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On not excluding others

Forgiveness as the hallmark of an open church

© Andrew Knock (1995, 1999)

This essay first appeared in a different form in a module on 'The Evangelising Church', written for the Scottish Churches' Open College.


A 'welcoming' church?

Whenever a church develops a strong sense of identity, it will end up with quite marked boundaries.  Yet this jars with what, for many mainstream church members, is a central tenet of their belief about "Our church": an inclusive attitude, in which the church believes it can welcome everyone and refuse no one. "Everyone is welcome at our door."  (Note, though, that 'believing we are inclusive' is not the same as being able to welcome and involve everyone in practice – much of what we do may in practice turn others away.)

This paper introduces a simple and basic framework for helping to understand how congregations can be both open to each person coming into contact with it, yet at the same time establish an identity which marks the congregation out as distinct from the surrounding environment and something to be drawn to.

Bounded.jpg (45570 bytes)

Bounded set

A helpful pair of contrasting images comes from American mission theologian Paul Hiebert. 1   (My The Purpose of your Church 2 made use of this pair of images.)  It is based on a mathematical contrast between bounded and centred sets.  Hiebert observes that in the older, colonial style of overseas mission most of the church’s energy went into maintaining its boundary.    This is the badge of identity, the hallmark of those who have passed from the outside to the inside.  A church relying on a ‘bounded set attitude’ will cling on to these features, often though not always in the name of tradition.   The church believes (fears?) that if it loses these qualities, it will lose its identity, so it expends a great deal of energy in maintaining and preserving the boundaries.

3   ‘Sharing our sameness’?

This attitude is still very prevalent today.   The church’s boundary will normally include a rite of passage, whether confirmation, believer’s baptism, or a service of reception.  But the boundary is not just the rite.  Together with this comes a host of cultural preferences which matter most for the members, yet of which they are largely unconscious unless the boundaries are challenged or threatened.

These preferences will usually include a particular kind of music, order of service, social class or type, level of literacy, building, the kinds of social activities programmed in, and so on.  Such preferences need not be traditional or conservative: many ‘modern’ churches also rely on boundaries to define who they are, simply preferring different music, seating, orders of service, etc. By implication, sin is understood as 'stepping outside the boundaries', so that often cultural preference is as important - sometimes more important - than Biblical and spiritual insight in defining what behaviour is unacceptable. 

God is believed to be in the boundaries - the things we do to make 'our church' happen.  And of course, to an extent God is, but not exclusively.  In the worst cases - an aberration highlighted by the Reformation but which is becoming increasingly common again today - God is frankly believed to be the boundaries (which can lead to an unintentional idolatry of church traditions and structures).

For a bounded-set church, ‘evangelism’ would mean bringing other people to, in Hiebert’s critical phrase, ‘share our sameness’.   Indeed, much current Church Growth thinking still encourages what is called the ‘principle of homogeneity’, the numerically successful technique of building up congregations of the culturally like-minded. 

Peter Wagner is a ‘guru’ of modern Church Growth, and one of his books is actually called Our kind of people.   However, I would urge more traditional mainstream church members to guard against too sweeping a condemnation of this conscious and planned strategy, unless you are sure that you are not falling into the same tendencies, albeit unconsciously and in an unplanned way!

Centred set.jpg (56908 bytes)

Centred set

What is the alternative to a bounded set?   Hiebert’s real alternative 3 comes from observing how, in the latter half of the 20th century, missionary societies have adopted more of a ‘centred set’ approach.  In a centred set, there is no maintained boundary between outsiders and insiders.  Members of the set are those who are moving closer to the centre – Jesus Christ – even if they are prodigals, prostitutes or tax collectors coming from ‘a long way off’.  This reflects Paul's normal depiction of ‘sin’ in using the word ‘hamartia,’ which derives from archery and has the sense of (an arrow) going off course.  Repentance and forgiveness - turning to Christ, perhaps hundreds of times - brings the sinner back on course. 

For members in this approach, their present state of 'spiritual gifts' or of poverty is less important than the direction of their eyes: looking not on other people, evaluating them as insiders or outsiders, but to the centre.   Note that marginalised people are included not because they are marginalised (a 'Hispanic church' or a 'gay church'), but because they are actively seeking Jesus Christ.  Churches that define themselves by a cause make the cause their 'god' and become bounded again.

It may be of interest to pause here and take a different slant to this approach.  Simone Weil was an extraordinary, mystical French woman who touched many people - including Charles de Gaulle - before and during the Second World War.   Much of her writing is about the nature of faith in the face of 'affliction', and she understood marginalisation profoundly, among industrial workers and for victims and exiles of the Nazi occupation.  She wrote:

  • It is only necessary to know that love is a direction, and not a state of the soul.  He whose soul remains ever turned in the direction of God while the nail pierces it, finds himself nailed on to the very centre of the universe.  It is the true centre ... it is God." 4 


5   Seeking Christ at all times

I want to stress that although the diagram is limited and 2-dimensional, and therefore might seem to ‘pin Christ down’ in one place - the pulpit, the altar, the priest or someone you idolise - in real life members of a centred set church are seeking him in all places and at all times.  They will seek Christ in their work-place, or family meal, or supermarket, or - yes - church minister.  Their main action is to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God’ (Matthew 6.31-33), looking for the signs of God’s rule and way of life in the people and world around them.

At the same time, and often tragically, people who were placed, by birth or history, close to Christ but who no longer seek him, are not members of this Kingdom-based church (though they can be converted, God-willing).  Such non-members, and other observers, may well complain at the ‘over-enthusiasm’ of the Kingdom-seekers, which seems to them to form just as much of a boundary as any more traditional kind, even though no boundary is actually being maintained.  Pastorally, if they are true to their vision, centred-set people will not respond to these accusations by defending their group or set, but by seeking for some Christ-like aspect or centre even in their accusers.

Such a creative or vulnerable response to criticism is one of the hallmarks of a centred-set vision of the church.  It is why Jesus placed forgiveness at the centre of the Resurrection mandate he gave his disciples (John 20.21-23), and why most eucharist or communion services still follow Matthew in placing Jesus' words at the Last Supper ("for the forgiveness of sins," Matthew 26.28) as the central meaning of the rite.


6  Having an eye for the Christ-centred step

The centred set image provides a basis for congregational identity, as a set or grouping or social system, which does not try to define itself 'over against' other sets or groups.  In practice this means a release from - or a decision to sit light to - institutional values, concentrating on recognising the various ministries to which members are being called, and sustaining each ministry within the overall life of the church. 

This requires a fairly systematic and far-reaching view of lay ministry, particularly from the congregation’s leadership and from provincial training schemes; it involves much more than ‘clergy delegating some of their existing tasks by rote’.  Rotas are certainly essential in the administration of lay ministry.  However, a ministry of the laos involves recognising, facilitating, training, and releasing members to develop their own ministries, while keeping everyone’s eyes fixed on the central direction the church is going in, rather than lapsing into sideways glances, competition, possessiveness, and so on.

In day-to-day ministry, most congregations involved in outreach will be placed somewhere between a bounded and a centred set approach, combining aspects of both.   n

  1. Paul Hiebert, Missions and the Renewal of the Church, Fuller 1983
  2. Andrew Knock, The Purpose of your Church, General Synod, 1989
  3. Hiebert recognises the frequent occurrence, in practice, of a ‘fuzzy set’, which is the kind of attitude found co-habiting alongside the ‘bounded set’ one in most mainline denominations. Some boundaries are or have been dismantled; others are – usually unconsciously – maintained.
  4. Simone Weil, The love of God and affliction, in Waiting on God, Collins 1951 pp 83, 93


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