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Do You Believe What You Believe? The Final Part: A Believing Church

*PSA: this post will be longer than normal, but that’s simply because, for our purposes here dealing with “Belief,” we have essentially “arrived at the finish line.” So if you’ve ran with me this far, then let’s finish well.*


Alright, let’s jump right in.


In my last post, I mentioned that many (if not most) of our churches operate as a “Bounded Set,” (for a refresher, and the “Soccer” analogy, see Part 3) in which they have clear markers and identifiers for who’s “in” and who’s “out” (or, on a more positive spin, “not yet in”).


If this type of arrangement brings you comfort because you can confidently say that you’ve satisfied all the requirements to be considered “in” at your church, then I encourage you to stick with me. The comfort you feel is natural (who wouldn’t want assurance that they made it into the “special club?”), but it can also breed arrogance, complacency, “holier than thou” mentalities, and so forth.


FUZZY SET CHURCH


Now, on the other hand, some of you might look at the Bounded Set with utter disdain and decide that what needs to be done is for us to eliminate all barriers and stop trying to distinguish who’s in and who’s out. And you might think what we need is something that Author Mark Baker (who we referred to in the last post) would call a Fuzzy Set:


“Fuzzy Set is similar to a bounded set, but the boundary line is removed—or at least less clear. The grounds for distinction are rather vague, and so the group is fuzzy. In the soccer example, imagine a city park where people gather on Sunday afternoons to play pickup games. The same people might participate week after week, but someone could miss several weeks and still show up and play. If others think that you are a lousy player, you might have a hard time getting on a pickup team, but how that would happen is not clear. Some people might play soccer each time they go to the park, while others might sometimes play ultimate frisbee. One week you might show up and find volleyball nets taking up the whole field….group membership cannot be clearly established.”[1]


And you might think: “Yes! This is the way forward! Just get rid of all the dividing lines, all the things that alienate people, and let’s just let folks show up whenever they want. Let’s all relax and be a place of tolerance, acceptance and openness, man! (I hope you can hear the “hippee” in my voice)


But do you see how things get fuzzy? Without any kind of intention or plan in a fuzzy set church, the chances are extremely high that a church like that will either drift into a lack of purpose or plan, or simply accommodate to everything and everyone so as to not “make waves” by making anyone feel like an “outsider.”


So what’s the way forward? Are we just stuck in a never-ending battle to define who a “member” is, who truly believes, and what kind of activities a church should or shouldn’t be doing?


Luckily, Baker offers us a third option: The Centered Set.


CENTERED SET CHURCH


"A Centered Set group is created by defining a center and observing people’s relationship with the center. Even though some people may be far from the center, they are part of the group if they are heading toward the center. On the other hand, some people may have been close to the center, but now are no longer part of the centered group because they have turned around and are moving away from it...

In the Soccer example, a centered approach would be if someone invites anyone who wants to play soccer to gather at a local public park on Saturday afternoon at three o’clock. In this example, the “center” is the game of soccer. Those who show up are oriented towards soccer. Those who don’t are not. Some of those who show up may not be very good, but their lack of ability will not exclude them, because the invitation is open to all who want to play. If too many people show up, the organizers will start another game. The group will not define who can play and who cannot play based on ability or who can afford the fees.”[2]


Now, if you notice from Baker’s description, there are still “rules,” and “expectations” in a Centered Set group. If someone showed up to that park in Hockey gear and ice skates, they would not meet the criteria to be in that group, because the meeting was centered around the love of soccer. And I’m sure someone would kindly say to them “sorry, but we’re here because we all love soccer and want to play soccer together.”


If you apply the Centered Set approach to a church, I think you will quickly see the two groups that Baker describes begin to emerge:


  • You will notice the folks who might not look like they fit the description to be in a Bounded Church, but who have fallen so in love with Jesus that they are steadily moving toward him, however far off they might be at the current moment.

  • You will also notice those who have been “faithfully” filling those pews for 40 years, who have been baptized in that church, confirmed in that church, married in that church, and plan to be buried in that church. And yet, it is evident that they have no interest in trusting Jesus with their life outside of church, nor do they seek His guidance on how to become more like Him. Instead of “fixing their eyes on Jesus (Heb. 12:2),” they fix their eyes on their church. In a Bounded Model, they consider themselves “In,” but in a Centered Model, because their hearts and lives are oriented away from Jesus, they are something else entirely.


If A Centered-Set Church sounds like the the kind of church you want to be a part of, then we naturally must ask “how do we become this kind of church?


There’s a story from the Gospel of Mark that can help us here.


In short, Jesus has encountered a boy who has been tormented by a demon. It throws him to the ground, causes him to seize, foam at the mouth, and grind up his teeth. It turns him mute and even tries to hurl him into fire and drown him in water.

And it’s been happening for years.


So naturally the boy’s father desperately seeks out help from Jesus.


(If you’re a parent, just take a minute and truly ponder how hopeless you would feel in this moment).


Jesus is clearly intent on healing this boy, but before he does, he assures the father that “All things can be done for the one who believes.”


And then, in one of the most honest, raw, and vulnerable moments in the entire Bible, the father, with tears in his eyes, cries out:


I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:23-24)


In other words, “Jesus, I’m saying out loud that I believe, but I need your help to make those professions of belief a reality!”


He is acknowledging that he is a far way off from Jesus. But he is clearly oriented toward Him. He’s aiming at The Center.


Sadly, Scripture doesn’t record how Jesus responds to the father (other than granting his request to heal his son). But it’s hard to imagine Jesus looking at that man with anything less than abundant grace and compassion, as well as a resounding “Yes!” to the question of whether Jesus will, in fact, help him with his unbelief. He will receive this man in his un-belief (or professed belief), and gently help him towards real belief.


And it’s here that we must ask: Do we have room for folks like this in our churches? Many of us would quickly give that same resounding “Yes! All are welcome!” And that may be true. But I would humbly ask: How would you respond to this gentleman if he were asking your church to help him with his unbelief? More importantly, what would your “plan of attack” be to help him with his unbelief? Would you tell him to keep coming to your Sunday services? Maybe attend a Bible study or two? It’s truly a question that all of us in church leadership should wrestle with: Is my church the kind of place where someone who is honest about their lack of belief is set on a path to eventually arrive at true, experiential belief?


A FRESH VISION FOR THE FUTURE


I am fully convinced (and one needs only to look at the current state of things to agree) that we have thousands and thousands of churches filled with folks who, though well-intentioned, would honestly answer that they, too, need a little help with their “unbelief.”


And don’t we all?


Isn’t that the point?


As I said in my last post, Jesus called twelve seemingly random men, who had no education nor qualification, to be his apprentices in Kingdom Living. This obviously meant that Jesus considered them worthy to be his disciples even though they clearly had not yet developed a strong belief or trust in him.


But Jesus, as the master of the universe, understands how human beings grow, develop, and mature.


As we discovered all the way back in Part 1, true belief is developed only through experiences.


So Jesus takes this ragtag group of “nobodies,” and invites them to walk with him, learn from him, and become his close friends. He provides them an incubation period where they are free to fail (which they do), free to ask questions (which they do), and free to doubt (which they do).


Jesus invites these guys to experience life with him because He knows that discipleship to him must precede belief, or else it will not be real belief.


And by the time we get to the book of Acts, we notice that, somehow, these failing, questioning, doubting “B-Team” students have transformed into full-fledged “Little Christs,” making an impact on a level the world had never seen, and fulfilling Jesus’s prophecy that they would do the works that He does (John 14:12).


How did they get from there to there?


They got there because Jesus, as the master of the universe, is also the greatest teacher that ever walked the earth. And, as my wife will tell you, any good teacher chooses to love and accept her students just as they are when they step into her classroom on the first day of school, but a great teacher also strives to ensure they do not remain “as they are.” A great teacher longs to see visible transformation in her students when their time under her tutelage has come to an end.


And as I said, Jesus is a great teacher.


One might say that Jesus is so great, He could take anyone who is willing to follow him and, regardless of their Character flaws, transform them into something almost unrecognizable. He could turn a “Hitler” into a “Mister Rogers.” I’m firmly convinced of that.


Now, will you dream with me for a minute?


Imagine if word got out that the greatest teacher on the planet, capable of producing such transformation, currently had openings and was looking for more students.

Perhaps he would place an ad that would subtly sit off to the side on your Facebook feed that said “Come, follow me, and I’ll teach you how to Believe.”


“Woah,” you and I would say, “I thought He was booked solid for years. I thought the best He could do would be to put us on a waiting list or something!”


And once it’s confirmed that this man is, indeed, enrolling new disciples, I trust that you and I, recognizing this guy, would happily sacrifice our many other endeavors (Matt. 13:44) in order to make room in our schedule to study under this Master Teacher.


And once we receive the call that we have been “admitted” as one of his students, we notice the address where we are told to meet Him for our “first day of training:”


“The Church on the Corner

1234 Studebaker Rd.

Your Neighborhood, 92861”


“Wait a minute,” we ponder, “….you’re telling me the most sought-after teacher on the planet is teaching at the church on the corner? That little wooden structure with the cobwebs and the rusty golden belltower? I didn’t even know people were still using that building!”


And it’s true. The building does not look long for this world. But luckily, your New Teacher knows that where you’re going to meet is not nearly as important as who you’re going to meet.


So, you walk down to the corner to attend orientation for the “School for Life,” you open the creaky, splintered door….and there He is.


His presence in tangible in the room.


And He’s been waiting for you. He’s been longing for you to come and learn from Him.


You’ve just met Him, and yet you get a strange sense that you’ve met Him before, and that He already knows you and loves you deeply. He sees your shortcomings, all the things that might disqualify you to be an active church member.


He sees your “unbelief.”


And yet, he formally reaches out his hand, and says, “Come, follow me.”


School is in session.


My friends, I am offering here that the only way forward for the declining “Church on the Corner” is to become something like what I am describing. To cease putting the emphasis on professing what they believe every Sunday, and instead to prioritize learning from Jesus, through experience with Him, how to believe what they profess. To be neither a Bounded nor a Fuzzy church, but to be a church defined by who is in the Center, drawing us ever more closely toward Him as his apprentices in Life with God.


For the church who feels they “need more members,” I simply ask you to trust that, if the folks in your simply orient towards Jesus, earnestly seeking to learn from Him, then they can also trust that His grace will cover them sufficiently, and they will no longer worry about striving to “get more butts in the pews.” The fruit will be noticeable, perhaps not as an increase in attendance, but certainly as an increase in Character.


But, as it currently stands, this type of shift will not happen naturally or without our own intention and effort. God will certainly help us, but He will not do it for us. To pivot from a “professing Church” to a group of students who desire to truly believe will require conviction and commitment on the part of the local leadership. They must be gripped by this vision themselves, and then they must take the slow and steady steps toward implementing it right where they are. They should not loudly “announce the Revolution,” but should allow God the space to slowly permeate His Kingdom into their midst like a little hidden yeast working through a batch of dough (Matt. 13:33).


As for my fellow ministers and shepherds, we have already grasped that Jesus has entrusted us to teach our little flocks to “do all that I have commanded” (Matt. 28:20), but we must also come to terms with what this requires. We must recognize that, to teach obedience to Jesus, we must learn from Jesus how to teach as He taught, not just in the transferring of information on a Sunday, but in the developing of creative plans to help the congregation experience the life-giving information that has just been delivered. We must help them take their professions of belief “out into the marketplace” so that they might “put into practice” the great truths that we have just announced to them. We must help them learn that they can, in fact, rely on Jesus to come through for them out in the world. And as we do that, the beliefs which they profess on Sundays will solidify more and more as lived realities in every fiber of their existence.


So that when then they corporately confess on Sunday, “I believe in the Holy Spirit…” their mind may think back to an instance on Wednesday when, in their confidence, they placed themselves in a position of reliance upon the Great Helper, who then provided them the tangible assistance they needed, at a moment where such divine assistance was their only hope.


That is why I call real belief.


So I pray that churches would become “hotbeds” for this kind of growth and transformation. I pray that God would help me and my fellow brothers and sisters in leadership begin making the necessary adjustments to create an “incubator of disciples” in each of our local congregations. And I pray that, as Jesus instructs us more and more, that others would see students emerging from our “Churches on the Corner” as ones who are simply not the same, as they have spent ample time orienting toward and drawing nearer to the Center, their Loving Tutor.


Only then will we become a Church that believes what it believes.


Amen.

[1] Baker, Mark D. Centered-set church: Discipleship and community without judgmentalism (2022). Westmont: InterVarsity Press.p. 21 [2] Baker, Mark D. Centered-set church: Discipleship and community without judgmentalism (2022). Westmont: InterVarsity Press.p. 23-24

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