Oh!” I said. “So you’re a Christian.” The man took umbrage. “That’s not what I said at all! I said I was Muslim!” I backpedalled. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m sure I just don’t have the category for what you’re talking about. It’s just that in my world, when someone says they’re following Jesus, by definition that makes them a ‘Christian.’”

“Dave,” he said, “I’m sure you’re aware that Beirut, not long ago, went through a devastating civil war. In fact, I believe that, in the West, ‘Beirut’ became shorthand for ‘a terrible war zone.’ Do you remember who was fighting in that war?” “Well,” I said tentatively, “I believe it was the Christians and the Muslims.” “Exactly!” he said. “And I am a Muslim. The Christians were the ones killing my family members. Here is another question for you. Do you know how many Christians in Beirut go to church?” Obviously I didn’t. “And I don’t either!” he said. “Censuses are very sensitive things in Lebanon these days. But my guess would be under one percent.” “Wow,” I said. “Then what makes them ‘Christians?’” “History!” he said. “Christians have been in Lebanon since not long after the time of the apostles. So there is a Christian culture that spans millennia. And there is a Muslim culture that spans almost as long. My culture is Muslim. It does not mean that I’m especially religious—I grew up secular Muslim. But now I follow Jesus. So I am a Muslim who follows Jesus.”

That raised all sorts of questions for me. Did he or his other “Muslim who follow Jesus” friends, like, pray in the mosque? Were there any conflicts that came up between being Muslim and following Jesus?

But first I had an aha moment.

I turned to my friend who’d introduced us. “So,” I said, “on those terms you’d be a ‘Christian who follows Jesus.’” Because my friend was the son of pastors. “Exactly!” my friend said. “Fascinating,” I said. “And I by contrast would be a ‘secular person who follows Jesus.’” “Yes!” my friend said.

Well. This explained a lot.

So, for instance, when I’d first started following Jesus, a few people had told me I needed to get rid of my secular music and listen to Christian music instead. And that I should get rid of my secular books and read Christian books alone. This seemed crazy, not least because I was a music critic for a newspaper at the time and I was a college literature major.

The advice I got in that era came from Christians who saw their culture as—obviously!—the good, godly one. But what if it was, like my secular culture, just their culture? What if we all regard our culture as “the godly (or best) culture?” I knew that I felt a strong need to assert my culture as “better” than theirs—mine had Shakespeare and Miles Davis, while theirs had the Left Behind series and Michael W. Smith—which may or may not have been true, but the important insight was just that their culture wasn’t my culture.

The six distinctives of Blue Ocean

This is the second in a series of essays about the six distinctives of Blue Ocean faith. The essay on the first of them can be found here. But the insight from my new Muslim-who-follows-Jesus friend goes right to the heart of the second one, and—to me at least—it’s pretty exciting stuff. (A programming note: There’s lots to be said on this key topic and, even in a robust essay, we won’t be able to get to all of it. A rich theology of centered set would make for a terrific book. All to say, the footnotes here will be substantial. If you want more depth—including the start of some scriptural perspectives—make sure to read them. If you’re looking for an overview, who needs footnotes?)

But first, a review of all of them.

  1. Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.[1]
  2. Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.[2]
  3. Our approach to spiritual development is CHILDLIKE FAITH.
  4. Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
  5. Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
  6. Our approach to culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.

Maybe it comes down to your fourth-grade math class

To get to the heart of what’s been so helpful about my experience in Beirut, picture two sorts of sets.

The first is represented by a circle. We’ll call this a bounded set. The issue with a bounded set is being inside of the circle or outside of it.

The second, though, has no “inside” or “outside.” Picture a large dot in the center of a page that has lots of smaller dots on the page as well. The issue here is motion. Are the smaller dots moving towards the center dot or away from it?[3]

We all have bounded sets, in terms of groups of people we feel comfortable with. “Muslim,” to my new friend in Beirut, was his bounded set, his culture, his people. And churches, in this view, are customarily bounded sets. In your or my church, we have our understanding of the “truth” inside of our boundaries with the hope that those outside will “cross the line” of our bounded set and join us in this good thing, maybe in this thing that will give them salvation. But perhaps we underestimate how much of our circle is cultural. And perhaps we underestimate how most of us, like my conversation partner in Beirut, aren’t looking for other bounded sets to join.

Jesus does the heavy lifting

So the idea of centered-set faith is that the center of the set is Jesus. There is no “in” or “out,” because there is no circle. But, again, there is motion either towards the center or away from it.[4] And Jesus is no ordinary “center,” because he’s alive.[5] When we turn towards Jesus, he’s like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. The moment we turn towards him—wham!—he’s running smack into us and calling for a great party. When we turn towards Jesus, he does the heavy lifting. When we turn away from him, there’s no life to be found—like the Prodigal Son, we’re reduced to eating what the pigs eat.

In that sense, the stakes of centered-set faith, in the first instance at least, are pragmatic (are we finding actual life and encouragement in Jesus? Are our lives getting better?) rather than moral (are we succeeding in keeping a list of religious rules? Do we hold the right religious opinions?).

Just last weekend a man paid me and some Blue Ocean friends a nice compliment. He’d heard us teach for a day and a half and he said not only was he interested throughout, but he noticed something. We were each light-hearted and, he felt, self-effacing in ways he wasn’t used to hearing from people teaching him about religion. Was that just our temperaments, or was there some theological truism playing itself out there?

I think it boils down to centered-set. When we’re in bounded-set, it seems to me, we spend most of our time looking at the boundaries. How do we know where the good zone-of-salvation ends and the bad zone-of-damnation begins? To answer this, we spend a good amount of time figuring out what is and isn’t sin—because “sin” is what makes up the line of separation. And it’s a heavy responsibility! For pastors in bounded-set settings, we need to preach “the full counsel of God” or we risk having other peoples’ blood on our heads when they go to hell because we didn’t tell them they’d crossed over the boundary into the land of sin. I get sent lots of articles—or invited into lots of Facebook conversations—along these lines, and they’re customarily pretty humorless and unhappy. Jesus tells us in Matthew 6 that “the eye is the lamp of the soul,” as if what we look at will flood our souls, so we should choose our field of vision carefully. Looking primarily at the boundaries of faith is to drink heavy, heavy responsibility into our spirits.

By contrast, in centered-set, we’re looking as best as we can towards the center, who is the ever-delightful Jesus who loves us and speaks to us and encourages us and invites us to be flooded with his Holy Spirit at our very deepest levels. Here Jesus takes on all that burden and responsibility that, when we’re looking towards the boundaries, we’ve taken on ourselves. I think what the man who complimented me was noticing was how mood-lightening it is to focus on Jesus as a primary activity.

How did Jesus mentor his followers?

Let’s think for a moment about the stories in the gospels. Jesus calls people to follow him. They aren’t asked to pass any orthodoxy tests (and, later on in the book of Acts, they discover that Jesus is directly leading them to clash with the orthodoxy of the time). Instead, they learn by “following” him—literally, walking along beside him and being with him as he does the amazing stuff that he does. Every now and again—Matthew 10 and the sending of the 72 for instance—he gives them object lessons to help them experience what following him as a living God and guide will be like once he’s gone. Keep this picture in mind as we keep talking.

I visit churches and get a surprise

I have an interesting case study. After almost two decades of (unexpectedly) pastoring a church, my family and I have now had almost two years of attending churches we’re not leading. We’ve met nice people and enjoyed dynamic worship and been impressed by things these churches do well. (Kudos to the greeter who met us in the parking lot and personally escorted us to all of our kids’ classes!) And we’ve had some surprises, maybe the most striking of which came with a sudden realization after one Sunday service at a church we’d gone to many times. “You know,” I said to a friend who was a longtime attendee at this evangelical church, “there are definitely things to recommend this church. But you know one subject I don’t believe we’ve heard discussed in all the sermons we’ve heard? Jesus! That seems like a surprising omission.” Our friend nodded. “Yup,” he said. “Jesus pretty much never comes up.”

It struck me how long it had taken me to notice this. How had I missed it? I think it was because seemingly related subjects had come up, like “a biblical worldview.”[6] Certainly passages from the Bible were discussed each time. But Jesus as a subject of interest? No.

That got Grace and me thinking about all of the churches we’d visited, half a dozen or so. Had Jesus come up in those services? After pondering that, it seemed that for the most part he hadn’t.

Now, we said to one another, surely the pastors in question thought they’d talked about Jesus, in their way. We didn’t doubt any of their sincerity.  But I think they were steeped in the responsibilities of bounded-set.

Centered-set hits a major snag, which is solved with a big brainstorm

In a moment, I’ll try to flesh out how living out one’s day in centered-set looks different than living it out in bounded-set. And I’ll look at some of the many objections that come to mind for my friends who are steeped in bounded-set faith. But first let’s look at one potentially major deal-breaker.

My friend Dan loves centered-set. He would tell you it’s been central in his being able to follow Jesus at all. But as someone whose friends are by and large not churchgoers, he pointed out a consequential problem.

Namely, while it helped him follow Jesus in a way that nothing else had, it turned out to be unhelpfully binary in his relationships. Let’s say he was talking with an atheist friend. Either—on this theory—he’d help his friend turn his arrow towards Jesus or, God forbid, his friend would turn Dan’s arrow away from Jesus. The stakes were high!

But what, Dan suggested, if we all have more than one arrow? What if we’re more complicated people than that? What if we all have, say, a hundred arrows?

Let’s say, in his imagined conversation with his atheist friend, his conversation about Jesus went nowhere. But what if his friend made an impassioned appeal to Dan to be much more environmentally aware than Dan was—to recycle and compost and watch his water usage, to think about the impact of his environmental choices on the rest of the planet? And what if Dan, rattled by this, asked Jesus about it later in the day? And what if Jesus responded, “Oh, your friend is totally right. Change your ways.” In that scenario, who turned whose arrow towards Jesus? The answer: Dan’s atheist friend turned one of Dan’s arrows towards the center. And it’s worth noting in this example that the center isn’t “being environmentally conscious” or “caring for the earth.” It’s still Jesus. After all, Jesus himself validated Dan’s friend’s appeal. Dan’s atheist friend, in this instance, knew something about Jesus that Dan needed to know.

Suddenly all of our relationships come alive. What does that person right in front of us—whatever their religion or lack thereof—know about Jesus that we need to know?

This messes with “evangelism.” (Thank God! Evangelism is the worst.)

My church in Cambridge, Massachusetts saw hundreds and hundreds of people experience faith in Jesus during my time there. One regional nonprofit that helped evangelical churches become better at evangelism said that we were 1400 percent more effective evangelistically than the most successful churches they worked with.

And yet I can’t imagine an attendee in our church who wouldn’t viscerally reject the thought of evangelism.

Maybe a quick story will illustrate this. One woman who found faith with us, who’d never attended a church before ours, said she’d be out the door immediately if we ever told her to “evangelize her friends.” Evangelism was offensive! As if she’d suddenly become “right” about something and all her friends and family members were “wrong!” As if she wasn’t just one person in a sea of other smart, thoughtful people. As if she was saying she was better than them.

The next Sunday she introduced me to six of her friends that she’d brought to church.

They each loved it! she told me. It was fantastic!

I pulled her aside. Just to check in—hadn’t she, only days before, told me with quite a bit of passion that she’d rather die than evangelize anyone? So what was all this?

Suddenly her passion returned. This wasn’t evangelism! Ick! As if! She just thought that our church was great, that I was great, that I talked about helpful things about Jesus that her friends would really appreciate, and so she invited them and discovered she was right! So was it okay with me that she’d invited her friends, or was I saying that our church was only for Christians and not for other nice people who’d like to learn how to follow Jesus?!

Here’s another intriguing case study, this one from the recent Blue Ocean conference I mentioned. For unrelated reasons, a secular Muslim Pakistani woman asked if she could drop by the conference to meet me. So she sat through the first two hours of my teaching—quite a download of my thoughts, even for the most devoted churchgoer, including quite a few thoughts on centered-set faith. “That was amazing!” she said when she introduced herself. “I’ve never been in a church before, but I love it! Because what you’re saying is that Jesus is for everyone, not just for Christians! I’ve never heard such a thing!” Later that afternoon, she went to a workshop led by a fellow Blue Ocean pastor on a method to invite Jesus into our circumstances that’s called Immanuel Prayer. My new friend found me afterwards. “Oh my gosh!” she said. “That was tremendously powerful! I was planning to meet you and then leave, but now I’d like to come back to the rest of the conference if you’ll let me.”

So how is it that, in my experience, the most effective “evangelistic” strategy is utterly to avoid evangelism? I think it’s that, when we point people towards Jesus, Jesus himself does the work of proving himself loving and powerful. One of my friends makes the distinction this way: We’re invited to be “witnesses” to Jesus. But we’re prohibited from being “advocates” for him—prohibited from arguing his case. That role is reserved for the Holy Spirit.

So what does centered-set faith look like in one’s actual day?

In the previous essay on “solus Jesus,” I detailed some implications of living out solus Jesus as opposed to living out “sola scriptura.” Those implications apply here—in this way solus Jesus relates to centered-set faith and sola scriptura relates to bounded-set faith. I’ll mention those implications here without explanation, but by all means read the details here. You’ll note that they all circle the idea of focusing on the living, communicating Jesus and letting him guide and encourage you.

  • Spend actual time with the living Jesus.
  • Learn from everyone you can about this ongoing, chatty relationship with Jesus—and teach all the things you know.
  • Enjoy the Bible in the company of this Jesus you’re coming to know.
  • Embrace the mission of Jesus as your personal (and corporate) story.
  • Join others who are doing this.

So that’s the very simple spirit of it. Centered-set faith means you try to listen to and follow Jesus and look for the good things that will happen as you do. It’s to believe that, like the good shepherd he claims to be, Jesus is always looking to guide and encourage you and, as it were, lead you into great pasture. Always. Every moment. As he did with his apostles during his earthly ministry. As a pastor, you’re trying to help your congregants experience each passage you preach on in that light. How does the passage help you experience the living Jesus better? It’s simple stuff, but it can take quite a bit of focus and reflection to stay on track.

Let’s talk about some implications of this. But first let’s look at just a few of the objections my friends who can’t imagine a faith that’s not bounded-set might bring up.

You’re pushing this too far!

I know dozens of pastors in a denomination that’s talked about centered-set for years. So, initially, they love conversations like the one we’re having here. But then—given that the denomination is firmly evangelical—they do need to push back. Yes, they’ll say, centered-set is great and really important. I’m centered-set myself—they’ll say—absolutely! I could never go to that legalistic, bounded-set church down the street! But, I mean, let’s be serious. If you read the Bible even a little bit (and, Dave, you do read the Bible at least a little bit, don’t you?), clearly it’s loaded to the gills with boundaries. So a mature approach to centered-set is to realize that it means…well, bounded-set, but…I mean…nicer.

But then I say, no, they’re actually different sets that operate on different rules. And Jesus and Paul and Peter and the rest of the New Testament are insistent upon centered-set.[7] So, no, I’m centered-set all the way.

To someone steeped in bounded-set, this seems crazy. How could this be possible? It would upset every assumption about…everything!

So let me list some objections that come up from my bounded-set friends and offer brief thoughts in response.

  • In the end, even centered-set is bounded. The “line” in question here is just defined as “separating those moving towards Jesus from those moving away from him.” Voila: Two sets. Bounded-set!

I find myself impatient with this one, as I find it comes from a hope of landing a “gotcha” without a need to engage at all. Centered-set is not in fact bounded-set. Centered-set is a different sort of set that has no in or out, only motion. To see this as bounded is to refuse to consider that other sorts of sets are possible. They’re different mindsets.

That said, one friend of mine who is by no means hostile to centered-set does push back that centered-set is in fact a set, which means that by nature it sets up parameters to figure out who’s in the set (of people who live their lives according to centered-set) and who isn’t, so perhaps there is a distant “boundary” worth noting. But, in my view, all of the usefulness here comes from taking centered-set on its own terms. So let’s move on.

  • Centered-set isn’t rigorous like bounded-set is. Since there are no boundaries, then anything goes!

In my experience it goes the other direction.

In bounded-set, the issue is getting inside of the boundary, after which the stakes mostly boil down to staying within the boundaries and hoping your kids don’t drift outside. In centered-set, you’re following the living Jesus, who will actually take you somewhere if you hope to stay close to him. My centered-set friends commonly take consequential risks of faith.

And let’s take a moment to consider the idea of “sin.” The word means “missing the mark”—which, you’ve gotta say, sounds pretty centered-set. When our arrows “miss the mark” of pointing towards Jesus, we get reality-based feedback; we don’t get the kind of life and hope and comfort in our problems and sense of meaning and connection that Jesus gives us when we follow him.[8] At those times, we’re encouraged to “repent,” of which a primary definition is “turn again” or “recalibrate”—to turn your arrow back towards Jesus who loves you and away from the false gods that have no life in them, that lead only to misery. This is a profoundly rigorous—and wonderful!—project! For instance, as you look at your heart right now, are you encouraged in your life with Jesus, or are the stresses of life pulling you into anxiety or unhappiness?[9]

  • Let’s face it. The Bible is full of rules—yes, in the Old Testament, but no less so in the New Testament.

 

I quoted Paul in a footnote as being Mr. Centered-Set. But Paul also wrote Titus 1:6-8. “An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient. Since an overseer manages God’s household, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.” Isn’t this directly saying that, if you want to “disciple” someone into leadership, you’ll need to teach them to do the things Paul lists here, to follow the rules?

Well, let me offer a thought experiment.

Let’s say you train someone to do all of this stuff and to hold the right creed. But let’s say that person doesn’t know and follow the living Jesus. Except for that, though, they’re perfect along these lines. Are you happy with how your coaching of them is going?

I think what we have here is a question of the cart and the horse. In bounded-set settings, we major on things like this list of behaviors as evidence of being “serious about God.” But I’d start in another place: with knowing and experiencing the living Jesus, to “knowing nothing except Christ and him crucified”[10] as a first impulse. Paul’s lists here would certainly make for great fodder for a conversation with someone who fully lives this out. The lists do less well without that. And, taken as strict rules, this list requires parsing in the way the religious “lawyers” parsed the Torah in Jesus’ day. So, for instance, a number of our most famous conservative Christian leaders have had children who quite publicly rebelled against the faith of their parents and become “wild and disobedient.” Franklin Graham—now as fundamentalist a Christian as we have in the public sphere—famously left faith for many years on just these terms. I don’t remember Billy Graham stepping down from Christian leadership at that time. And I’m glad he didn’t! But that tells me that everyone, even the most-conservative Christians, understands that there’s more to the faith Paul describes than strict rules can allow for. We’re misreading him if we don’t understand that he’s inviting us into a much bigger world.

  • The greatest thinkers about God are bounded-set, because thinking requires making distinctions—drawing boundaries!

Well, given that I regard Jesus, Peter, Paul and, say, David as centered-set, I’m not willing to write them off as second-rate theologians. But this does take me back to when I first started following Jesus.

As I mention in the last essay, I grew up secular and what provoked my change of heart wasn’t any smart argument by a religious person, it was an encounter with Jesus. But I learned later on about this school of thought called “Christian apologetics” in which arguments for the rationality of believing in Jesus are suggested. It was nothing but fun to learn those arguments, to learn about Chuck Colson’s or Josh McDowell’s arguments for the truth of the resurrection. Or to read the favorite apologist of all of my new friends, C.S. Lewis, and learn that Jesus, logically, evidently had to either be (1) lying, (2) crazy, or (3) God—and he didn’t seem like a liar or an insane person so evidently, logically, he had to be God. This was juicy stuff![11] For old-school apologetics fans, there was Pascal’s Wager (if you choose to believe in God, you risk nothing and have the possibility of gaining everything [heaven]; if you disbelieve in God, you risk everything [hell] and gain nothing). I just loved this stuff. I read all of Lewis multiple times.[12] G.K. Chesterton became a lasting favorite.

And then I ended up helping to start this church in which many hundreds of people experienced Jesus from the nonchurchgoing world. And, so far as I know, not one started following Jesus because of a conversation around apologetics. Not one.[13] I’ve come to believe that apologetics are wonderful for Christians (at least those who, like me, enjoy such things) because they’ll give them confidence in the intellectual validity of their faith. That’s a fun thing! But the claim of apologetics—that, to see the error of their ways, nonchurchgoers only need what Peter called “the reason for the hope you have”[14]—has not been borne out in my experience. Centered-set, by contrast, is good news to the entire world.

There are many more objections we could chat about. If my Facebook page is to be believed, the way for Christians to be relevant to our changing cultures is to offer opinions on current cultural issues, either from a conservative perspective (which regards most current cultural issues as evidence of cultural rot which needs vigorously to be fought) or from a progressive one (which demonstrates to secular friends that conservative Christians aren’t the only voices speaking for faith). Both of those are bounded sets (one of which I’m in, and so, since those posts are the voice of my people, I cheer them on). But can centered-set take on this prophetic role? Great question! Yes it can! In fact to my mind it’s the only hope of Jesus-based connection within the larger culture.[15]

Let’s close by looking at a few final implications of how centered-set plays out as we pursue it.

  • It creates a non-anxious system.

At the center of this system is Jesus who knows you, loves you and has done all the work to make the way to him and his father possible. So, if we move towards him, it can only be good news because there’s no possibility that he’ll reject us! As with the parable of the Prodigal Son and the experience of people like Brother Lawrence, it’s settled that we’ll get a warm reception. The risk in bounded-set is that it feeds on fear and insecurity: our inside-ness can always be in doubt; we can legitimately and needfully get baptized again and again, and other people may well weigh in on our standing with God.

  • It reintroduces “I don’t know” as a central theological statement.

I rarely do a conference where someone doesn’t point out how often I or the other speakers say “I don’t know.”[16] After a recent conference, a church small group did a session on the theological significance of “I don’t know.”

Now, on the one hand, I do know some stuff! I do have a graduate degree in theology. I’ve read the Bible dozens and dozens of times. I’m familiar with the theological concepts that are important to my bounded-set friends. I’ve preached my thousand sermons, all of which include large swaths of scripture.

So what’s with the incessant “I don’t know’s?”

In centered-set, no one can master Jesus. Where is he leading you or me in a given moment? Even on moral questions, which in bounded-set are the most important things to be “clear” about, a good deal of helpful “I don’t know” creeps in.[17] What this assumes is that the living Jesus does have answers to our pressing questions and that he’s very much accessible as we look to him and that the way we can best help our friends in their problems starts with humility, prayer and good listening.

You’re picking up that centered-set, in looking to get the benefits of a living relationship with a living Jesus rather than settling for being good rules-keepers who stay comfortably within our bounded-set, is willing to embrace some degree of mess that few bounded-set people could happily take on. If the task of a Christian leader is primarily to make sure that our flock doesn’t wander beyond the boundaries, we require “clarity.” The scriptures have to be “clear” on all things or our system falls apart. (This was discussed at length in the solus Jesus article.) But, in centered set, a good deal of “beats me” is married to a living, hopeful connection to the Jesus who promises to lead us to good pasture if we follow where he takes us.

  • It offers a newfound encouragement to cheer up.

My experience in bounded-set is that we’re encouraged to be “sober-minded.” Yes, of course there’s a longstanding Christian tradition of “the joy of the Lord” and of the need to “praise God.” But, as we’ve already discussed, in bounded-set more important is that we’re playing for serious stakes! But if we’re doing a profoundly different thing and looking at the living Jesus, he seems to be much more light-hearted than we are. Yes, the stakes of our lives are always intense—there are always circumstantial threats that are very real in every human life. There are genuinely sad things in our lives and we’ll be served by growing into the full range of our emotions. There are overwhelming societal problems. But this is not the same as “maturely” being burdened. Jesus’s encouragement is to come to him when we’re heavy laden, because he can bear those burdens while we can’t. If there’s a particular sin to consider in centered-set, refusing to take our burdens to Jesus would be a prime one![18] In my experience, we need permission to cheer up, a permission which rarely comes. Centered-set gives that permission.

  • It encourages us to embrace our actual vulnerability.

Jesus famously says “I am the way, the truth and the life.”[19] In bounded-set, this is the central exclusionary verse. But it seems worth noting that Jesus doesn’t say that his teaching is all of that. Instead, he is all of that. Clearly this is not to disregard what he taught. But it is to recognize that, like the apostles, we’re encouraged to find our way, truth and life with him as the good shepherd. This is vulnerable. Here’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “The disciple is dragged out of [our] relative security into a life of absolute insecurity (that is, in truth, into the absolute security and safety of the fellowship of Jesus)… And if we answer the call of discipleship, where will it lead us? …To answer this question we shall have to go to him, for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy.”[20]

Centered-set faith is the absolute greatest.

[1] Our friends who know Latin—evidently such people exist in the modern world—pointed out that our first framing of this as “sola Jesus” was improper Latin. “Jesus” is a masculine noun, which would make this “solus Jesus.” I’d like to say we knew this, but were choosing against it for other reasons. But we’re pretty illiterate here at the Blue Ocean home office, so I’d be unconvincing. But it is true that we were trying to match it with “sola scriptura,” “sola fide,” “sola gratia” and other “solas” from the Reformation…all of which evidently had feminine nouns to modify, and what were the odds of that? So for today I will bow to my educated friends. It could change.

[2] We’ve given some attention to what each distinctive is trying to accomplish. Though there are six of them, only one of them—“solus Jesus”—is our primary framework. Others involve things like our approach to spiritual development or our approach to other churches. So each distinctive is limited in what it’s trying to address. This essay looks at what we’re calling our “primary metaphor.” “Centered-set” is pervasive in our thinking. It’s everywhere, including in all of the other distinctives. But it’s a term from math, as you’ll see. It’s a way of looking at the world, a mindset. It’s not set up to become, say, a rigorous theology. It is set up to suggest a mindset by which one might arrive at a rigorous theology.

[3] The originator of this idea was a Fuller Theological Seminary anthropologist named Paul Hiebert. Many people have since written about bounded versus centered set, but Hiebert’s original thoughts on the matter are hard to find. I believe he first wrote about this in “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories” in Gospel in Context 1:4 (October, 1978), 24-29. (One reader writes this to me: “Hiebert’s essay “The Category Christian in the Mission Task” is contained in Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, which is still in print.” If you’d like to track down his book.) All to say, Hiebert included another type of set that he called a “fuzzy set.” I’ve gotten pushback that, to do justice to Hiebert, we need to think about all three of these sets working together. I’ve found that line of thought to be less helpful, so I’ll leave that perspective to others to extol. The thoughts here are my own and those of Blue Ocean friends. We aren’t attempting to represent Hiebert’s thinking beyond our appreciation for the categories.

[4] So, again, “Muslim” (a noun, a category, a culture) is this man’s bounded set. “Who follows Jesus” (a verb, with motion [“follows”] and an object [Jesus]) is his attempt at entering Jesus’ centered set.

[5] If you’ve got a minute, here’s a picture from John’s gospel that seems powerful along these lines. Let me mash up two passages. First, 3:14-15 (the verses just before the famed John 3:16!): “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” And then 12:32: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” This is referencing an incident from the Exodus in which God sent poisonous snakes to the Israelites when he was mad at them. God’s antidote involved Moses creating an image of a snake on a stick. When Moses held it up and people looked at it, the snakebites wouldn’t harm them. Jesus appropriates this image to himself. He, after all, will be on a stick himself shortly. His image is centered-set! “Just hold me up and encourage people to look my way! After that, I’ll do the work of drawing them to me.”

[6] I’ve come to believe that “a biblical worldview” is a catchphrase for “figuring out what is and isn’t sin.” When we have more time, there’s lots to talk about here about modernism—the way of looking at the world that came to us in the Enlightenment and that was originally the great enemy to people of faith before being embraced by most of them. Our current incarnation of bounded-set—as seen in phrases like “a biblical worldview”—is profoundly modernist.

[7] One picture: Paul in Galatians 5:11: “If I am still preaching circumcision (his stand-in for “following the rules of the Bible” or “bounded-set”), why am I still being persecuted?” His point? Religious people love you when you tell them that their bounded set is the one God likes, but the second you preach only Jesus (or centered-set), the knives come out.

[8] A noteworthy verse along these lines is John 10:27-28, in which Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand.” Evidently what it means to be “Jesus’s sheep” is that we (a) listen to his actual voice and (b) follow where he goes. As we do this, he knows us—because we’re in living relationship with him—and he leads us in actual fact (as opposed to “leading us” in some sort of abstract way based on religious commitments we’ve made) right into heaven, protecting us from threats every step of the way. Pretty encouraging stuff!

[9] As per Mark 4:7–“Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain.”

[10] 1 Corinthians 2:2

[11] If, sadly, since debunked in many settings I’ve been in where it’s been hazarded.

[12] Okay, not his scholarly stuff (Studies in Words, say) or his poetry. But all of the rest. Three cheers for the pleasures of God in the Dock!

[13] As I was promoting my book Not the Religious Type some years back, I did several radio shows that focused on apologetics—I think the bookers had the mistaken belief that my book was apologetics because it talked about lots of people experiencing faith. When they found out that we were talking about different things, sometimes they were indignant. I explored this with one host. “So you host a regular show on Christian apologetics. You must be excited to see people experience faith in Jesus.” “Absolutely!” he said. “My whole ministry is about convincing the secular world to come to Jesus.” “And,” I asked, “how many people have you seen experience Jesus as a result of your apologetics?” “Well,” he said, “none. But that’s because they’re deceived and won’t admit the superiority of my arguments.”

[14] 1 Peter 3:15. Maybe a better way to look at the “reason” Peter is talking about here is not to regard it as apologetics-style abstractions, but as the actual way Jesus has changed your life.

[15] Which will remain a teaser for our purposes here. More to come on this in that centered-set book yet to be written.

[16] After “I don’t know,” what often comes is, “That said, here are some things that I and my friends have found helpful as we think about this.” And then: “What do you think?”

[17] I have an anecdote on this that is perhaps too tidy. But it’s fun! A prominent church that was looking to be centered-set that I connected with a few years back had unexpected success seeing, of all populations, international arms dealers come to Jesus. One pastor talked about mentoring one of these men. One day, the man asked his mentor, “Should I quit smoking?” The mentor, centered-set all the way, said, “Well, what’s Jesus telling you?” The man took a moment to ask Jesus and then reported back, “He’s telling me I should finish smoking the pack I’m on, really enjoy each smoke, and then never smoke again.” And that’s what the man did. A little later, the man asked the mentor, “Should I continue to have sex with my girlfriend or should I stop until we get married?” The church was a conservative church with explicit guidelines on such things, but the pastor stuck to his guns. “What’s Jesus saying to you?” The man asked Jesus and then reported back, “Well, at the very least he’s saying I should ask her to marry me!” And that’s what he did.

[18] Matthew 11:28-29: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” And, while I’ve got you, here’s 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.”

[19] John 14:6.

[20] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan, first paperback edition 1963, pp. 62-63, 41.