Christians can be adept at drawing lines, determining what it means to be "a good Christian" and judging those who stray out of bounds. Other times they erase all the lines in favor of a vague and inoffensive faith. Both impulses can come from positive intentions, but either can lead to stunted spiritual life and harmful relationships. Is there another option?
The late missionary anthropologist Paul Hiebert famously drew on mathematical theory to deploy the concepts of "bounded," "fuzzy," and "centered" sets to shed light on the nature of Christian community. Now, with Centered-Set Church, Mark D. Baker provides a unique manual for understanding and applying Hiebert's vision. Drawing on his extensive experience in church, mission, parachurch, and higher education settings, along with interviews and stories gleaned from scores of firsthand interviews, Baker delivers practical guidance for any group that seeks to be truly centered on Jesus.
Baker shows how Scripture presents an alternative to either obsessing over boundaries or simply erasing them. Centered churches are able to affirm their beliefs and live out their values without such bitter fruit as gracelessness, shame, and self-righteousness on the one hand, or aimless "whateverism" on the other. While addressing possible concerns and barriers to the centered approach, Baker invites leaders to imagine centered alternatives in such practical areas of ministry as discipleship, church membership, leadership requirements, and evangelism. Centered-Set Church charts new paths to grow in authentic freedom and dynamic movement toward the true center: Jesus himself.
"Mark Baker's Centered-Set Church is a life-giving exposition of a life-transforming concept. With each story, he draws us in to another way of being the people of Jesus in the world. We leave judgmentalism behind, we lose old ways of drawing lines, and Hiebert's concept comes alive. A must-read for us who are called to lead churches to engage this world with the good news of Jesus Christ."
"When it comes to discerning what it looks like to live a Jesus-centered faith in a Jesus-centered community, it isn't an overstatement to say that Mark Baker's teaching and modeling of 'centered-set' Christianity completely revolutionized my vision of Christian formation within the local church. For years I'd hoped he'd put words on a page that could guide congregations—beyond the reach of his seminary classrooms—and finally . . . it is here! Centered-Set Church is a must-read for any church desiring to authentically follow Jesus without the trappings of religiosity or relativism. While many churches in North America have a track record for focusing on rule-based boundaries, this book paints a vision of a church transformed by a simple yet costly idea: What if Jesus were truly the center of a church's values, programs, community life, and discipleship? Without a doubt, that church's witness would be absolutely transformed. Church leaders and Christian readers, put this book at the top of your stack!"
"Centered-Set Church is an immensely practical book brimming with eloquent theology and a lively hope in the loving spirit of Christ active in the world. It's not often that you find the practical and the lyrically beautiful so entwined. Baker embodies the traits he suggests the church needs to embrace to maintain a centered approach. Though clear about his vision, he presents his case with humility and vulnerability—something you don't often find in church manuals. I wish I'd had this book when I planted a church years ago. I highly recommend it to anyone involved in Christian community—church planters, lay leaders, and anyone who longs to glimpse the gracious love at the center of Christian faith."
"How can we hold beliefs and values without falling into gracelessness, self-righteousness, and conditional acceptance of others? In this excellent resource for churches, Mark Baker offers a practical alternative to help your community of faith keep firm convictions without drawing lines that promote polarization and judgmental attitudes. Highly recommended!"
"I can still vividly recall the moment of gracious encounter with the loving God who provides a covering from shame. That moment was unexpectedly in the middle of one of Mark Baker's lectures in his Discipleship and Ethics course. Dr. Baker provides helpful examples, reflective questions, and stirring testimonies from ministry leaders engaging in the work of moving from bounded or fuzzy toward restorative and centered systems. To say that the insights from the course and this book are transformative is to only begin to tell the story of beauty, love, and truth in this material. I highly recommend this book for those seeking to lead and be led in the way of Jesus, toward Jesus, and with one another."
"Few concepts have had as much impact on my own work as a minister and theology lecturer as Mark Baker's explanation of the church in terms of bounded, fuzzy, and centered sets. I've been benefiting from Mark's work on this topic for years. Now with Centered-Set Church, we have Mark's full treatment of a paradigm that will surely shift the conversation and the church into a space of renewal and Christ-centered recalibration. Baker's advocacy for gospel communities that are defined not by theological fences or doctrinal fuzziness but by Jesus Christ the center will resonate with both new seminarians and seasoned ministry practitioners. Centered-Set Church will spark fresh, imaginative gospel hope in the hearts of the recently deconstructed, and it will provide a healing balm for the heavy-handed and the heavy-laden alike."
1. Drawing Lines and Erasing Lines
Part One: Defining the Paradigms
2. Bounded, Fuzzy, and Centered Churches
3. Responding to Questions About a Centered Church
Part Two: Foundation of a Centered-Set Church
4. The God of the Center
5. Foundational Elements
Part Three: Discipleship in Community
6. Centered Exhortation
7. Centered Character: Qualities of Jesus
8. Centered Intervention: Imagining Possibilities
9. Practicing Centered Intervention
10. Journeying Together Toward the Center
Part Four: Centered Ministry
11. Firm Not Bounded
12. Imagining Centered Alternatives
13. The Richness of the Centered Way