We’re joined this week by author and professor, Mark D. Baker, to talk about themes from his new book, Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community Without Judgementalism (available now from InterVarsity Press). In his book, 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. We’ll talk about what this means for churches, and explore some communities who are trying to reimagine what it means to center ourselves around Jesus Christ.
Mark Baker, Ben Wideman
Ben Wideman 00:00
It’s season three of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine. What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus.
Mark Baker 00:09
And it was fascinating that people who weren’t in the church. When I asked them what you needed to do to become a Christian, they didn’t say, “Oh, you need to acknowledge your sins, ask Jesus forgiveness.” And what they said was, you need to, you know, stop drinking, you need to, you know, get get married, if you’re not, you know, if you’re just living together, I mean, they said, and then you can go and so. So I would say to a person that’s comfortable and their bounded setting, to not just think of themselves, but to think of what is that their bounded-ness is communicating to others outside the lines.
Ben Wideman 00:49
Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world. Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together. Hello, friends. Welcome back to ~ing Podcast. I’m really excited today to be joined by Dr. Mark D Baker. Mark is a professor of Mission and Theology at Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary in Fresno, California. He has lived a very full life and has authored a number of different books, including one that came out not too far ago called Centered-Set Church: Discipleship and Community Without Judgmentalism. Mark, we’re really excited to have you with us on ~ing Podcast. Thanks so much for taking the time.
Mark Baker 01:41
It’s great to be with you.
Ben Wideman 01:43
For those who don’t know you, how do you describe yourself? How do you introduce yourself these days?
Mark Baker 01:49
I guess I introduced myself I try to include the fact that I was a I lived in Honduras for 10 years as a missionary there. currently a professor, I also like to let people know that I lead a Bible study in the county jail every week just to communicate that I’m not just in the ivory tower.
Ben Wideman 02:11
Mark Baker 02:12
For those you know, in the Anabaptist-Mennonite world, I just said to someone last week, the the first Mennonites I met were in Central America when I went there after college, I didn’t grow up Mennonite. So I in some ways consider myself a Latin American Mennonite, but came in to Anabaptism through meeting Mennonites in Honduras, and, and sensing the, I guess, the possibility of promise and maybe the necessity of that stance in a context like that.
Ben Wideman 02:43
Well… Wow, I feel like we could spend some time with just that as a starting point. But I really do want to get to your book, I think it’s actually a pretty apt transition, though. It was not too long ago at our local Mennonite Church here in central Pennsylvania, during a Sunday school, talkback time about the sermon, a woman who had only recently been attending said “I almost didn’t come today, I was feeling a lot of shame that I’m not living as good of life as you Mennonites.” She had this idea that to be a part of our church required something more of her she really felt like we had displayed something, for better or worse, that was defining who is in and who is out. And your book is kind of a response to that kind of tradition that we have here. Right? That church is not necessarily about a boundary of who’s in and who’s out. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Mark Baker 03:44
I was the kind of person that would lead the woman you’re talking about to feel that way. I I start the book by telling a story of you know, I’m five or six years old driving home from church on a Sunday, sitting in the backseat looking out the window and I see someone mowing their grass and and I think, “Oh, they’re clearly not a Christian, because, well, one, they hadn’t been in church, and they’re working on, you know, the Sabbath on Sunday.” So what we see there is, yeah, I had I’d already this very young age started this line drawing of drawing a line between good Christians, bad Christians or Christians, non-Christians. And that continued, you know, in high school, I was not a troublemaker. I didn’t drink, smoke, you know, dance… didn’t steal on the job, lie, cheat, steal, etc. And I was very conscious. I mean, other people around me were and again, I did this line drawing sort of thing of thinking. Yeah, like they’re clearly not Christians. Then what happened there was this. Yet this moment of disruption happened when I went to a Christian college, but there were people that had different sets of rules. They’re lying. Words were different, the content of the lines were different. And so I encountered some Christians that that did some things that were, from my perspective, inappropriate behavior, but they were clearly more spiritual than I was. And so it sort of threw the whole thing up in the air and I yet reading my Bible and you know, reading Paul talking about, you know, food offered to the idols and you know, some drinking things and came home and pronounced to my parents that we were legalist. And, you know, this, this, this attitude towards others that they weren’t Christians, because they drank, you know, just but notice what I did in that moment. So I come home as if I’m unfree, I’m leaving this legalism behind. But yeah, I mean, I can remember standing in the kitchen, and just that self righteous attitude, I had birth my parents, you know, your legalist, I went to Honduras, and got brought a whole new set of material for my line. So then it shifted, you know, from these don’t dance, you know, swear kind of things to are you helping the poor… Are you in favor of human rights in the context of violence in Central America…
Ben Wideman 06:10
Works righteousness kind of idea… works righteousness.
Mark Baker 06:13
I mean, I grown up, you know, evangelical, strong sense of the gospel, salvation is not by works. And I think that’s a key point, too, because it’s not that we say, you know, like, You did not say the things that that woman felt. Right, right. You know, we communicate these things in other ways. So yeah, I, I like to say I lived… I preached grace and lived works-righteousness. And it’s, and I think a key thing to which you bring out of the book is, it’s not just quote, you know, oh, those legal lists in here I was this, you know, progressive, justice-oriented, helping the poor, I was going to a church started by a Mennonite missionary that was more charismatic, open to the gifts of the Spirit. But then I was judgmental about others who weren’t. And so that then there came this moment where, whereas I had thought I’d left my legalism. There was this moment of revelation through Bible studies in where someone made made an observation which led me to realize, Oh, I am just as judgmental as I was at 16 or six. I’m, you know, this works-oriented. And so that was a moment of change for me. And then what the book is about, and this was some years later, was I encountered the work by Paul Hiebert, who was a Mennonite brother and missionary in India and was struggling with how do you? How do you discern when someone’s a Christian, part of your group. And, you know, the context of Hinduism where people were quite willing to accept Jesus… put Jesus up on the shelf with their other gods. And so Paul Hiebert came with this thing, borrowing it from math, and he was an anthropologist of bounded, fuzzy, and centered-set… bounded church, fuzzy church, centered church. And here, I would invite listeners to go to my website centeredsetchurch.com. And scroll down just a little bit, and you’ll see this place it says “free diagrams” or diagrams, free PDF, something like that. So I invite you hit pause, go get that PDF, because this is a very visual thing. So I’ll describe it right now. But good to have the diagram too for you. So what… Yeah, so Hiebert describe this as… So a bounded church is one that has a clear boundary, (indistinguishable) and static, and it distinguishes who belongs and who doesn’t. And if you do whatever is in that line, and we could go back to the examples I gave, it can be different things. But if you measure up to those things you’re in. And I felt that, you know, I was in with the people that were talking about social justice and helping the poor in Central America. So and then yeah, if you don’t, you’re out. And then you feel shame, as as you mentioned. And so. So what happens often, then is when people sense this, oh, the you know, these lines, this is no good, this is judgmental. And then what happens? Well, what’s the solution? Well get rid of the lines right? Here it calls that a fuzzy church. So and if you if you just imagine you have this circle, but then if you erase that line, then the judgmentalism is gone, you know, and that woman she would have felt Oh, no, you know, I can be here. But then what happens is, and this is a really important point that the fuzzy church and the bounded church are on the same continuum. They’re, you know, they’re online. It’s the same paradigm. It’s just that one how’s the line? The other is or aced it. But a fuzzy church is left with no strong sense of identity. And a significant thing for us is, there’s also no way to call someone to discipleship to conversion because it’s, it’s fuzzy. So then we need an Yeah, a third way alternative, something, you know, totally different. And so, Hiebert, again, borrowing from math goes for a centered-set or a centered church. And so it’s, it asks the question of who belongs in a very different way, whereas the other one is related to a line that’s drawn? A centered is relational, and it looks at orientation. So you define a center. And then the people who are in the group are ones that are heading towards that center that are in relationship with the center. And so what a centered church does is it It solves the problems of a bounded church without falling into the problems or weaknesses of a fuzzy church, because there still is a sense of, of a center of, of identity. And of, you know, if Jesus is our center, that has implications for our life. And there is room for, you know, loving exhortation for saying to someone else, you know, I think you’re off track. But the judge mentalism, it can be done without judgmentalism, because my identity isn’t dependent on this definition of we’re all the same, we’re all inside this line, my identity is in the center. And so I can be more gracious and accepting of people who might not yet be measuring up in the same way we’re on a journey together.
Ben Wideman 11:58
Well, it seems so timely and relevant. Given the polarization that we’re currently living through in American society, right now, I think about our politics, even the way that we are siloed in our social media spaces, we are automatically sort of grouped and clumped with the people with the same interests. And we define ourselves by us versus them, right? It’s always about I am myself, because the I am not that other over there. Is there like how do we how do we break away from that deep societal impulse, I guess, to categorize ourselves in that way to find our value in what we’re not,
Mark Baker 12:35
These are tools… Like this is a very helpful, conceptual thing that Hiebert has given to us. But the tool itself is not enough to make a center, you know, we just can draw this diagram on a whiteboard and say, Okay, let’s be centered church. And so a point I make in the middle part of the book is, it really matters, who the God of the center is. So for instance, if, if my view of God is that God is a demanding, angry, judgmental figure, then if that’s the God in the center, we’re gonna have a bounded group, even if we’re using centered set terminology and everything because yeah, the character of the community will be influenced by that God of the center,
Ben Wideman 13:36
Fueled by what they’re aiming for, I guess, yeah,
Mark Baker 13:39
How is it that we can move away from the us to them? And I think when our identity is rooted in Jesus, there’s the possibility then my security is in that relationship, and it opens up space for me to not have the necessity of the US them and and this is where I think you have to be compassionate and understanding the US damn thing is is a very common thing and people are you know, grasping for security want to be in they feel threatened, etc. But we have something radically different to offer of saying, you know, we can follow both the model of Jesus but also the experience of having God’s loving embrace through Jesus, that we do not need to you know, other someone else to put down someone else for me to feel secure because my security is in Jesus. So I think that the center, the God of the center of the God revealed by Jesus Christ is of ya Most important to this for the reason you mentioned as well as to avoid it just sliding into boundedness. Again.
Ben Wideman 15:13
I don’t know if there’s a way for you to answer this question without giving away the end to your book. But one of the things I most appreciated was the practical examples you gave at the end of some churches who are really trying to be centered set churches. Can you give us some examples? Maybe without getting too specific, I guess about, you know, what, what is really helpful to you that you see in these churches that are really shifting to a more centered-set model?
Mark Baker 15:39
If you Google bounded church, or centered set Church, like there are many people talking about this writing articles about it. They’re, you know, chapters and books about it. So it’s like, it’s not like Mark Baker came up with this thing. But what was not what was not out there was a resource, a publication that talked about how do you put it into practice? And so what I did was I went out and interviewed pastors, church leaders, did focus groups, in churches and places with people who would churches were trying to put this into practice. And so the book is, yeah, the latter part of the book is filled with examples of things I learned. When I started doing the interviews, like I imagined, I would go out and find Okay, so what do you do when, you know, there’s a couple they’re living together? They’re not married? They’re going your church? What do you do? And I would go out and ask someone, what do you do in this situation, and then I would have the case study in the book and say, This is a centered way. And, and I particularly I mentioned that example, because it came up repeatedly when I talked to churches. But the fascinating thing was, there wasn’t like, there wasn’t, this is the way to do it, I encounter newer responses to that example. And so what it led me to realize is, oh, there’s not, it’s not that I’m going to write a book with this list of, you know, here are these 12 things, and 12 situations, and this is the center of response. And so it’s it much more, I found the book on telling examples to help feed people’s imagination, of how they can respond, and it will be different in different situations. One that impressed me a lot was from a man, a pastor from Washington State named Dan Sudol. And when we were, we were talking, we’re in a coffee shop in Seattle, and I was he was very passionate about Jesus centered approach. And so I said, okay, okay, but what do you do when, you know someone is off track? They’re not oriented. I wanted to get a feel for you know, how, what’s your loving confrontation look like? Yeah. And so and this is a, this is a very large church. And so he said to me, you know, when someone comes to me and says, I’m very concerned about my friend, they are blank, you know, or someone in the church, Dan said, what I tell that person is invite your friend to read one of the Gospels with you. And I was sitting there with my pen, my legal pad, like ready to take notes on his answer. And that was just, you know, he’s done. And I’m like, Well, okay, tell me we did talk a bit more about, like, how he helps the person tough to do that. But it was, it was a beautiful example in the the more I thought about it, though, this is this is wonderful. It is so centered one in because you’re reading the Gospel, it’s about Jesus. But what Dan said was, “If you read the gospel with the person, whatever it is, they’re struggling is, it’s going to come up. But also what’s going to come up is, you know, the beautiful Jesus actions in words and deeds that are shame-dissipating, that are forgiving, and so it’s going to go deeper root.” So that’s one example yet let me share one other so this is from a former student who’s a pastor and and it was the situation where there is a person that a person would go to their church for a long time, and was now living together with someone else. They weren’t married. And my my former students said, you know, he felt in him the bounded pressure, like you’ve got to call out this sin need to do something, what do you do? But he he sought to resist that and so he said, they… they got together a group of leaders and they, they talked they prayed about what how do we respond to this situation? And, and one of them said, you know, “I think we’re wrong to be focusing in on this particular issue of married or not married,” he said, “Why don’t you know, why don’t we offer to walk with them to, you know, to visit them to give them pastoral care.” And so what they the group decided was that they would, you know, assign one couple, and if the, this other couple was willing to get you to meet with them, walk with them, and you can guess what happened, you know, that all sorts of other things came up, that led to transformation in these people’s lives. And they did eventually, you know, end up getting married, but but because they took this centered approach, it just went deeper and more profound. And less shaming than the abounded approach would have been, here’s the line, you fall short, you need to do this, or else.
Ben Wideman 20:58
For those who are saying, well, this all sounds like something to aim for Mark, but I really kind of enjoy my bounded-set Church. And I’m, I’m settled in my ways. Like, what is the, what is the beauty of really trying to posture ourselves in a different way? If we’re content in a bounded-set church, why strive for something different?
Mark Baker 21:25
Yeah, a whole list things. Start with what let’s go back to where we began, then of, you know, the example of the woman you shared. And when you share that, I mean, I am almost exactly the same experience. When I was doing field research for my doctoral dissertation in, in Honduras, I was interviewing people on the streets who weren’t in churches, but trying so I was doing, you know, I was visiting different churches, to explore their boundedness legalism, so then, but also, you know, outsiders. And, and it was fascinating that people who weren’t in the church, when I asked them what you needed to do to become a Christian, they didn’t say, “Oh, you need to acknowledge your sins, ask Jesus forgiveness.” And what they said was, “you need to, you know, stop drinking, you need to, you know, get married, if you’re not, you know, if you’re just living together.” I mean, they said, and then you can go. And so, so I would say to a person that’s comfortable and their bounded setting, to not just think of themselves, but to think of what is the their boundedness, communicating to others outside the lines. Yeah, that’s helpful. And then secondly, is, and I say this in the book, you know, bound it, and you use the word, I mean, it’s comfortable. And there’s security in it, when things are going well. But, you know, I give an example, in the book of a woman who, her husband was unfaithful, she got divorced. And she was, I mean, she grew up bounded, she was bounded. And she was now on the wrong side of the line, you know, she was on the wrong side of her own line. And she would do all these verbal gymnastics to not use the word divorced, because it was such a shaming thing for her. And so I would say to the person that’s comfortably bounded, yeah, it’s comfortable. But, but there’s that threat, you know, if you slip up, you’re going to be the one that’s shamed. Many people would hang on to bounded because they feel the necessity in this age of such, you know, relativism, or you know, anything goes whatever ism, they feel the need, no, we this is important, what we believe is important and our you know, our peace position is important. You know, whatever it is that these are things that are important and, and I would say the abounded church has the appearance of taking ethics and belief seriously. But in reality, it tends to be superficial, because it tends to focus on things that you can comply with. And it’s, it’s love is limited, because, yeah, the transparency is not welcomed in a bounded church. So I would say to them, you could have so much more in a centered church, deeper transformation, deeper connection, and less shaming of others.
Ben Wideman 24:43
I think that’s a really helpful word of hope to imagine all of those things suddenly showing up in more of our churches. The other thing that I can hear people saying, as they’re listening to our conversation is but but the boundaries are sometimes important. Don’t we need boundaries? And I’m guessing you have an answer for that as well.
Mark Baker 25:02
Yes. So So one thing is to communicate, yet boundaries are valuable things. And even if we think the Bible distinguishes between appropriate and inappropriate, so when I use bounded in the book, I’m talking about a line that has the sense of us them superior inferior judge mentalism. And so I distinguish between a bounded line a bounded boundary and boundaries that you might say, you know, as a interrelationship, we need to have healthy boundaries. So bounded, it does not refer to all things we might call boundaries, there are things that can be deemed appropriate, inappropriate. In the book, I don’t use the word boundaries in a positive way just for ease of communication. But it’s, it is not, it is not a critique of any and all use of lines to distinguish between appropriate or inappropriate.
Ben Wideman 26:12
Yeah, yeah. But I think there’s a boundary that comes from being a centered set Church too, right. If someone is against your center, that is kind of a boundary.
Mark Baker 26:22
Right? I wouldn’t use the word boundary with that, because I think it gets concluded confusing. But that’s how a centered set is significantly different than a fuzzy. I mean, there are times when you’d say, and there’s, you know, I think a great example, that many Anabaptist would, would resonate with or be interested in from well, the nicely who is a, he’s a retired pastor of Seattle Mennonite church. When I asked him, I said, because he’s a strong advocate of centered set. So okay, well, has there been a time when, you know, you’ve said to someone who doesn’t know who we are, and he used the example of peace position. And he said, “you know, when someone comes to us, and they are not in line with that,” He said, “we’re not bounded. So we wouldn’t say, sorry, you can’t be here.” He’d say, “walk with us.” And then he said, “you walk with us.” And I think over time, you will come. If you’re centered walking with us, I think you will come to embrace our position. But then he said, If you don’t, he said, I will help you find a church more in line with your position. And I said, Have you done that? And he said, Yes.
Ben Wideman 27:42
Good job. Kudos, Seattle Mennonite. Yeah. Something else, and I admit that this is, I think back to the places where I have belonged, they’ve almost always been bounded set spaces. And so my default is coming from that. What, uh, what about this fuzzy-set boundary? I haven’t experienced that much, but, but I am… I’m assuming we need to also talk about that for just a minute, too.
Mark Baker 28:12
Yes. So okay, let me say that I only ever, for years, when I talked about this, I only talked about bounded- and center-set. And there’s, there’s
Ben Wideman 28:24
Mark Baker 28:24
And I just say this quickly, there’s two reasons that I included in the book that I would advocate we must talk about fuzzy today. One is, society is increasingly fuzzy. And so what I started bumping into was, although my experience was like yours, I started having students, like my own daughters that were growing up in a very fuzzy environment. And so they were bringing a societal sense of whatever ism, you know, like you do your thing, I’ll do my thing, just you know, and a very strong sense of the most important thing is to be nice, and to not make someone feel bad and therefore fuzzy. So So one reason was that this is an increasing reality that people in they’re absorbing tolerance is supreme virtue, virtue in society. It’s coming in to church, or churches, and this I increasingly encounter is churches. No, they don’t want to be bounded. But they they go fuzzy, because they they don’t have a conception of an alternative. So I have increasingly encountered that. The other thing and this is a strategic reason it gets back to you know, the person you said that’s comfortable. Whenever I talked about this, in the past, I always had students that would argue against me, and they would always say, we have something in between bounded and centered and they just they want I need to hang on to their boundedness. And about five years ago when I started in class, including fuzzy, since that time, I have not had, I’ve had one student, only one student that is argued for bounded, because what happens is when when I present bounded and then fuzzy and then go to centered, what people don’t with the people that are trying to hang on to the seriousness of bounded, they know they don’t want fuzzy. And so when they when they sense “Oh, Mark doesn’t like fuzzy either,” they’re more open to see centered as a non-fuzzy alternative. Whereas before, I think, even though I try as hard as I can to say, “No, it’s not anything goes,” they just felt like “oh, you know, you’re making things loose, relative to center.”
Ben Wideman 30:54
Yeah. I like that. I’m guessing there’s some people who are listening to this who are hungry to learn more, in addition to getting a copy of this book? Where would you direct them to learn more about this?
Mark Baker 31:08
I recommend my website centersetchurch.com. And there’s two things in particular that I like to highlight on that website. So you cannot do centered-set church alone. You know, you can’t lead a small group or Bible study and make it centered set church just because you’ve read the book, the reality is not everyone in your church, or your small group is going to read the book. So I, in cooperation with Jesus collective, made a series of five 15 minute videos that go over the, the basics of this from the first part of the book, with the idea, that’s something you could use in a small group or with a church to bring other people on board with the language, the concept so you can work on it together. So on centered set, church.com, the website, there’s information about the book, but then below that there’s information about these videos that you could get to us. And then I have written a just newly released commentary on Galatians. That is also it’s done through the lens of a centered set Church. So what can we see in Galatians? Through looking at it through that lens? And what can we learn about centered set from looking at Paul’s approach in Galatians? And it is a Yeah, it’s an accessible lay-level commentary designed for use with small groups. So that’s another resource I would point you to, and they’re all on saturdaysatchurch.com.
Ben Wideman 32:41
Mark, thank you so much for taking the time to be with us here on a podcast. It really has been uplifting for me, and I’m guessing our audience will also find this really valuable to even reflect take a little bit of time to think about the churches you belong to. What are they demonstrating and how might they be filled with a little bit more hope for the future, if they reevaluate who they are and in which direction they’re heading to. Thank you.
Mark Baker 33:08
Thank you, Ben.
Ben Wideman 33:13
Next week on the podcast, we’re sitting down with a few of the people involved with the upcoming young adult Climate Summit. As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.