40 Years Later – Pt 2 – Revisiting Centered and Bounded Sets

Last month, we redefined centered sets and bounded sets here.

A bounded set is a collection of all objects which possess the defining characteristics which determine the membership of the set.

A centered set is a collection of all objects which are moving towards a well-defined center.

This month we will review Hiebert’s original observations on the impact of using the two types of sets with reference to Christianity.

Hiebert’s Views

Hiebert saw 4 consequences of using the bounded set conception.

1. We would define “Christian” in terms of definitive characteristics that are perceivable (orthopraxy and orthodoxy).

2. We would make a clear distinction between “Christian” and a “non-Christian”.

3. We would view all “Christians” as essentially the same.

4. We would stress evangelism as the major task-getting people into the category.

He also saw consequences of using the centered set conception.

1. A Christian who be defined in terms of a center- of who is God.

2. There is a clear division between being a Christian and not being a Christian. The boundary is there. But there is less stress on maintaining the boundary.

3. There is recognition of variation among Christians.

A Review

Dr. Hiebert was a revolutionary thinker here, and he got so many things right. The consequences of using a bounded set paradigm are clearly correct. But, even though Dr. Hiebert championed the centered set paradigm, he was unable to fully embrace all of its implications. In this, he joins some of the greatest minds in history. It was the case with Max Planck and light quanta, and Einstein and quantum mechanics. It was the case with Calvin and his theology. Dr. Hiebert cannot let go of the idea that humans must (at some level) determine who is and is not Christian, and therefore that a centered-set conception must have a boundary. So he used the language of centered, well-formed set. It is an evolutionary step, but it does not fulfill the revolutionary promise inherent in these concepts. Dr. Hiebert attempts to have his cake, and eat it too.

If we take the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13 seriously, then we cannot and should not try to determine who is in and out of the kingdom. We are told to wait for Jesus and the final judgment. This lends itself to a centered-set approach to Christianity. This approach  is an excellent fit for integral mission because it emphasizes the similarity of all people. All people will flourish as they grow towards God, regardless of their current location.

Where the Hiebert’s original thinking needs further development is in realizing the continued usefulness of the bounded set. The centered set is not a “more Hebraic” model of thinking, nor is it better than the bounded set.  It is a different conceptual tool, with different strengths and weaknesses.

There are many bounded set experiences in Scripture. Baptism, church discipline, and Communion don’t make sense from a centered-set perspective. Baptism is a ritual in which a person symbolically dies to their old self and old allegiances, and joins a new group and a new life. This new group is part of the global churchleaving behind of the old, and a joining to a new group of people, a local church. Church discipline can only be implemented among people who share a common identity and grouping. This can be a local church, a denomination, or some other group. But church discipline only makes sense within a bounded group. Even the kingdom of God itself is a bounded set metaphor. Those who are recognized as leaders or role models within the kingdom have the ability to declare certain actions and values as non-Christian. Different people will disagree with the positions that the Pope takes on certain issues, but we should all agree that not everyone who claims to be Christian should be allowed to define our beliefs and values. While salvation may not be a bounded set, we need a bounded group of people who can represent the faith! If not, why can’t heretical sects like Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists?

In fact, we are challenged by Paul in Scripture to determine whether we are “in” or “out” fo the kingdom of God. He uses the phrase “work out your own salvation”. The bounded set is an incredibly important tool that shouldn’t be cast aside. So is the centered set. Neither is better or worse than the other. They are both good at different things. An overly “centered” approach never asks people to consider whether they have or have not been rescued from the kingdom of darkness and entered the kingdom of light. It can be falsely inclusive. An overly “bounded” approach never asks if brothers and sisters are growing in Christ, nor does it acknowledge that becoming a Christian is a process. It can be overly divisive, with theologians worrying about whether Catholics or Anabaptists are “really” Christian instead of sending workers into fields that are definitely not Christian.

The church in the 21st century needs both the bounded set and the centered set to meet the challenges of the current era. If we are to remember church discipline and other “hard” practices in a world of extreme tolerance, we need to be able to define church and denominational membership in bounded terms without making statements about people’s salvation. We need to be able to talk about actions (e.g., genocide, post-apostolic inspired scriptures, etc.) that are definitely outside of the bounds of Christianity, and which are anathema. We need to be able to say that the Rwandan genocide was not Christian.

At the same time, the integral mission approach acknowledges so many aspects of our shared humanity, of our shared quest for decency and for God, of our shared capacity for evil and sin among believers and unbelievers, that it cannot be thrown away. It is too powerful a unifying tool. It brings together conversion and discipleship, and reminds us that they are inseparable. It is a dynamic tool that focuses on the change. The centered set approach doesn’t care about what fruit your life has produced in the past, it asks about your fruit today? In a world where so many fail to finish well, the centered set reminds us that the destination is important! We can all be thankful to Dr. Hiebert for bringing these two concepts to our attention. Let us continue to grow in how we apply them!

Centered Sets vs Bounded Sets – 40 Years Later

Forty years ago, Dr. Paul G. Hiebert wrote an article called “Conversion, Culture, and Cognitive Categories” in Gospel in Context that introduced a pair of abstruse mathematical concepts from non-cantorian set theory to the world of missiology. These two concepts, the Bounded Set and the Centered Set, sparked a quiet revolution in missions as pastors, theologians, and missiologists confronted Hiebert’s question. “Should Christianity be viewed as a bounded set or a centered set?”

Forty years later, it is worth trying to clarify and expand upon the discussion of bounded and centered sets that Dr. Hiebert so innovatively introduced. The concept of bounded and centered sets are amazing tools. As with all tools, they are good at some things, and bad at others. A hammer is great for pounding in nails and for tearing down walls. It is terrible for painting. We will start out by defining the terms, and then by looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each tool.

Bounded Set – A Cat is Not A Dog

A bounded set is a collection of all objects which possess the defining characteristic(s) which determine the membership of the set.

A bounded set is a very easy concept to grasp. It is humanity’s default conceptual grouping. “Dog” is a bounded set. Every object in the universe can be classified as either a dog or not a dog. Different people (and different ages of people) may classify things differently, but everyone has a conception in their head of what a dog is. There are some “defining characteristics”. We do this every day in very complex ways. For example, a 3 legged dog is still a dog while a four legged fox or wolf is not. “Food” is a bounded set.

A bounded set is defined by its boundaries. The boundaries define what is in the set, and what is not in the set. This is simplest example to see is math. A set of numbers is bounded if it has a maximum and a minimum value, which make up the boundaries. The set of all numbers between 1 and 3 is a bounded set. Any number you can think of is either between 1 and 3, or it is not. That’s a very simple boundary. Think of another set “friends”. Take a moment to think of the people who are your friends. Could you write a list of characteristics that make those people and their relationship with you different from all other people who are not your friends? That is a much more complicated boundary!

There are a few important facts to notice about bounded sets. First, a bounded set is defined by its boundaries and the position of an object with relation to those boundaries. We will often use spatial / locational metaphors as we talk about membership in a bounded set. An object is either “in” or “out”. It is very important to note that there are no objects that are both in or out. There is no gray area in a bounded set, nor is there partial credit. A cat is not “almost” a dog because they are both small, furry mammals, omnivores, and have four legs most of the time. A cat is never a dog.

Second, a bounded set is a static set. That’s a corollary of being based on position. Locations change over time, but at any one moment, they are static. The bounded set “children living at home with their parents” is filled with the children who live at home right now. Children who moved out yestereday or who will move back tomorrow are not in the bounded set today.

Third, the friendship group earlier is a great example of the possible complexity of the defining characteristics of a bounded set. The characteristics are limited only by the ingenuity of the set’s creator. Facebook advertising campaigns create bounded sets called marketing segments. A marketing segment for a Valentine’s Day promotion might be based on gender, relationship status, profession, ethnicity, and religion.

That leads us to point 4, which is closely related to point 3. Regardless of how complex or simple the defining characteristics are, if the boundaries are unclear or ambiguous, the set becomes ill-defined and contentious.  The classic example of the failed bounded set is the category called “race”. How does one define “race”? By appearance? By heritage? How far back does one have to go? A bounded set is defined by its boundaries. If the boundaries aren’t clear, neither is the set.

Finally, bounded sets emphasize similarities and differences in essential characteristics. They emphasize the differences between the “in” group and the “out” groups. Bounded sets also emphasize the similarities among the members of any group. This is very apparent when people talk about politics. “Oh, that person is a Conservative. All conservatives support that issue, I’m sure they do too.” Or “That person is part of the Labor party. I don’t understand how they can believe that. They are so different from us.”

Bounded sets are great tools when the difference between in and out is clear and important. They are most powerful when the differences are essential or ontological differences. Differences that will never change over time. Bounded sets are a great tool when the list of criteria for membership is clear and can be stated without ambiguity. But the bounded set does not function well when similarities between groups are important, when there is a lot of gray area, or when there are many unclear boundary cases. Bounded sets are also not dynamic. They are not the best tools to visualize change.

Centered Set – Trending Stories

A centered set is the collection of all objects moving towards a well-defined center.

The centered set is also relatively easy to grasp. Spatial language makes an intuitive understanding simple. A bounded set is based on location. It is “in” or “out”. A centered set is based on direction. Each person is either moving “towards” or “away”. A bounded set is defined by its boundaries. A centered set is defined by its center. The centered set can be thought of as the inverse of the bounded set.

Forty years ago, Dr. Hiebert struggled to find examples of centered sets, but many are available today. YouTube’s “trending videos” are a perfect example of a set centered on popularity. YouTube has an algorithm that decides which videos are growing more popular. A station with only a few thousand views can be trending up. More and more people are watching the video every day. On the other hand, a massively popular video with hundreds of millions of views may be trending down because less and less people are watching the video every day. That’s the key difference between the bounded set and the centered set. The bounded set is based on location (e.g., videos with more than a 100 million views), but a centered set is based on direction (e.g., videos with 20% more views today than yesterday).

There are several key points to notice about the centered set. First, a centered set is defined by its center and the direction of objects with relation to the center.  The center must be clearly defined, and its position is very important. But the location of the objects are irrelevant. An object may be 10 meters away from the center, or 10,000 kilometers. The only relevant factor is whether the object is moving towards the center. That implies that the direction of the object, in a conceptual sense, must be measurable. If we can’t define the center and measure direction, then the centered set approach does not make sense. This is an easy task when we talk about videos trending towards popularity. It is much harder to do with “Christian orthodoxy” or “artistic perfection”.

Third, the farther a person is from the center, the less precise the definition of the center and the measurement of their direction can be. If a person is in Spain, and the center of the set is the Apartheid Museum in South Africa, the exact address and the exact direction don’t really matter. If the person is heading generally south, they are heading towards the center. However, if a person is already in Johannesburg, then they are going to need the address and the determination of their direction must be much more precise to be useful.

Finally, centered sets emphasize similarities and differences in goals or destinations. Where a bounded set emphasizes similarities and differences based on what something is like right now, a centered set emphasizes similarities and differences in what something will be like in the future. If “stable democracy” is a center, then it may be far more important to understand if a government is moving towards or away from stable democracy than trying to define precisely what a stable democracy is and list which governments are and are not members.

Centered sets are great tools when future changes are more important than current conditions . Centered sets are most powerful when characteristics are mutable or non-ontological. In other words, in situations where change can and will happen. Centered sets function well when the center is clear and unambiguous, or when possible boundaries are unclear and ambiguous. The exact location of the border of Ukraine and Russia may be in doubt in some locations, but the capitals of Russia and Ukraine are not. The centered set does not function well with static categories (there is no change to see), or when group cohesion is very important. Black and white categories do not do well with centered sets.

The Next Step

Forty years ago, Hiebert offered the following words for our consideration.

“What does it mean to be a Christian? Before we can answer this question we must look more closely at our own thought patterns—at what we mean by the word “Christian.” This word, like many other words, refers to a set of people or things that we think are alike in some manner or other. It refers to a category that exists in our minds. To be sure, God, looking at the hearts of people, knows who are his. It is he who one day will divide between the saved and the lost. But here on earth, we as humans pass judgments, we decide for ourselves who is a Christian, and, therefore, what it means to be a Christian. What criteria do we commonly use? Before we answer this question, we must ask an even more fundamental question: what kind of category are we going to use? … Ultimately the question of whether we should see the term “Christian” as a bounded or as a centered set must be decided on theological, not pragmatic principles. But this demands that we think through all of the basic theological terms and decide which of these should be viewed as bounded sets, and which as centered sets.”

That is a significant challenge. In the next post, we will look at the conclusiosn that Hiebert drew and reexamine the implications of viewing Christianity as a bounded or centered set.

The (Almost) Inevitable Collapse

Collapse is a terrifying word, is it not? Economic collapse. Political collapse. Ecological collapse. A collapse is sudden, violent, destructive. It makes headlines. The conceptual collapse has never been breaking news. But these collapses are at least as destructive as the former, and far more common.

This is an inevitable consequence of two inescapable truths.

Humans are finite. God is not.

Job reached enlightenment when he said “I spoke of things … too wonderful for me to know.” As humans, we can only hold so many things together in our mind at one time. God is more than we can understand. It is not just God’s scale, or God’s complexity that makes it difficult. God embodies ideas that seem mutually exclusive. Finding a happy balance between mutually exclusive extremes, what Aristotle called The Golden Mean, is not that difficult for people. But comprehending that justice and mercy are not mutually exclusive, but are both always and in all circumstances good and true is mind-wrenchingly difficult. To believe that it is possible for God to be both perfectly merciful and perfectly just requires awareness, focus, energy, and concentration.

In the end, when we are tired or hurried or overwhelmed, our categories and principles collapse into something simpler. Something unipolar, something less than biblical, something that is certainly not “too wonderful” for us to know.

It is almost inevitable that we will tend to be either just or merciful, but not both. It is almost inevitable that our understanding of sin will be based on guilt or shame or impurity, but not all three. It is almost inevitable that we will primarily view Jesus as God or as man. It is almost inevitable that we will be speakers of the word or doers of the word.

And it is no surprise that integral mission is difficult, maybe even impossible. We are trying to hold it all together, and it is too wonderful for us! So we collapse, and we lose one or the other, and lose touch with the truth. Just spend a second thinking about all of the individuals, churches, and denominations that lost touch with mercy, or with justice, or with proclamation. Remember the consequences.

But the collapse is not inevitable, or more accurately, the inevitable collapse is not inevitably final. The Holy Spirit working within the church allows us as a whole to hold on to ideals and complexities that none of us could live out consistently on our own. The church can call its members back to truths that do not fit easily within them. Dare I say that, as a church, we are more truly the Imago Dei than we are individually, and we are far greater than the sum of our parts. Integral mission can’t be the same quest for personal decisions for salvation that we sought in the 19th and 20th centuries. The unit of “conversion”, so to speak, must be the church. This is our task in the 21st century: for the church itself to be converted to a Christianity that is too rich for any of its members to live out alone.

The Heart of Integral Mission is … the Heart

Christian development has a long history, and a checkered one, if we are honest. One of the latest developments from a historical perspective is the professionalization of the field in the 80s and 90s, ably described by Bryant Myers, in his book Walking with the Poor. Prior to that time, development workers were “talented amateurs” with their hearts in the right place, but, all too often, lacking the skills and perspectives necessary to help communities develop without causing unintentional harm. Since that time, professional development has become part of the life and experience of most development workers. It is a rare worker that doesn’t have a professional degree and a rare year that doesn’t include a training or two on a new perspective, technique, or cross-cutting issue. We preach the same emphasis to members of local churches who want to get involved in this thing we call “integral mission”. This emphasis on education and skill-building has had a significant positive impact on our mission to reduce poverty and increase human well-being.

 But when we talk about integral mission, diverse technical skills and a sound fundamental understanding of development are necessary but not sufficient. We need to be able to facilitate a group effectively. We need to know how to mitigate the risks for the women and girls whom we serve. We need to understand effective and transparent financial management. But those things don’t change lives holistically. Skills and perspectives are not enough. More importantly, skills and perspectives are not the right place to start. The first qualification for an integral missionary is a life that is being transformed by the Holy Spirit. And that first qualification is what has been neglected as the pendulum whistled by.

 Our being, our relationship with Jesus, our own transformation, should be the source of our actions and of our words. But “being” has always been the neglected step-child of the integral mission trinity. “Being” has always been a difficult idea for development professionals, and for all of those educated or socialized into the Western traditions. It is difficult to see, to touch, to measure. It is internal, not external. So, somewhat ironically, the advocates of integral mission often integrate word and deed, and detach them from being / transformation, and outsource that element to the local church.

 The Micah Network’s Declaration on Integral Mission is an excellent document, but it is typical when it talks about our being.

Integral mission or holistic transformation is the proclamation and demonstration of the gospel. It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. Rather, in integral mission our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. And our social involvement has evangelistic consequences as we bear witness to the transforming grace of Jesus Christ.

If we ignore the world we betray the word of God, which sends us out to serve the world. If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring to the world. Justice and justification by faith, worship and political action, the spiritual and the material, personal change and structural change belong together. As in the life of Jesus, being, doing and saying are at the heart of our integral task

Have you ever noticed the word “being” in the last sentence? It is unreferenced otherwise, an insignificant part of a document that focuses on reuniting proclamation and demonstration.

The problem is that the heart, the mind, the soul, our being, which Jesus thought was central, is functionally irrelevant to our conception of integral mission, both in our words and in our deeds. In our words, we spend most of our time talking about word and deed. In our deeds, we spend all of our time improving our skills, doing the work, and teaching others to talk about integral mission the same way that we do. Have we also, unknowingly, become Pharisees who whitewash the outside of the tomb? I hope not. I hope we are just taking spiritual transformation in our people for granted. As a given. But, in order to do great development work, to truly live out integral mission, we must remember that the reason that our words and our deeds are a whole is that they spring from the same source. Our new techniques, our ways of speaking must always and intentionally be grounded in their source, our being.

 Luke 6:45 – A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.         

If we truly believe that, then we must begin devoting as much time, individually and corporately, to our being as we do to the professional skills that we find so useful.

Retiring from the Shouting Match

Have you ever thought about how God has chosen to communicate with his people? It’s a fascinating question that we have explored here and here over the last two months. I’d like to take a final step this month, which is where we have been heading all along.

In the last century, and particularly in the last decade, our powers of communication have become godlike.

Take a second to ponder the truth of that statement. Instant communication, written, verbal, and visual, globally. Messages broadcast that will reach billions of people. Memes. Social media: Instagram, YouTube, Facebook. Our voices are amplified a thousand, a million times. Instant, high-quality translation to the major world languages. Humanity is again creating the Tower of Babel, striving towards the infinite.

After spending the last two months examining the characteristics of God’s communication, let’s turn our attention to ourselves. What messages and what values are being amplified by these godlike powers? What are the characteristics of our speech?

That question is too broad to examine here, even if we cut out the vast majority of our enhanced communication that is involved with selling products (which is certainly a characteristic worth contemplating).

A more focused question is: How are we using these new powers of communication with respect to our concern for justice and how should we use them?

There are clear trends in our use of social media with regard to justice. Positive trends like increased enthusiasm, support, and awareness for causes. Negative trends like the use of shame and alienation as a weapon to enforce conformity. Division and tribalism. It seems like everyone in the world is standing up for causes and raising their voices in virtual solidarity. Social media has become a deafening cacophony of activism.

Shouldn’t we be involved? After all, there are a billion Christians. We have a massive presence on social media. Our voice is loud. We can make a difference! We will surely lose the battle in the marketplace of ideas if we aren’t involved.

I have written previously about why it makes me nervous when Christians start doing a new thing that non-believers are doing for the same reasons. I believe that it should drive us immediately to critical reflection based in the Word, and informed by our experience.

If godlike powers of communication are a new thing, then we can begin by remembering how God has used his powers of communication.

Last month, we talked about the specific, relational nature of God’s communication. God is incredibly patient. He spent thousands of years investing in a small nation preparing a conceptual and religious framework for his ultimate revelation and the blessing of all nations. The supreme revelation of God comes in the person of Jesus. God chose to lay down the power and prerogatives of Deity, and take the form of a servant, limited in both time and space, in order to achieve the deepest, richest communication with us.

Jesus, as God’s Word, does not seem to have been an activist, at least not in the modern sense. He lived as part of an oppressed, conquered people that were discriminated against on the basis of both race and religion. He was surrounded by injustice. Jesus appears not to have addressed those injustices as issues that could be separated from the source of justice, the coming of the kingdom. It appears that he only discussed issues of justice with members of the community of faith, or those who asked about that community. Justice, salvation, mercy, obedience, repentance, and faith seem to have formed a cohesive whole in his teachings.

Jesus entrusted his message to a small group of people to be spread throughout the nations, as God has consistently done since the beginning.

If we move to the apostles, we notice that Paul seemed to believe that a long, profoundly thoughtful letter was at best a complement to face-to-face conversations (Rom 1:11). We know that Paul had opportunities to assert power as a god (Acts 14:11-15), as did Jesus before him (as a king  in John 6:15). Both actively rejected the position of power. We know that Jesus has the power to proclaim the message of God and God’s justice to all of humanity at any time, and has thus far chosen not to.

Moving from observations about how God has communicated to conclusions about how we should communicated is not simple! I do not know the answers. But I have a hard time imagining Jesus tweeting in righteous anger. Or Paul making a selfie video about his support for an issue. Those images don’t sit well together with how God has worked, and asked His people to work, in the past.

The God who chose the 12 and chased away the thousands in John 6 doesn’t seem to me like a God who is seeking a megaphone. The possible exception is the Old Testament prophets. But, much like the Old Testament law, they seemed to have been a guide on what doesn’t work with sinful humanity (and a sign of our sinfulness), rather than an instruction book on how to improve people in the quickest way possible.

What if there is something profound in God’s chosen method of self-revelation, mediated through personal relationship? What if there is an important truth in Jesus’ avoidance of the crowds?

The problem is humans are suckers for the newest thing. But there is nothing new under the sun. The internet and social media aren’t new. They aren’t revolutionary. The ancient world had an internet too. It was called the city. It was like the internet, just as full of information, news (true and false), and social networks when compared to the countryside.

What if you can’t stand for issues? What if you can only stand with people? Not with them in principle, but actually with them. Not for minutes or hours, but for months and years. What if solidarity requires presence? What if there is no way to scale relationship? What if change is never cheap or easy? What if all that extra noise is just that, noise?

Is there any medium to which Shakespeare’s words in Macbeth refer to more accurately, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

What if time alone on the mountain is more important than the power to mandate change?

These are questions worth thinking about, friends. God’s chosen methods of communication seem far distant from ours. Not only exhibiting different kinds of communications, but different underlying values. That is not how ambassadors are generally supposed to function. God has always had the ability to do all of the things that we can do now, and more. He chose to come. To sit. To write long letters, spaced out to give us plenty of time to think and live and change. He paid a very high price, and expected his followers to do the same. If God really cared about scale, why not just skip the middle step (partnering with people) and handle it Himself? He chose the 12, not the 5,012. I think that was intentional. He chose to send people to spread his word. God’s communication is non-universal. It is specific, relational, progressive, integral, and incarnational.

God’s rationale is unfathomable, but it makes sense that this method would actually be the most effective in the long run, given what we know of people. We are so quick to anger, quick to exclude people, so easy to be influenced.

So why not retire from the shouting match? After all, nobody else is doing it. We might just enjoy the silence. And in the silence, we might hear God’s voice reminding us that “Go” does not require international travel, nor is sitting with a megaphone sufficient, but it does require motion and relationship.

The Non-Universal Communication of God

Last month, we examined the idea that God’s Word is not merely content. It is intentionally communicated content. God is a communicator. If you missed it, you can find it here.

This month, we will examine a characteristic of the communication of God as a case study. The non-universality of divine communication is both counter-intuitive and counter-cultural. Therefore, it has a lot to teach us about God and the values of His kingdom.

In short, the non-universality of divine communication is that fact that God could address all of humanity, but chooses not to.  Lesslie Newbigin calls it “the scandal of particularity”.

“To a devout Hindu, heir to four thousand years of profound religious and philosophical experience, there is something truly scandalous in the suggestion that, to put it crudely, he or she must import the necessities for salvation from abroad. “Is it really credible,” the Hindu will ask, “that the Supreme Being whom I and my ancestors have loved and worshipped for forty centuries is incapable of meeting my soul’s need, and that I must await the coming of an agent of another tradition from Europe or North America if I am to receive his salvation? What kind of a god are you asking me to believe in? Is he not simply the projection of your own culture-bound prejudices? Come! Let us be reasonable! Let us open our treasures and put them side by side, and we shall see that your symbols and mine are but the differing forms of one reality shaped according to our different histories and cultures. If God is truly God – God of all peoples and all the earth – then surely God can and will save me where I am with the means he has provided for me in the long experience of my own people.”

 Who can deny the reasonableness of this plea? …

The scandal of particularity is at the center of the question of missions. To be more precise, it is the problem of relating God’s universality to his particular deeds and words. God is over all and in all; not a sparrow falls to the ground without his will. Yet the Bible talks of God acting and God speaking in particular times and places. How are these related? With what propriety can we speak of particular acts of God if God is universal Lord of all? How can we relate this universality to this particularity?” (Newbigin, The Open Secret)

Newbigin’s interest is apologetic, so he proceeds to provide a theological justification of this characteristic of the divine communication. In the end, it is election, the selection of the remnant for the blessing of the whole world, that provides the justification. Newbigin’s thinking here is clear and coherent.

Our interest here is in God as a communicator, not in apologetics.

What does it mean that God has chosen not to communicate universally?

He has crafted a message for an elect (or selected) group or individual that is intended to be a blessing for the world. That was the case with Abram, with Moses, with Elijah, with the prophets, with John the Baptist. There is one important caveat: God has a universal salvific intent, but God has chosen to communicate through specific, non-universal messages.

Why has God has chosen to communicate the Good News  primarily through ambassadors in communicating with the vast majority of humanity?

There are several characteristics that undergird God’s non-universal communication. that are worth examining. Remember, these reveal something about God and the values of God’s kingdom.

Specific

The opposite of universal is specific. God crafts messages, even in the Garden of Eden, that are specific to the person receiving the message. It should be astounding that God devotes so much of Scripture to revelation that is time-bound and specific to only a few people! When God tells Lot and his family not to look back at the destruction of Sodom, it is not a universal message for all people at all times. It is a warning for Lot’s family. The promise of a child in old age is not universal to all believers. It was a promise given to Abram and Sarai. The corollary to this principle is that God is the one who is active in selection and communication. God seeks out his enemies. God does not often choose to speak in universal principles universally proclaimed. Even when God chooses to use mass messaging (so to speak), His message is embodied in a person who goes to the place and proclaims the message. We can infer that God values something more than efficiency or speed.

Relational

Universal communication is an absolute. Universal messages are impersonal, each person and group receives the same message. The majority of God’s messages are based on long-term relationships with specific people or groups. It is relational, instead of absolute, and personal rather than impersonal. The Ten Commandments are based on a thousand years of history with the family of Abraham. The Prophets, Jesus. God spends most of recorded revelation speaking to (and through) people with whom He has established a relationship. There are exceptions (Balaam and His donkey for one), but the tendency is clear. It seems fair to say that God values relationships.

Progressive

This is a characteristic that only makes sense in relational communication. For truly universal communication, every person across time should get the same content. But progressive revelation is an undeniable characteristic of God’s communication. Even the great prophets of yore wished that they would see what we have seen, but didn’t. God didn’t reveal the full plan of salvation to Adam and Eve before the Fall (or after the Fall, for that matter). Nor did God warn them about the snake, at least as far as we know. God didn’t reveal the fullness of the plan to Abraham, Moses, or the prophets. The disciples also seemed confused about what and how God was trying to work. This is counter-intuitive for Westerners raised in a culture where belief is intellectual assent to a set of truths. If that is what faith is, then God did a bad job of revealing Himself. If not, then we can see that our fallen-ness (not only of doing, but of understanding!) is far more serious than we would like to admit. It took thousands of years to lay a foundation that gave the message of salvation a hope of being accepted by a tiny portion of a single small nation. God reveals Himself in bits and pieces, slowly, over time, and one suspects, as we are able to accept.

Integral

God’s words and deeds complement one another and prove one another. His actions demonstrate the truths that He proclaims. This is not universally true! In other words, it has not been apparent to every person at every time that God’s words and deeds match, and it won’t be fully integral until the Second Coming. This is the concept of the Already / Not Yet kingdom. It is the confusion of the disciples at the foot of the cross. But the message of Scripture is that God’s words and deeds flow out of His Being, and they are all in perfect harmony. Which leads us to the most integral of all God’s actions, the Incarnation.

Incarnational

The logical end (in the philosophical sense) of integral mission is incarnation. If a message truly flows from one’s being without outside influence or mixed motives, then one’s actions must bear out the message. The Incarnation is the only possible way that God’s being could express itself given the fall of humanity. The expectation that God has of His ambassadors is also of “purity” (James 1), which means words and deed in consonance with and flowing out of our being. To embody the message with out life.

We could continue enumerating and describing characteristics of the divine communication for a very long time. But that is not the goal here. The goal is to provide a simple example of how God has communicated and what that tells us about Him, His character, and His values, and also about us.

How would you describe God’s communication?

Inconsistent. Exaggerated. Cryptic. I can think of places in the Scripture where those adjectives are appropriate.

Beautiful, clear, and encouraging. It is easy to find such passages as well.

What conclusions do you draw from what you observe? How do your conclusions match with what you know from Scripture?

Finally, which of these characteristics should be embodied in our own communication?

Post-Scriptum The sole exception to the rule of particularity seems to be God’s communication of wrath in judgments (particularly the Noahic flood).

 

God, the Great Communicator

God exists, and He makes Himself known. These are two basic tenets of the Christian faith. God is not only a Creator, God is a communicator. Have you ever wondered why God communicates the way He does? It’s a fascinating question. The problem that parents face when trying to communicate with their small children fades into insignificance when placed beside the problem that God faces in revealing His infinite self to His finite children. Not only is the infinite trying to communicate with the finite, but God has constrained Himself to communicate in a world of competing narratives and interests since the day that, in His divine wisdom, He allowed those fateful words to ring out: “Did God really say you must not eat from any tree in the garden?” Why did God do that?

Why let in lies and half-truths?

Why doesn’t God reveal Himself directly?

Why doesn’t God answer prayers verbally?

Why allow humanity to participate in the writing of the Scriptures and the spreading of the Good News?

Why parcel out revelation over thousands of years?

Why did God become a person?

There are so many why questions that we have for God, and complete answers to these questions are unknowable. That is clear from the ending of the book of Job. Job asks some why questions of God and God chooses to communicate by asking questions of Job instead of giving answers to Job. Instead of answering in a single sentence, “Because you wouldn’t understand”, God spends two chapters asking questions. These questions lead Job to a revelation, to repentance, and to renewed relationship with God. The Scriptures are full of hints and clues about why God communicates, like this one, if we are willing to look for them. Each hint, each clue, reveals something about God, and something about humanity.

The answer to the question, “What is God’s communication like?” is another interesting one. Where the rationale behind God’s communication is (for the most part) hidden, the characteristics of God’s communication are directly observable. We  have less information that we would wish (non-verbal clues, tone of voice, etc.), but it is still a rich resource. For the majority of Christians, it is an overlooked resource. We act as if the saying, “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.”, does not apply to God. With God, too often we restrict ourselves just to what was said, not how it was said, or why, or how it could have been said differently. That is like walking past a pearl of great price.

God talks about His feelings. That is important. When an angel speaks in the gospel, the first thing they say is “Do not fear”. That tells us both that angels are scary looking, and that God doesn’t want us to be scared of angels. It may tell us something more about how fear affects our ability to hear and perceive God. We can see that God reveals parts of His plan for the future, but never all. We see that God uses metaphors, hyperbole, and other figures of speech. God regularly answers questions with questions. God seems to tailor His messages to the person who is receiving the message. God allows two-way communication. These observations give us insight into what God is trying to accomplish, and how, and why. It is shows us what it looks like to have God’s character and be an inhabitant of the kingdom. If we are honest, we won’t always understand why God chooses to communicate as He does, nor will we understand how a given communication embodies the values of His kingdom. But asking the question, and seeking to answer it, will surface issues that we would normally gloss right over.

Now for the relation to integral mission, which is both crucial and controversial.

There is no such thing as pure proclamation of the gospel.

It does not exist. It is a helpful theoretical construct, but every proclamation is already and always connected to demonstration and to being. To be more specific, the way that we proclaim the gospel is always a demonstration of our proclamation. In fact, sometimes the way that we say something is more important than the content of our message. The first step in integrating words and deeds is to integrate what we say with the way that we say it, which both arise from why we are saying it. A proclamation of the gospel with open body language, or with a haughty tone, or based on abstract logic instead of personal experience (or vice versa), or in a foreign language demonstrates something about the gospel. We are also aware that both the proclamation and the demonstration spring from our being. God’s being is the unpolluted source of His rationale, His why. As we seek to know God’s why, and to become aware of how God has chosen to demonstrate His proclamation, we become better integral missionaries.

Evangelism Metrics

Google returns approximately 471,000 results for “the unfinished task”. Nine of the top ten results are links to content about the Great Commission, the unfinished task of the Christian faith.

Tasks are part of a conceptual realm primarily associated with work. Management, scheduling, resource allocation, efficiency, strategic planning, and metrics all exist in the same conceptual realm. It is no surprise that when Christians begin discussing the Unfinished Task, efficiency, resources, strategy and management quickly enter the picture.

The natural question in this conceptual realm is “How can we complete the unfinished task as quickly as possible with the resources that we have?” This question is impossible to answer unless we can measure evangelism. Measuring evangelistic success is an  admittedly difficult issue that has spurred a lot of discussion, both among scholars and practitioners. The longer the discussion has gone, the more new questions that have arisen.

Do we measure the number of baptisms or professions of faith or new church members?

How do we know that conversions are genuine?

Should we count the number of new churches instead?

How about the number of growing churches?

How do capture spiritual depth or faith?

These are very difficult questions. The idea behind a centered-set approach to evangelism is that these questions are difficult, if not impossible to answer. That is the parable of the weeds in Matthew 13. But that answer doesn’t fit in the “task” conceptual realm. The central presupposition of business thinking is:

What gets measured, gets done.

With the obvious corollary that what doesn’t get measured, doesn’t get done. Missions and development organizations have accepted that there may not be a perfect answer, but not having an answer is not an option. Or else the unfinished task will remain unfinished.

Every organization has to justify the investment of its donors. We tend to fall back on some version of “number of converts” and/or “number of groups of believers”, as our good enough metrics. Then, over time, the organization begins to work improving those numbers. That’s what organizations do.

How can we maximize these numbers? How can we reduce defective outcomes, reduce time per conversion? How can we maximize the eternal impact on our investment of time, money, and human resources?

Efficiency. Bang for the buck. This is an urgent issue and people’s eternal destinies are at stake. Devoted followers of Jesus seek for (and find!) answers to these questions as well as new methodologies for evangelism in the Bible.

But, as always, the question frames (and to some extent, determines) the answer. What if we asked a different question.

“Can methodology, strategy, and/or management solve the problem of free choice?”

The problems that every single major evangelistic outbreak in the New Testament run into are rejection and persecution (by government, businessmen, and local religious groups). There are zero exceptions. To use the language of the internet: rejection and persecution aren’t bugs in the gospel, they are features.

So the real question is, “Is there a better method of evangelism that minimizes all this unpleasantness and increases adoption rates?”

The follow up question is “Why didn’t Jesus teach that method right from the start?”

The answer that appeals to me is that Jesus did not teach a method of evangelism, therefore there isn’t a “right” one. (For more, see last month’s post here.)

Maybe the paradigm for mission should not be “task completion”, but being faithful to the God of mission.

Integral mission requires faithfulness. It requires love for our neighbor, which requires sharing the good news. The foundation of evangelism is love for our neighbor. We see that many times in the New Testament, perhaps most clearly in Matthew 9. Jesus heart was touched with compassion for the lost, so he told the disciples to pray for workers. Paul preaches in the Areopagus in Acts 17 because he was saddened by the condition of the people. Love for God causes love for people causes evangelism. But salvation is not a task that can be optimized. Salvation is from the Lord. In fact, Paul takes steps to make sure that the spread of the gospel can’t be laid at the feet of his wisdom or his method. Are we willing to do the same? Do we trust God that much?

Baptizing Methods

This post is not about the various methods of baptizing a new believer. It’s about something much more important, the Western church’s penchant to baptize certain methodologies because they have produced spiritual success.

This is exactly the action that a social scientist or anthropologist would predict for any person (Christian or not) coming from a Western culture. The culture that invented the assembly line, the corporation, modern management, monitoring and evaluation, and competitive capitalism is a culture that eats, sleeps, and breathes strategy, evaluation, and success. Western metaphors for business “dog eat dog” and “survival of the fittest” are based on the idea that success is a precondition which must underlie and support “mission, vision, and values”. The mission doesn’t matter, nor the values, if the organization can’t pursue it successfully.

Our culture has an obsession with the right way. The right technique. The one that is the easiest, fastest, most effective, and least expensive. It’s a legacy of industrialization. There are lots of different methodologies to find the right way, e.g. Six Sigma, MVT, etc.

Of course, it has spilled over in the church. But, at the risk of being redundant, whenever Christians start doing something new for the same reasons that non-believers are doing it, we should get very nervous. The Church has left the narrow path for the wide road more than a few times in the last 2000 years, and the results have never been pretty. What about here?

Are we doing good theology when we analyze methods by their spiritual success? Is this biblical?

This issue is confusing because it hits at our cultural roots, and because good people use the Bible to justify the methods. So the logic is: we know the method is biblical because it is successful, and thus worthy of replication. Can you see the issue yet?

Let’s take a look at a couple of tongue-in-cheek examples. Would your organization or church be willing to follow these biblical examples?

Acts 2 – Send a team to share the gospel with a large crowd of people by miraculously speaking their native language. Do it with such enthusiasm that the crowd thinks you are drunk. Result: 3000 people saved!

Acts 16 – Get thrown in jail for casting out demons. Praise God, and refuse to flee when God does a miracle, so that you can share the gospel with the guard. Result: The guard and his whole family get saved and Paul and Silas get free dinner!

Genesis 27 – Lie to your old, nearly blind father and impersonate your older brother so that you can steal your father’s blessing from your older brother. This method is most biblical if your older brother is currently doing an act of loving service for your elderly father.  Result: Jacob becomes the sole inheritor of the covenant of Abraham and receive the blessing of God!

Judges 6 – Ask God for a sign several times after a clear voice from heaven speaks. Result: Defeat your enemies against incredible odds!

If they wouldn’t, why not? What is the difference between these methods and other biblical methods that they would follow? That feeling that you are feeling is cognitive dissonance. The real reason that your church or organization follows the method du jour is because they are successful and they make sense. But the real key is success.

The problem is, when we start talking about spiritual success: input does not equal output. We aren’t in control of the results. We are in control of our faithfulness. The real biblical example: Genesis 3.

I assume that we would all agree that God knows the right method and set up the best possible situation. His kids still rejected him. Your method is going to have to face the same reality. Humans have a choice to make, and sometimes they will choose God and sometimes they will not.

If there was a best method or a technique for doing evangelism or music or church planting, it would be clearly identified and explained in the Bible. Let’s not baptize our own creations (Satellite churches, House churches, Purpose Driven Life, Seeker Sensitive, Prophet Stories, Church Planting Movements, Contemporary Worship, etc.) just because God has graciously given success.

Don’t chase the right method or the right technique. Don’t chase success. The methods don’t matter and success all too often is a false sign! Look how many follow after anti-christs and false doctrines in the New Testament, and in the world today.

The narrow road leads to Jesus. Chase Jesus. That is hard enough. Be faithful to that calling. Can I say that most Christian methods that I have seen are “dis-integrating”? They tear apart what should be held together. They remove, they simplify. That’s also what an anthropologist would predict. But we are trying to live and be something greater than that.

Mision integral. Mission without anything left out.

If you are worried about the specifics, remember Numbers 22. God spoke through Balaam’s donkey. That should make you feel better. I mean, Balaam’s donkey wasn’t even a Jewish donkey. I’m sure that you know the Scriptures better than he (or she) did. And that donkey surely saved Balaam from God’s judgement.

Integral Mission and Donors

Quick Definition of Integral Mission

Integral mission is a simple concept with complex implications. One way to define integral mission is  the belief that a human life is a seamlessly integrated whole. There are physical, spiritual, emotional, social, political, economic, religious aspects of every human’s existence and they are all inter-related. Who we are as humans (our “being”) is reflected in how we act (our “doing”) and what we say (our “saying”).

Adultery is undoubtedly a physical act, but the implications and consequences span the gamut of the human experience. There are social, legal, religious, spiritual, missional, and health ramifications. These consequences are not limited to the people involved in the act: their children, siblings, parents, and friends are often impacted as well. A holistic view of sin and evil requires a holistic view of mission and the good. That is integral mission, seeing the world in its larger, more complex, and inter-related context, and addressing root causes instead of surface symptoms. Integral mission is another word for holistic theology.

Transforming Our View of the Poor

One of the most positive developments of our increased commitment to integral mission is that it has transformed our view of the poor. From a perspective limited to the spiritual, the poor were just “lost souls in need of a savior”, who happen to be hungry or have HIV.  From a perspective limited to the physical and economic, they are “people experiencing severe poverty”, who happen to have never heard the good news about Jesus.

From an integral mission perspective, the poor can no longer be “those people”. They are us. Human, made in the image of God. The poor cannot be defined by only their needs and their hurts, but by their gifts and their joys as well. They have great understanding of their context and situation, and great capacity. The poor are not just a pair of disembodied hands reaching out to beg for money, and viewing the poor as such is profoundly dishonoring to the God whose image they bear. Many Christian NGOs are starting to practice a more appropriate view of the poor in their development strategy, moving from a top-down, command-and-control approach to a bottom-up, grassroots approach, and they are experiencing new successes (as well as new challenges). In the same way, many NGOs have changed their fundraising strategies as well, committing to not displaying pictures that would shame those being displayed. This is a major transformation for NGOs who made videos of sad, naked, dirty, starving African children in Africa for decades as if that sadness and poverty was what defined Africa.

Transforming Our View of the Rich

This is a positive change, but our view of the rich, of those who supply the funds for mission is still in need of redemption. If the poor were pictured as begging hands before integral mission, then donors are still being pictured as little Monopoly men with bags of money trying to run away. Both images are dehumanizing and dishonoring to the image of God. These images have no place in a holistic Christian theology. The NGO must learn to view its donors as people, or even better, as friends and family.

That’s easy enough to say, and much harder to do. But difficulty is not the determiner of right or wrong. It was a long journey to understand how to be do good participatory development, and to re-humanize the poor in our thoughts. I expect that it will be another long journey to do good donor development and to re-humanize them in our thoughts as well. They may not be little gods, who rule, nor may they be little wallets, to be mined.

I see a few potential areas of transformation. Slick, emotionally manipulative advertising for donations turns the act of giving into a form of consumption. That cannot be the best that humans can do.

Donors are not just a “means” to a wallet. They are ends in themselves. What does that mean for NGOs and for churches? Perhaps it means that our pursuit of money should be less important than our pursuit of people.

In the end, I have many more questions than answers.

Is donating money too cheap?

Should giving be more costly?

In what ways and why?

Should more of the work of transformation and development be done by individuals?

Has the development NGO taken too much on itself and excluded the individual Christian?

Should the NGO have a vision for the transformation of the donor?

These are the questions I am asking myself. I do not have the answers yet. I have a feeling that, much like the transformation in our view of the poor, many of the activities involved with donors will remain the same, but they will be carried out in a different way with a different mindset.

What do you think? Have you ever been a donor? How were you treated? How were you viewed? How did that make you feel?