In or Out? Moving towards the Centre

On getting rid of old practices, and making space for new movement.

Rev. Yme Woensdregt

In 2008, Phyllis Tickle wrote an awesome book entitled “The Great Emergence.” It was a “big–picture” book which offered a sweeping overview of church history.

Tickle noted a series of major transformations that have changed the church over the past 2000 years, and then she moved into a provocative analysis of where the church is today. We are, she says, in a time of massive transformation.

She began with an observation by Episcopal Bishop Mark Dyer that “about every five hundred years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale — and that we are now living in and through one of those five–hundred–year sales.”

It is a wonderful metaphor, suggesting that the church is re–evaluating what it means to be the faithful community of Jesus in a new world — getting rid of old practices, and making space for new movement.

Tickle identifies three prior transformative movements: the Great Reformation (1500s); the Great Schism (1000s); the time of Pope Gregory the Great after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of monasticism (500s).

She indicates briefly that we can go back even further in time and trace similar kinds of movements: 500 years before Gregory was the birth of Christ; 500 years before that was the Exile of the Jews in Babylon; 500 years before that witnessed the rise of King David in Israel.

Tickle ends her book with a fascinating discussion about a new way of thinking about what it means to be part of the Christian church. She mentions that in thinking about groups, there are basically two kinds of groups.

The first is called a “bounded–set group.” This is what people traditionally think of when they imagine becoming part of the church or any other group. Bounded–set groups are organized around rules. They have strict boundaries, which determine who is in and who is out.

The other way is called a “centre–set movement”. It is not defined by strict boundaries, but revolves around how close one wishes to move towards the centre. In Christian terms, the centre would be “walking in the way of Jesus”.

A centre–set approach welcomes any who wish to be about the work of God’s kingdom, while letting “people sort themselves out by how close each wants to get to the centre. Such an approach … is clearly a leap of faith. It assumes that something other than ‘rules’ is holding things together.”

The difference between bounded–set groups and centre–set movements can be characterized as a way of thinking about the relationship between three specific activities: believing, behaving, and belonging.

A bounded–set group claims: “If you believe as we believe, and if you behave as we behave, then you will belong to our group.” A church which operates as a bounded–set group requires people to believe certain doctrines and behave in certain ways before they can become members of that church. Believe the right things, behave the right way and you become an insider.

On the other hand, a church which is a centre–set movement begins with belonging: you are part of our group by virtue of our “shared humanity and an affinity with the individuals involved in whatever the group as a whole is doing.” We have no other expectations of you. A person may choose only to belong; or a person may long for more than that, and begin to behave in ways that are more compatible with the behaviour of the group as a whole. That particular behaviour then will also begin to shape belief.

In short, bounded–set groups have this pattern: Believe, Behave, Belong. A centre–set group has this approach: Belong … and perhaps behave which may lead to believing.

As you might imagine, this approach drives the institutional church nuts, and particularly those who insist you have to believe the right things in the right way.

But society as a whole has become suspicious of those who claim to be experts. Even within science, there is no longer a clear “truth”. Science has embraced uncertainty as a guiding principle. This is even more true in areas of human connection which are not open to observation … such as our relation with the divine.

How can you tell where you fit? A friend of mine recently wrote the following:

You know you are inclined more to a centre–set movement if:

… you are suspicious of experts and theologians who tell you they know the truth;

… if you long to connect with others, irrespective of their religion;

… if you have learned that scripture, reason and tradition are equally valuable (and equally fallible), and experience is the best guide in conversation with others;

… above all, if you find you may not know where you are going, but you know without a doubt that the journey is important and valuable in and of itself. You may occasionally feel lost on such a journey, but that’s ok. You value mystery and uncertainty.

If this describes where you might be, then welcome. There are a lot of us around. We don’t have a definite program, but we do are walking together in community, and there are few right answers and no wrong questions.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s not so much about a “correct” code of belief or a code of conduct. It has to do with having a living relationship with One who loves us with a passion beyond words.

Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook