A New Model for Belonging

Every organization has a model for belonging. The church for centuries has functioned in an organizational model that has heavily emphasized strict doctrinal parameters. Belonging is contingent upon proper belief. This organizational structure is struggling to reach a post-Christian society.

In the 1970’s, Paul Hiebert, an anthropologist and missiologist introduced the concept of bounded vs. centered sets. A bounded set is a group that is defined by boundaries. If we lie within the boundaries then we can belong. A centered set is defined by the direction in which we are moving from the center. If we are moving towards the center then we can belong.

In The Shaping of Things to Come, Frost and Hirsch offer a helpful image of this theory by comparing American and Australian cattle ranches. In the United States, cattle are kept on the ranches by fences. However, in their native Australia, fences are not possible on the enormous ranches of the Outback. Instead, these ranches rely on a deep well with a steady supply of clean water. The cattle do not stray far from this strong center.

People exploring Christian faith must be able to experience the gift of belonging to a church before they fully commit to the beliefs of that church. Belonging to a church is a powerful witness to the goodness of Christ for those considering faith.

Churches must seriously reconsider their parameters of belonging. We must create space within our congregations where non-Christians feel welcome to explore faith. We need not be afraid of new folks with views that differ from our own as long as the center of our churches remains Christ.

May the church reflect the Christ we worship, the Christ who reprimanded the disciples for putting barriers around him and said, “Let them come to me!”

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