Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Bounded Sets, Centered Sets, and Networks

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Ever since Paul Hiebert introduced the terms, there has been conversation within missiology about bounded sets and centered sets as different ways of understanding the church. Briefly, a bounded set church is concerned with establishing and maintaining boundaries of belief and practice: Believe these things and do (or don't do) these things, and you're in the church group; don't believe or don't do (or do) these things, and you're out of the group. Centered set church, on the other hand, does not worry about categories of in/out and instead sees church as those oriented toward an attractional center, usually defined as Jesus. Most who use this distinction argue for centered set definitions of the church as a more missional approach to understanding the church.

There is another alternative way of understanding the church, however, that can also be a useful tool for analysis and for mission: seeing the church as a network.

A network is a set of points (called nodes) that are connected to each other, either directly or indirectly through other points. The concept of a network can be applied to churches at a variety of scales, depending on how one defines the points: One could analyze the church as a network of people, as a network of congregations, or as a network of denominations. Centered sets are actually a type of network defined by one central node, but what I am proposing is to look at the connections that exist among Christians beyond their connections to the central node of Jesus.

Looking at the church as a network is to ask about the quality of relationships among Christians and to treat Christianity as a phenomenon that is substantially about the relationships that exist among Christians. Thus, it is an ecumenical and decentralized approach to understanding the Christian community or individual Christian communities.

For some, this may seem like an un-theological approach. Shouldn't Christianity be defined by its beliefs (as in bounded sets) or its relationship to Jesus (as in centered sets)? What distinguishes the church from a social club if it is all about people's relationships with each other?

Yet viewing the church as a network is also a theological view of the church, one that stressed catholicity as a defining feature of the church. It also fits well with Pauline notions of the church as the body of Christ, in which members are different yet all connected to one another. Nor does it exclude the possibility connection to Christ or the divine as part of Christianity. And the question of what distinguishes the church from a social club is actually a helpful one, one that may be clarified by thinking of church as a network.

Analyzing churches as networks can lead to various and interesting new questions about Christianity as a phenomenon and approaches to studying it. For instance, it immediately raises the question of what sorts of connection are necessary and sufficient to link someone to the body of faith. For instance, I have a connection to my dentist, who may or may not be Christian, but that professional link does not constitute a connection to the body of Christ for either of us.

One answer to this question about necessary and sufficient connection is that the type of connections that matter to the definition of church are mutual recognition as Christians. What that mutual recognition looks like might differ for individuals, congregations, or denominations. And it is important to emphasize again that not all points in a network will be connected to each other. Thus, for instance, church A may consider churches B and C as fellow Christians, but not church D. But if church C does consider church D as fellow Christians, then it doesn't matter what church A thinks; church D is part of the network by virtue of its connection to church C.

This model thus presents a new approach to the notoriously tricky question of who counts as a Christian. Some simply count anyone who self-identifies. Others try to set up criteria that must be met. A network approach allows a third option: a group is Christian if they are recognized as such by at least one other Christian group. This approach is not based solely on self-identification but also does not prescribe the criteria that must be used, instead affirming the criteria adopted by any individual Christian group, while not insisting they all must use the same criteria.

Seeing the church as a network also presents new possibilities for understanding centrality and significance within Christianity. Generally, Christian groups are seen as central if they have large demographics, extensive funding, or historical significance. In a network perspective, nodes are more significant the more connections they have. Thus, it is possible that a small membership, poorly financed, recently started Christian group (perhaps arising through a diaspora network within the last 50 years) could turn out to be a very significant group if it has a penchant and a knack for establishing relationships with other Christian groups.

The point of this post is not to thoroughly comment on all the possible applications or interpretations of seeing churches as networks. Instead, my point has been to introduce the concept and suggest enough ways in which this concept can be used to stimulate further discussion. How can seeing the church as a network help us better understand it, historically and missionally?

1 comment:

  1. I loved my conversations with Paul Hiebert. In my mind, he was a giant in missiology. In particular, his critical thinking and ability to see above the midst made him a great gift to the church. Also, his training in India and his masterful grasp of all things related to anthropology gave him seminal insights. I believe that I have read all of his books (smile). In fact, I still refer to his basic anthropology book when I teach that course.

    In terms of the blog, in the original article, Hiebert wants to know what it means to be a Christian. Is a person who hears an evangelist and goes home after accepting Christ a Christian even though the person does not understand much, has not been baptized, and is not associated with a believing community of faith?  He answers the questions in two ways by means of the bounded and centered set conversation. Classical affirmations would say a person must be baptized before one is counted as a Christian.

    Understanding the church as a network actually connects with the basic ecclesiology of the NT. During that time, home churches were organically connected to other churches in a region. One could talk about the church in Rome even though one could not point to the institutional structure of a church in Rome because the faithful were connected together by a shared faith and a common commitment to Jesus. Circuit riding evangelists, teachers, and apostles often cemented that relationship. Wesley had much to say about this in his sermon "On the Church."

    In one sense, the church as network helps us to minimize the tendency to define church as institution. This plays into Wesley's notion of the visible and invisible church. As a congregation of believers, the church is defined by faith and its connection to Jesus. A person who belonged to the institution but did not have faith was not a member of the invisible church. This critique of institutional Christianity should remain within Methodism.

    Finally, the network approach is employed at times to facilitate unity. We see this in uniting church movements. The reductionist approach minimizes the specifics in order to achieve institutional unity. One should not assume that institutional unity equals organic unity. Additionally, when I look at uniting church efforts in Canada, I am sad that the spirit of Methodism is mostly gone.
    In the NT, Paul never played organic unity against orthodox faith. He pushed for both. As one who contended for orthodoxy and unity, Paul understood the true nature of the church and its connection to Christ.