Playgrounds and Country Clubs offer insights into the centered and bounded sets of Christianity.
Back in March 2017, I attended an academic conference on church unity and LGBTQ inclusion. At the conference, Dr. Philip Clayton from Claremont School of Theology spoke about a framework that seemed to really make sense when it comes to problems in diverse denominations such as my own United Methodist Church.
The Centered Set of Playground Design…
Dr. Clayton likened the Church, at its best, to a public park.
The public parks in most parts of America are open. You can drive up right next to the park and there’s grass and sidewalk between the streets and the park. The park has various “centers” that draw children to them: the playground, the swings, the picnic tables, the fountain, the basketball court, or the flat patch of grass for sports. The park doesn’t need walls or fences because it has centers that draw people in and keep them there for as long as they need.
The park is what we call a centered set that is more concerned with what draws people in than what defines the space. A good centered set has no need of strong borders or boundaries or fences to define “who is in and who is out” because the norms of behavior that govern the centers keep people participating and folks naturally do not wander from these attractive centers.
People who maintain the parks are most concerned with keeping the centers healthy and strong, and little concern is given to erecting better borders or boundaries.
The Closed Country Club of Orthodoxy.
The problem is that the Church has become more like a country club, especially in the Internet Age with free reign given to those most concerned with who is “in the club.”
Country clubs are not the same as playgrounds as their primary concern is on the borders or boundaries. A country club is usually a large expanse of land—usually a golf course or shooting range—or in urban settings like my own Portland, the MAC club is a multi-level athletic club with deeded membership. The membership is limited either by number of members or by cost. The physical plant is encircled by fences or patrolled by private security.
It’s also about a dress code. In Showtime’s series Billions, Billionaire Bobby Axelrod bursts into the Yale Club and marches right past the front desk to confront his adversary inside with a gaggle of other Yale club members. Axelrod has more wealth than everyone in the room, but the security is most concerned that Axelrod doesn’t have a suit jacket on. The norms of behavior require certain conditions be met–and even wealth does not supersede them.
The descriptors of a country club focus on the borders and boundaries and restrictions because this is what Clayton calls a bounded set: an entity that is most concerned with who is in and who is out, and how to keep things that way. From the membership to the physical plant, everything is about keeping the outsiders out and the insiders separate and cared for.
Centered or Bounded?
It is striking to me how a centered set is so much closer to the ideal of the church than the bounded set.
- The Church should be focused on what it is centered upon: vibrant worship of God, transformation of the world through charity and justice by the power of the Holy Spirit, discipling at all ages of life in the way of Jesus Christ, and maintaining the institutions that do all these things well to solidify the gains of each generation.
- Instead, the Church is focused on the bounded set of what divides us and separates us, such as beliefs on the ordination of women, LGBTQ inclusion, missional outreach, and deep theological divides.
It’s tragic, really. When people hear of my own denomination of The United Methodist Church, they rarely hear about what centers us in global service, justice, worship, and discipleship. They only hear about the boundaries and those organizations (like the Wesleyan Covenant Association) that are tending the boundaries to ensure LGBTQ people cannot serve their church in leadership or in married participation.
The media loves the bounded set and gives airtime to those who most rigidly guard the faith from any innovation or deviance that leads to growth. So we are up against both a culture within and without the Church that lifts up the bounded sets as more important than the centers that give life.
Responding to the Ideals
I have compassion for the gatekeepers, I really do, and I lament that Conservative Christianity is often focused on the bounded set. Conservative Catholic writer Andrew Sullivan’s The Conservative Soul, he writes:
All conservatism begins with loss...human beings live by a narrative and we get saddened when a familiar character disappears from a soap opera, or an acquaintance moves, or an institution becomes unrecognizable from what it once was. These little griefs are what build a conservative temperament. They interrupt our story; and our story is what makes sense of our lives. So we resist the interruption; and when we resist it, we are conservatives. (Page 10)
We see this in our parks sometimes. An inner-city park is not the same as a suburban park. There is an economy of space, so the playground and basketball court have fences around them, and usually only 1-2 entrances so that parents can guard them and make sure their kid doesn’t wander off by taking only a few steps away from the attractions. The most important thing in the urban park is not the attractions but the *bounded set* of fences that keep the children in and the riff-raff out.
These walls and fences come from loss and awareness of the proximity of dangerous cars or un-vetted passersby. And it is all too easy to make the leap from a public park with reasonable fences around their centered sets to a country club with closed membership and higher walls to keep people out. An easy leap that too many Christian denominations, leaders, and individuals have made. We must do better.
My hope is that we remember that we are called to be centered on that which gives us life. We cannot center ourselves if we have erected unjust and unChristian walls or boundaries or borders to those whom God has called and whose communities have qualified that call. And the world cannot see the thriving life in our centers when all they can see are the boundaries and borders that we do not allow them to cross to see them.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and your shares on social media.
Ben David Hensley
“The Church should be focused on what it is centered upon: vibrant worship, transformation of the world through charity and justice, discipling at all ages of life, and maintaining the institutions that do all these things well to solidify the gains of each generation” And Jesus. Jesus at the center as well. Which I am assuming is implied but I want to jump on that in a friendly way before folks try to prop it up as a strawman.
It’s so natural to my living and being that sometimes I cannot imagine why I need to articulate it. But given the comment below, looks like I do. Sigh.
How exactly did you determine what the CENTER was here. You kind of left out God. His living, holy presence has always been and always will be the CENTER of God’s people.
As someone who would be identified in the Western world as a “charismatic” but just as a regular Christian in the 2/3 world, I have been alienated by both conservative type Christians who put doctrinal boundaries on the Bible itself.
But I progressive Christians tend to lean towards blatant secularism. At least I can find some common experiences and beliefs. All of the Christians that I have met that self-identify as liberal/progressives tend to tame God and reduce him to a basis for their ideology.
Jeremy, I would like for you to tell me WHY you described the CENTER of the church as being people, ideology, and institution? Where are you getting this from? Your assumptions, church tradition, the Bible?
I appreciate being granted the grace that a 10’year pastor, schooled in UM graduate and undergraduate schools, ordained by the BOM in Oklahoma, would have Jesus, God, The Trinity as inherent in all I say, do, and write. I’m sorry I did not meet your expectation, but you should also see Ben’s prescient comment above.
Religious training does not mean that a person knows anything about God . . . see the Pharisees for example. I don’t take anything for granted in communication. What you wrote about the “center” says a lot about your beliefs.
Anyways, I was not trying to be combative. I actually agree with you about needing to be “Center-Oriented.” Alan and Debra Hirsch have a great definition of what it means to be “center-oriented” along with a contrast of what it means to be in a “roped off” community in their book “Untamed.”
But what they said is the “center” is not what you said was the center.
Well, I rewrote that section and you can let me know how it sits with you or if you have other items on your litmus test or assumed judgments that you want to ascribe to me.
In the meantime, my actual interest is what the Hirsch’s place at the center, and given your informed perspective on both, what the differences are.
Dude, you are touchy today. I thought you lib/progs were supposed to be all sunshine and rainbows. Just messin’. Don’t get your drawers in a wad. 🙂
The center with the Hirsch’s is, of course, the risen Christ. I could right down a paragraph summarizing their description of the “bounded set” and the “centered set” but I don’t feel like it . . . too much writing already today. I will tell you that it is on pages 151-157 of their book “Untamed” (Debra and Alan Hirsch).
Debra was a self-identifying lesbian before coming to Christ and marrying Alan. She has a deep heart for the gay community. But she is one of those type who believes that sex between a woman/woman or man/man is wrong in God’s eyes . . . just like premarital, extramarital, bestiality, pornography, etc. So . . .
Both Alan and Deb would also be classified by Western standards as “charismatics.” And so, if you have a hard time with the supernatural like many libs/progs do (and conservatives!), then you might not dig some of the stuff they say.
But it is an awesome book. It describes the missional way of life that many are now taking and have been on for a while. You would probably like it. It has a chapter entitled, “Jeebus made me do it.”
Josh, Alan Chambers, the head of Exodus International, married a woman even though he is Gay. He recently admitted he still had homosexual feelings and Exodus disbanded. I met a Gay man today who said he married and even had children. He said he didn’t realize he was gay. I have known other Gay people who weren’t changed by marriage in terms of feelings.
My dad kept pornography around the house and I got into it as a kid. My friend’s dad kept a lot of pornography around and I watched a lot of it with my friends.
As an adult, I still have urges to look at it. But I wrestle against those urges because they are wrong in God’s eyes. The New Covenant promises the outpouring of the Holy Spirit into the heart of a person who trusts in the Son. The Holy Spirit creates a new heart that “re-orients” a person to really want to obey God. For those who want to do what is right in God’s eyes, He is faithful to lead us in “the path of righteousness.” If we sin, there is forgiveness if we confess. This is called sanctification in the Wesleyan tradition.
It does not surprise me one bit that a person who has urges to have sex with someone of their own sex has these urges throughout life. I still have those urges to look at pornography and glare at women’s bodies. But I struggle against these urges with the help of God. I know that what controls me is my master. And I do not want sexual urges to be my master. I have seen where that leads.
The main thing is this: sexual urges should not determine a person’s identity. That is a secular assumption . . . a justification of homosexual behavior. The Judeo/Christian has always proclaimed that our identity is rooted in us being created in the “image” of God . . . not the feelings and urges that emanate from our loins.
To what extent, then, is it alright to have a heterosexual identity on the basis of desire for the opposite sex? I don’t think anyone argues that just because we have desire for the same gender that “anything goes” as far as in sexual behavior. That would called “libertinism.” Sexual Orientation doesn’t just mean who one has lust for, but also who one “falls in love” with. Mature sexuality integrates lust with love and friendship. Totally acting contrary to one’s deepest desires is hypocrisy- that is pretending to be something one is not. A “hypocrite” in ancient Greece was an actor, who of course pretend to be something they are not. Many Evangelicals (of course not all) would require LGBT persons to be hypocrites.
“Totally acting contrary to one’s deepest desires is hypocrisy- that is pretending to be something one is not”
What if one’s deepest desire is to do heroine? What if one’s deepest desire is to have sex with another person’s wife? What is a person’s deepest desire to kill another person? What if another person’s deepest desire is to have sex with a child?
You get the point. You are still putting forth the assumption that our “deepest desires” determine our identity. God have mercy on if that’s true.
In 1 Peter 2:11, Peter says, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” It sounds like Peter is telling us that there are urges that rise up within us that we are to abstain from. How do we know what we are to abstain from? The homosexuality issue (like all other sexual issues) is an ethical issue – NOT an identity issue.
It is duplicitous to marry someone of the opposite sex if one does not have feelings for the opposite sex in that way. Many people who claim they are not Gay anymore but still have Gay feelings are not being honest with themselves or their spouse. I am honest about being Gay, therefore I didn’t get married to a woman. The type of feelings that draw persons into marriage ARE some of our deeper feelings. I have heard of no one that was Gay who changed their feelings to straight because they got married. And by the way, I have NEVER had sex with a child.
O.K. I don’t think you are following my argument. And no, I never insinuated that you had sex with a child. I don’t know where you got that.
I really didn’t even mention marriage. I was talking about the basic assumption put forth at times in the public arena that one’s identity is located in one’s sexual urges.
And by the way, it does not matter whether a person who has urges to have sex with people of the same sex gets “new” sexual urges for the opposite sex. What matters is that we all submit urges to God for inspection . . . because God loves and knows what’s best for us. No where in the Bible does it say that salvation results in a reorientation from homosexual to heterosexual. What it does speak of is forgiveness and the reception of a new heart that earnestly desires to please God by obeying his commandments.
You did ask, “What if another person’s deepest desire is to have sex with a child?” What I am suggesting is that there is a middle ground between completely denying our feelings and giving our feelings complete free reign in how we act on them. For instance, Paul stated, “Be angry, but don’t sin.” (Ephesians 4:26) Therefore we DON’T have to deny our feelings and there is a socially acceptable way to express them. Perhaps anger can be expressed by telling a person how you feel without attacking them, without hitting or name calling. We DON’T have to deny our feelings if someone has transgressed our boundaries. I am also suggesting there IS a way that homosexual feelings can be expressed in an acceptable manner. A person cannot be heterosexually married at the same time and these relationships should be consensual (has to be valid, no underage persons or someone under one’s authority) and as monogamous as possible and never take advantage of the other person. Third parties cannot be hurt either, such as a partner having a spouse who didn’t know about it. I am talking about “sublimation,” which means, “The diversion of the energy of a sexual or other biological impulse from its immediate goal to one of a more acceptable social, moral, or aesthetic nature or use.”
You also mentioned marriage when you said, “Debra was a self-identifying lesbian before coming to Christ and marrying Alan.” This seems to imply that BECAUSE she was married, she was no longer Lesbian. I did meet a Lesbian woman who WAS married to a man and who struggled against her feelings. So as for men, often the same is true of women- just being heterosexually married doesn’t necessarily imply complete heterosexuality. And it IS feelings that make a person gay, it isn’t their ‘acts” per se. Otherwise, heterosexual males who have sex with other males in prison would be gay.
I did not imply that. I just stated the facts of Debra’s conversion: she identified as a gay person and was active in the homosexual community but then had a conversion and later met and married Allen. That’s all I know about her and that’s all that I said. I know that there are those so-called “gay conversion” ministries that claim to convert people to heterosexuals and I don’t agree with that at all. We should be converting people to Christ not heterosexuality. Besides, there are many forms of heterosexuality that are sins: pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, pornography, etc., etc. Just “converting” someone to heterosexuality (whatever this entails) should not be the goal of any Christian ministry. We should disciple people to follow the teachings of Christ and help people experience the “newness” of life that is available through the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.
I wonder your thoughts on the various “do not associate” passages? I think a number of conservatives think that a number of others do not take those passages seriously enough. At face value they do seem to advocate for a bounded kind of approach?
A major problem with the centered set is that in the real world it has to be paid for and maintained. Free riders are endemic of the problem.
If you try to be everything to everybody, you find yourself becoming nothing to anybody. Claremont’s continuing struggles are yet another sign of that.