Centered Set Conversion, Part Two

(in which the epic continues…)

I kept on keeping on, slugging it out to win the girl Sunday after Sunday and discovered that for all my martial rhetoric, going to church really wasn’t all that painful. I kinda liked it, as a matter of fact! So one Sunday in January of ’09 when Kristin was away in Illinois staying with one of her roommates from ‘Natha, I, creature of habit that I am, awoke and got ready for church. Even without her prodding I was amped to meet up with everyone in Sunday School and so I showed up solo to that back room behind the auditorium where we convened.

We had been going through some sort of systematic analysis of who Jesus is and on that Sunday we were focusing in particular on His deity. I obediently flipped to various passages in support of the claims in the handout we had each received but in all likelihood I gave merely a cursory glance to each of the references. Jesus was identified as possessing equality with God and Colossians 1:15-19 was cited to demonstrate the Bible’s explicit statement of this fact. Somewhere around here my mind began to wander towards fierce starship engagements in the unlit depths of outer space or something else of comparable geekiness. To cover my inward straying I flipped a page in the NIV Student Bible my grandpa had given me years before as if to suggest I was probing farther (this usually seemed to work in school under similar circumstances, so I thought I was being dreadfully sly).

I paused my space battle fantasy and absentmindedly glanced down upon chapter 2. For no discernible reason my gaze was drawn towards verse 8: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” I lost track of the class completely after reading that. We were maybe ten minutes into it at best when I read that passage, and for the rest of the hour I was somewhere else entirely. I felt like I was in a dark theater and suddenly had an irate usher’s million candle floodlight fixed upon me, singling me out forensically. Picture Al Capone without warning caught in a brilliant police raid, up against the wall with Eliot Ness blocking every possible escape route. The unmistakeable persuasion of another intelligence’s awareness of me flooded my consciousness and I felt a deep seated fear grip my innards.

The remainder of the classtime was spent bound in a fog of hazy thinking. I couldn’t make another inch’s progress out of the force field that passage seemed to deploy around my thoughts. My mind congealed into a sucking quagmire radiating out from that verse and I could not escape sinking. I just kept looking down at Colossians 2:8, then reeling internally under the weight of unbearable scrutiny. I remember thinking, “God’s onto me. He knows.” I fooled enough people, myself included, but God never had the wool pulled over His eyes, and it was a pretty terrifying reality to be awoken to.

After the class was dismissed, I didn’t even wait for everyone to make it out of the room before I ran up Adam and spilled my guts about what had just happened. With great volume I gave him a synopsis of my life and wove it into the tale of what had just taken place in his classroom. Time evaporated as he asked me questions and got to know me more personally- we spoke for almost two straight hours and missed the morning service as a result! I knew something extraordinarily momentous had just taken place and as so often is the case with extraordinarily momentous events I was struggling to understand it in its immediate aftermath.

Given the poverty of my theological understanding, I figured I had “recommitted myself to the Lord” or something along those lines. I had heard that phraseology many, many times when I would visit Kristin’s family’s church or attend Salvation Army retreats with friends. I didn’t equate my confirmation ten years earlier with salvation but I did think I had been a Christian for some time by that point. Jesus’ lordship and His work as savior were distinct, bifurcated realities in my mind back then so I could only think in accordance with the categories I had available to me. For many, many months therefore I spoke of what took place that day as me getting serious about God; Jesus had been savior and now I had finally made Him lord. It was probably a year later through reading up a little on the lordship salvation issue that the understanding was given to me that I had very definitely passed from death into life.

Another difficulty was that all the religious language I had heard up to that point and for a long time afterward spoke of a definite, conscious time where a decision was made. For a long time then I thought of that Colossians 2:8 moment as, first of all, my moment of decision to commit fully to the Lord, and then, long afterward, as the moment I got saved. My experience counseling at bible camp the summer afterward reinforced that schema because I never heard about any other available option. So at first I thought that because I didn’t experience the archetypal pattern of having a guilty conscience seeking a way to relieve its agony then hearing that there’s a way to escape Hell by inviting Jesus into my heart then, well, I must not have been saved then. I was led to believe that every conversion was the same in essence and only differed in trivial details like name, sex, and age; otherwise, it followed a factory set, cookie cutter pattern. Even after becoming persuaded of the lordship issue I was still stuck thinking inside the box of conscious decisionism to some extent. This box was unwrapped by reading J.I. Packer’s A Quest For Godliness, specifically a chapter in which he outlined the Puritans’ belief that conversion was often a work which was difficult to pin down when precisely it took place- though the new birth is effected at an exact moment in time and space, a person’s conversion could be quite indistinct in comparison.* This broadened my understanding considerably, but I think the box was opened up entirely upon reading Belcher’s book and seeing in his defense of the centered set idea a description of my own conversion!

In his chapter “Deep Evangelism,” Belcher explores the twin poles of the bounded set community and the relational set community model many emerging churches espouse. In the bounded set model, metaphorical fences are drawn around the community which keep people out until such a time as they subscribe to all of the doctrinal distinctives of that particular community. This effectively shuts the door upon outsiders who want to come and see what’s going on in there. When doctrine is made “the guardian of the gate,” it becomes the centerpiece of community formation and is tantamount to a big “Do Not Disturb” sign on our entryways. He quotes one thinker on this subject who thinks that this believing before any sort of belonging philosophy has had negative consequences for the church’s witness because it “essentially slams shut the front door of the church in the face of spiritual seekers” (pg. 95).

Furthermore, it can lead to a reductionism in what conversion means. If subscription is key, conversion can be falsely reduced to doctrinal affirmation or the transfer of theological information. Besides misrepresenting what actually takes place when a person comes to saving faith, it ignores the biblical data which depicts a wide array of conversion types, from the thief crucified next to Jesus, to Saul, confronted by the resurrected Lord and stopped dead in his tracks, to twelve men who followed Jesus through an exacting three year initiation, to Cornelius who simply heard that God had raised Jesus from the dead and appointed him to be judge of the world and gladly accepted that news.

The door does swing the other way though. We should want to create an environment where seekers can feel welcome to come and see the Well, but is there or is there not a time to call for repentance and faith from the individuals who come to seek? Belcher points out that as a pastor, these aren’t theoretical questions for him. Scripture clearly teaches that the church is a new and distinctive community, set apart by allegiance to Jesus Christ and by certain resultant boundary markers. Belonging can be emphasized to such a degree that it actually becomes a brand new idol that trumps the fundamental necessity of belief. Belcher and many others fear that this is the case in many emerging churches. Balance must be restored. The teaching on church discipline is proof positive that “in” and “out” mean something, or else excommunication just wouldn’t be as big a deal as it’s made out to be in the New Testament. “Can we stress belonging without stunting the growth of mature Christians who are already part of the community?” he asks (pg. 98) and answers: Yes.

Drawing on the synoptic gospels’ narration of Jesus’ ministry, Belcher arrives at the centered set model I’ve mentioned before. Reading through Matthew, Mark, and Luke, it’s abundantly clear that lots and lots of people were attracted to some degree to the figure of Jesus. A community of sorts clustered around his personality and teaching and followed him from place to place, but we would be wrong to say that every single one of those people were a part of the genuine community of faith. Rather, people expected the kingdom that Jesus was ushering in to look like many different things and hovered around to see for themselves. What seemingly none of them expected was that this kingdom would find its inauguration in His mission to seek and save the lost through his own sacrificial death. The apostles themselves had a hard time with this at first! But the time would come when Jesus would confront them with His call for commitment and belief. The crucial question was, “Who do you say that I am?” Most walked away when they realized that the Messiah they had wasn’t the Messiah they wanted, but a solid core of individuals responded with belief and were incorporated into an entity that drew its life from the center of its existence: Jesus, the author and finisher of faith.

What we have surrounding Jesus’ public ministry therefore is two concentric circles; the first one, the largest, encircles Jesus with a wide diameter and sees what’s going on from varying distances and can even approach the Well very closely as they are drawn in. However, the inner circle, the one closest to the well, is the brotherhood of those who have entered the kingdom through saving faith in its prophet, priest, and king. They are the ones who, when confronted by the king, answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of God,” and eagerly embraced this reality and had their sins forgiven. The inner circle is a new creation and made up exclusively of those who have been born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (to echo 1 Peter 1:3).

The rich young ruler is a prime example of this paradigm in action. This man identified himself in some way with the movement Jesus headed and recognized Him (though imperfectly) as a teacher with authority. We don’t know how long he associated with Jesus’ wider circle of followers, but Jesus knew the time was right to issue to him the call to true discipleship at the point where Luke 18 picks up. Jesus’ call for commitment here is a demonstration that though the rich young ruler thinks he’s on the inside track, he is not at all within the inner circle of genuine disciples. Though he has seen the Rock up close, he’s not yet standing upon it- he’s still stuck in sinking sand.

Belcher offers us the synthesis of traditional and emerging mindsets that matches more closely the biblical testimony: “…though Jesus was in favor of inviting people into the community, he also challenged them to know whether or not they were truly following him. This takes the insights of the traditional church (the need for boundaries) and the teaching of the emerging church (the need to belong for believing), and steps beyond them into a third way. Belonging is important. Jesus invited many into his community. This is what got him into so much trouble with the Pharisees (the original bounded set people?). But at the same time he did not shy from the truth of the gospel and the need for his followers to repent of their idols. They had to believe in his kingdom, his kingship, and his death and resurrection. Yes, belonging is important, but we still have to believe at some point. He calls those in the outer circle to come into the inner circle, to be close to the Well” (pg. 101).

I was drawn to Jesus through my lifelong desire to belong. That day in Sunday School I was confronted by King Jesus with the fact that I did not confess Him as Lord in everything that that word means: God, Master, King. I was terrified when He spoke through the Scripture and called me out. Through the text of Colossians 2:8 was refracted Jesus’ challenge: “Who do you say that I am?” Looking back on it now, it’s like He said I still would not belong to His church if I would continue refusing His lordship. I identified with His people but I had not identified myself with Him, and the time was accomplished that it could continue no more. Really, I should have enrolled as a card-carrying Calvinist three years ago when I was irresistibly compelled to submit to and love the Lord I suddenly saw revealed in Scripture. King Jesus called me into the kingdom through the means of His declaration that I was yet outside of that kingdom. How did I not immediately direct all the credit to King Jesus for so calling me? That just took a while, I guess, because (just like every other believer throughout history!) I was not granted immediate, comprehensive theological insight upon conversion- just the first morsel of faith and obedience.

It seems to obvious now, in retrospect: There are as many varieties of conversion story as there are contexts in which people are effectually called. Like most great innovations, then, this paradigm is less innovation than it is a distillation of what has been known to be true all along but neglected or forgotten to some degree in past seasons. It collapses false either/or distinctions into a biblical both/and reflection of reality; what is unique about this particular paradigm shift is that in the midst of exterior renovation it preserves the essential either/or at the very heart of conversion.

In The Life of God In the Soul of Man, Henry Scougal pens a beautiful passage in the midst of a prayer in which I find a sympathetic reflection peering back: “It may justly grieve me to consider, that I should have wandered so long, and contented myself so often with vain shadows, and false images of piety and religion; yet I cannot but acknowledge, and adore thy goodness, who hast been pleased, in some measure, to open mine eyes, and let me see what it is at which I ought to aim” (p. 67). Though I myself am but a shadow of the man Scougal was, we both have tasted the same mercy that dammed up an entire way of life and redirected its course into another tributary entirely.



*This belongs in a post all its own, but this fact makes me appreciate my baptism so much more! Though I can’t tell you with absolute certainty when it was that I first genuinely believed, at some point the ripples of belief caught up with my will and my emotions and my intellect and changed everything. I knew that I believed sometime after I began believing, but remembering the exact moment of my new birth is about as difficult as remembering my first one! The Colossians 2:8 moment may have been only an “awakening” (to use the language of Iain Murray and his homeboys in Revival and Revivalism) or it may have been the real deal. Whenever it was, I know that my faith was exercised and that when I was baptized February 15, 2009 I was presented to the church and to the powers and principalities as a purchased slave of Jesus Christ. I can always point to that reality to point back further to the reality of my being born again.


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