Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Counting Members: Tribes, Sets and Toxic Non-Attenders

Church planting has a lot of ambiguity to it. One area where planters struggle with ambiguity is the concept of church membership, "who's in who's not." In the millenial world of tribes the idea of membership feels archaic--even controlling.

Paul Hiebert, one of the most influential Christian anthropologists of the 20th century (http://bit.ly/5vijc6 and http://bit.ly/5enFaG) wrote about bounded sets and centered sets (see http://bit.ly/11lCNH).

Bounded sets are defined at the edge, by fences; a person is in or out. There are no soft edges. Getting inside takes a definite act of will.

Centered sets are defined by the center. The edges are fuzzy and porous. Getting inside can happen gradually. The idea of movement towards the center is critical.

So here's our rub. On the one hand we (leaders) need to know who is part of our community, who has taken hold of the vision and is willing to lend their strength and gifts to this church. On the other hand members want to retain maximum flexibility that allows room to grow, change and discover. Church has moved from a place where people had to believe before they could belong to a place where belonging typically precedes believing and our communities are constructed around embracing diversity.

As church planters deal with this tension they can find themselves like Goldilocks--always changing chairs, beds, bowls of porridge--looking for "just right." Meanwhile, how do those around us react, feel, even suffer?

Matt Schmucker in his article "Those Toxic Non-Attenders" (http://bit.ly/7QOXEh) suggests 4 ways that too much ambiguity in centered set thinking harms the local church.

Toxic non-attenders:
1. They make evangelism harder. They claim Jesus as Lord but the way they live looks and feels like identity theft.
2. They confuse new believers. New believers live messy lives. They need good role models to follow. Toxic non-attenders are confusing. They live the message, "you don't really have to do that."
3. They discourage regular attenders. It's a real ouch to hear "Our church has 130 people in it" when all anyone ever sees is the faithful fifty.
4. They worry their leaders. Can people who don't attend be shepherded well (Heb. 13:17)?

Here's another two I would add:
5. They prevent others from committing themselves to Jesus. Making that step of faith to Jesus is tough enough without having to work through why someone who professes faith doesn't contribute to the community good.
6. They steal from God and his people. Wow, that's a tough one. Malachi 3:6-9 speaks here.

"They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 Jn. 2:19).

1 comment:

James Wood said...

So is the answer to treat them as unbelievers ala Matthew 18:17?