GUEST~POST: Centered-Set Thinking

GUEST~POST: Centered-Set Thinking

By Glenn Barth @


While there are many individual beliefs and actions that create a successful communitywide initiative like the Sleep Out Campaign, at the core is a central unifying vision to help families in need. The involvement of churches in Plymouth and Wayzata in this initiative is an outward sign of belief in and application of the good news of the gospel in the context of these communities. When people unify around serving families in need they are coming together around what they care about. While this may reflect a transcendent belief such as the golden rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” it is not primarily a theological unity that is sought, but a humanitarian one. This is also known as centered set thinking.

Centered set thinking was first introduced through Dr. Paul Hiebert of Fuller Theological Seminary and popularized by Sam Williams and Eric Swanson. It’s at the core of my writing in my book, The Good City. 


In a nutshell, this concept advocates that Christians go beyond simply partnering around theological beliefs (as people do when becoming members of a church) and join others around those people, values, and things we care about (see diagram below).

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Centered set thinking opens the door to all kinds of unlikely partnerships around nearly every issue that matters in cities and communities. As a coach, I work with community groups in cities working on issues of foster care, jobs, sex trafficking, alcohol and chemical abuse, education, hunger, housing, and more. When we partner with others who care about the same issues, it opens the door for myriad conversations that might not otherwise happen. This approach invites people to become engaged in a good cause that will transform lives and create good cities


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  • Bounded Set vs. Centered Set Thinking


    I've been doing a good deal of thinking around the idea of Bounded Set vs. Centered Set Thinking in relation to the missional church and in relation to what we are doing at Veritas. I first became aware of Bounded Set vs. Centered Set Thinking about 8 years ago (or so) when I was given the book that really changed a great deal in my life, and my trajectory in life. That book being The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch.

    Bounded Set and Centered Set (and Fuzzy Set...though we won't cover that) Thinking was originally proposed around 25 years ago by Paul Hiebert, in relation to a new way of understanding social groupings. Hiebert wrote about this in his book, "Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues" but found new life in Frost and Hirsh's book as well as the book "Missional Church" edited by Darrell Guder.

    So what is Bounded Set vs. Centered Thinking? Frost and Hirsch use an analogy of fences and wells. If you are a farmer with a 3 acre ranch so to speak, you can build a fence to keep your cattle in and other animals out. This would be a Bounded Set. But if you are a rancher say with a huge amount of land and acreage you wouldn't be able to build fences around your whole property. So instead of building fences, you dig wells. So it is then assumed that animals won't go too far away from the well, because their life literally depends on them not wandering too far away from their water source.

    So what does this have to do with the Missional Church? Frost and Hirsh unpack it this way, "The attractional church is a bounded set. That is, it is a set of people clearly marked off from those who do not belong to it. Churches thus mark themselves in a variety of ways. Have a church membership roll is an obvious one. This mechanism determines who's in and who's out. The missional-incarnational church, though, is a centered set. This means that rather than drawing a border to determine who belongs and who doesn't, a centered set is defined by it's core values, and people are not seen as in or out, but as closer or further away from the center. In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out. Though some people are close to the center and others far from it, everyone is potentially part of the community in it's broadest sense."

    So in other words, a centered set is about direction. Which way are you headed? Are you heading towards the center, the core values of the community, or are you heading away from them? It reminds me of the C.S. Lewis quote, "[The] situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. "

    So putting pictures to words the bounded set and the centered set would look like this....



    So the question then becomes what is the center of the centered set, or what should be the center. Here I go back to Frost and Hirsch, who I couldn't agree more with, when they say, "For us the center should be Jesus himself. The gospel is the central imperative for Christian mission. Since at the core of a centered set is Christ, a church should be concerned with fostering increasing closeness to Jesus in the lives of all those involved. We believe that a centered-set church must have a very clear set of beliefs, rooted in Christ and his teaching. This belief system must be nonnegotiable and strongly held to by the community closest to its center. A centered-set church is not concerned with artificial boundaries that bounded-set churches have traditionally added. In bounded-set churches all sorts of criteria are determined for the acceptance or rejection of prospective members (smoking, drinking alcohol, living together outside marriage, differing views on Christ's return). In a centered-set church it is recognized that we are all sinners, all struggling to be the best people we can be. But we also believe that the closer one gets to the center (Christ), the more Christlike one's behavior should become. Therefore core members of the church will exhibit the features of Christ's radical lifestyle (love, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, mercy, peace, and more) and those who have just begun the journey toward Christ (and whose lives ay not exhibit such traits) are still seen as "belonging" No one is considered unworthy of belonging because they happen to be addicted to tobacco, or because they're not married to their live-in partner. Belonging is a key value. The growth toward the center of the set is the same as the process of discipleship."

    Bounded Set vs. Centered Set Thinking — Veritas
    I've been doing a good deal of thinking around the idea of Bounded Set vs. Centered Set Thinking in relation to the missional church and in relation…
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