Sometimes it takes years to write a blog post. This is one of those.
And I suspect, irritatingly, that it is not even going to be that good!
But I have waited long enough to write, long enough to hope to do justice to this concept. And now I need just to write, to explore what will come as I begin to play with the idea for myself. I need to begin the process of engaging with this for myself, with turning over in my mind what it might mean for how we do church in my context. So, if you choose to read further, know that today I write this post purely for myself. Its coherency may be questionable, its ideas seeking rather than finding form, an expression of my sense that there is something in this. It may be even that this has to be more than one post, in which case I will write it in two parts! [Note: This post passed the 1000 words mark in the end, so I am going to write my personal LifeGiving Church-centric reflections on the concept separately. Though I had hoped to do this within a week of the original post, things have got intense (more intense than usual!) and I just haven’t had space to process this train of thought! So it’s on my mind to do, and when I do, I will add the link to this post, but it may be a while!]
Hiebert, a missiological thinker-practitioner, wrote in the 1980s and 1990s about social set theory and its significance for mission. Other writers have since appropriated this insight: in the context of church, I think I first came across the idea in Hirsch’s The Forgotten Ways but it is also picked up in an article by Niewold in the Journal of Biblical Perspectives on Leadership. It is that latter article which triggered my thinking about this again just over a year ago and which forms the foundational material for this post.
Set theory, or social set theory, asserts that organisations can be categorised in three models: bounded, centred and fuzzy sets. I am less interested in the latter, which are organisations which lack clear centres and clearly bounded edges. The other two are what have been on my mind.
Bounded sets have firm edges: the bounds which determine who is in and who is out of the organisation are undeniable and, perhaps as a result, groups inside the boundaries tend to be homogeneous and largely static, with clear rules and language to mark out the insiders from the outsiders. Accordingly conversion, or assimilation into the group, happens at a clearly demarcated point as a line – the boundary of the group – is traversed. However, strong as the boundary of the set may be, the centre is often less defined and members of such groups are likely to have far more developed an idea of what are the criteria for being an insider than what are the core values of the group once you are inside it.
Centred sets, conversely, are dynamic rather than static. Their boundaries are not so defined because they are not seen as so important. Their defining characteristic is that what matters is a person’s direction in relation to the set’s centre: are they moving towards, or away, from its centre? That centre is usually a defined set of beliefs or practices which members of the set will be able to articulate and around which they are orientating their lives. Boundaries may be defined to some extent but, largely, they are not at issue because the question is not how far from the centre you can go and still be an insider: the key question concerns your direction of travel, a standard which makes boundaries less significant. Though conversion, or group assimilation, is still important in this set, it is seen less as a point and more as a continuum. Of course there may be a definable point of conversion when a person chooses to orientate their life in a journey towards the centre but what matters is that they do not stop here but persevere in their progress towards the centre of the set. Helping others orientate their lives towards the centre is the aim of persons within this model; in contrast to the bounded set model, just getting others ‘inside the set’ is a concept which does not even make sense on this centred set model.
Like all models, this dichotomy has its limits. Reality never follows the models in every point and here is no exception. Bounded sets generally do not survive unless there is something of a centre to hold them together; centred sets usually have to define some kind of membership definition so as to support some kind of communal identity. These models are also, of course, not the only ones out there. Niewold provides a helpful summary of those in his article and they would be worth looking at for those who are interested by this concept and its applicability to church.
Nevertheless, I think that there is value in considering these models in the context of church – and particularly my own context – because they can trigger new understandings of the reality which we are facing on the ground. There are so many ways of going about this and most would be more academic than this blog ever seeks to be. And, right now, I have more than enough other academic questions on my mind, ranging from my research questions through a Biblical Perspectives course that I am writing, essays to mark and Greek classes to prepare, ending somewhere with a sermon series on the significance of food and hospitality practices for the building of relationship within a church community. My brain circuits are actually fried most of the time, I think! So, for these very limited purposes, I hope you’ll let me ditch the pretensions to academia in my next post and write something far more reflective and personal as I grapple with reality in my context. And, as is so often the case with my odd juxtaposition of academic and practitioner, perhaps out of this reflection on practice will come the thoughts with which I can then start to engage through the lens of the academic part of me. We shall see!