A Democrat, a Republican and a Libertarian walk into a church … sounds like the start a bad joke. For many of us, it’s the start of our Sunday.
These divides, while unique only in their contemporary rhetoric, are not new. “Us vs. Them” thinking has fueled societal discord for most of human history.
Humans seem to be great at developing, defining and defending our “boundaries” so that we can understand who is on our team and who isn’t, who we are with and who we are against. While this is not exclusive to religion, it certainly influences our faith communities, leading to what sociologists and anthropologists call “bounded sets.”
In a bounded set, the group works to establish a clear boundary. In religion, it’s often a theological or doctrinal stance. Sometimes it’s behavioral benchmarks that align those on the inside against those on the outside — us against them. A bounded set is hard at the edges. Those on the inside are accepted and loved, while those on the outside are kept away until they can change their beliefs, behaviors or whatever might be required for acceptance into the group.
One way to visualize a bounded set would be a Western-style horse corral. A fence is erected to keep the horses safe and secure. Beyond the fence are wild beasts — predators, rustlers and thieves. The fence serves to protect and makes it easier for ranch hands to feed and care for their herd. Before wild horses can be introduced to the corral, they must be broken. They must learn to enjoy the safety of the fence, and eventually appreciate life inside the corral. If the fence holds, there are very few threats. Food is easy to obtain. It is safe, warm, and clean. Some might find this illustration similar to their understanding of church: Inside is safe; outside is scary.
But there is a different way to think about faith communities — “centered set.” Centered-set communities believe that the CENTER is compelling enough and able to draw people. There are no hard boundaries intended to keep or turn people away, rather a substantial CENTER to which we all relate. Centered-set communities care less about “in or out” and more about the relationship one has to the CENTER. That relationship is a journey on which we are constantly reorienting ourselves towards (or away from) the CENTER.
If a horse corral is a helpful illustration of the bounded set, a watering hole in the African grasslands might be a good illustration of a centered-set community. Whereas the corral is the picture of safety, the watering hole is the picture of LIFE. It is not uncommon to find dozens of different animals all sharing the same watering hole — especially during the dry season, when the rains do not come, the grass withers away and the ground is parched. At the watering hole, there are no fences providing safety or separation. Instead, it’s the need for and the draw of LIFE-giving water that is enough to accomplish harmony.
Interestingly, Jesus says some things that brings our grasslands illustration to greater potency. “Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.’” Anyone thirsty?
Some people assume Jesus came to establish a new kind of club that would compete against other religions for more “ins” than “outs.” I assert that Jesus came to establish Himself as the CENTER. The CENTER of human history; the CENTER of each culture and civilization; and at the CENTER of the lives of individuals and families. By placing him at the center, we can relate well with those whom we may have significant disagreements. More than that, we can fully experience LIFE as desired.