A New Paradigm
I want to introduce you to a new paradigm that will change your entire way of looking at the kingdom, the gospel, and discipleship. It is called “Centered-Set” - what I refer to here as, Jesus@theCenter.
If comparison is the mother of clarity, then it is important that we also identify the dominant paradigm of our day that must be dismantled if we are to embrace this new way of thinking. This presiding paradigm is called “Bounded-Set” - what I refer to here as, Church@theBox.
Church@theBox is the mindset that everyone starts outside of the box - what we know as “the church”, and if someone wants to come to Christ they must meet the qualifications for “church membership”. Each church/denomination establishes itself as being the authority of what those specific qualifications are. The unity within the box is created by three distinct factors – Believing, Behaving, and Belonging. Meaning, in order to gain access to the box, you have to Believe as we believe, Behave as we behave, and Belong to us by committing yourself to the box. Community is formed around the principle of conformity to the culture of the box. Because there are distinct “markers” or “boundaries”, we can easily classify those that are IN and those that are OUT. Everyone outside the box is considered to be an “outsider”; and the goal of everyone inside the box is to get as many people who are outside the box, to be inside the box – we call this “evangelism”.
Jesus@theCenter is the mindset that everyone starts somewhere in proximity to Jesus. “Coming to Christ” is a matter of turning or orienting your life towards him. Where you start in proximity to the center bears no reference to whether you are IN our OUT. The only factor is, Are you moving closer to the center or moving away from the center? There is only one marker, Jesus. There is only one issue, Is your orientation towards him? Community is formed by those who are moving towards the center, living incarnationally among those who are moving away from the center. Evangelism is a matter of pointing all people to Jesus, both in proclamation and demonstration.
The Jesus@theCenter paradigm is consistent with the incarnation of Jesus. The fact that Jesus came and “dwelt among us” - to reveal to us the truth (which was HIMSELF), informs us how we are to live as his disciples in the world.
Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, who saw the world through the paradigm of the Church@theBox (i.e. the Temple), was that all the while they were trying to be perfect, keeping their established (and biblical) Beliefs & Behaviors (and Belonging to Israel), they were missing the whole point – JESUS!
Speaking to the Pharisees (those close to the center, but facing away), Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s Kingdom. John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him.” Matthew 21:32
On another occasion, speaking to the same pious crowd Jesus said, “You have your heads in your Bibles constantly because you think you’ll find eternal life there. But you miss the forest for the trees. These Scriptures are all about me! And here I am, standing right before you, and you aren’t willing to receive from me the life you say you want.” John 5:39-40
Speaking to the Prostitutes, Tax Collectors, and Sinners (those far from the center, but facing towards), Jesus said, “You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.” Matthew 23:9-10
Consider all the stories in the Gospels where sinners turned and oriented themselves towards Jesus… The Woman at the Well, The Tax Collector Zacchaeus, The Prostitute who Anointed Jesus, The Demoniac, The Woman caught in Adultery, The Thief on the Cross, The Paralytic, The Roman Centurion, Peter, James, John, Matthew, Paul, and all the rest. None of them had to go forward at a meeting, recite a prayer, attend a class, or join an organization! Yet every single one of them had a life-changing encounter with Jesus; who upon their varying but authentic responses to the gospel offered them hope, healing, and eternal life in the Kingdom of God!
What are we to do with this?? This way of thinking does not fit in our box!
The Kingdom of God can also be described as the “rule and reign of God”. And the reality is that this Kingdom is universal and complete - there is nowhere that is outside of God’s reign! Church@theBox thinking assumes that God is only present within Churches and Christians. It uses language like expanding, extending or building the Kingdom of God – typically understood by means of planting more “Church@theBox kinds of Churches”.
In Jesus@theCenter thinking, it is recognized that God’s Kingdom is already present in all places and around all people – literally in their midst. This means that at any given point, by any given means, people are capable of experiencing and responding to the Kingdom. Christians are not carriers of the Kingdom, they are active participants within the Kingdom! They are constantly looking for ways that the Kingdom is already being manifested and revealed in the lives of people around them; by this spiritual awareness they translate the gospel into all languages, cultures, and people-groups. This is the missionary work of every disciple. Jesus@theCenter people don’t plant churches, they plant the gospel.
In a Jesus@theCenter understanding, the gospel is simply the alerting of all people to the reality of God’s Kingdom come through Christ! Conversion or “responding to the gospel” can happen in various ways. For some it can be a dramatic “born again” experience. For others, it may be an ongoing period of transformation where they gradually become “new creations”, as their lifestyle begins to conform to the ways of Jesus - even before their conscious belief is fully realized.
The Church@theBox defines the gospel as a “set of truths” that must be believed. This is the reason that “right belief” is primary for membership. Being converted or “saved” is a process of being initiated into the Church. This typically takes the exclusive form of responding to an “alter call”, meeting with a member of the clergy, and/or confessing your belief in front of the congregation. (I will note that none of these responses are wrong or un-biblical, just very narrow when practiced exclusively.) Where this system really works against the gospel is that once one has responded and been initiated, there is a sense that the transformational work is complete. Remember, once you are in, YOU ARE IN! This is where in a Bounded-Set we see that there are hard edges, but a very soft center. It requires a lot to get in, but once you are in – as long as you behave – you are in “good standing” with the box. This obviously can lead to an epidemic of fruitless-immaturity.
In Centered-Set, the emphasis is reversed. There are very soft edges (if any) and a hard center. The follower begins a life-long process of becoming like Jesus; the closer we get to the center the more demanding it becomes. The more we die to self, the more Christ reigns within our lives; this translates into an ongoing and increasing dependency on “the Vine”, resulting in a fruit-bearing, kingdom oriented, Holy Spirit-infused life.
Church@theBox views discipleship as being the purpose of the box. Once members are IN, they are expected to participate in activities that will promote “discipleship”. Because of the on-going emphasis of Believing and Behaving, typical discipleship programs have to do with intellectual study of the scriptures, memorization, and classes with workbooks; along with occasional/random service-oriented activities, all of which will create a rhythm of behaviors, keeping everyone “close” with one another. Many call this being “plugged-in” or “connected”. While there are certainly glimpses of Jesus Community that can be found in all of these activities, the fact remains – it is nearly all scripted, organized by the “professionals”, and primarily emphasizes work IN and FOR the box itself.
With Jesus@theCenter, every single person is actively being drawn inward, while demonstrating individual obedience to the Holy Spirit in how they live and respond to the world around them. Worship is not an event to attend, but a living state of submission. Knowing the Holy Spirit is also actively involved the world - calling and wooing all men and women to the truth - the disciple seeks to come alongside and encourage the work of the Spirit in the lives of others, both those moving toward the center and those moving away from the center. Regardless of who they may be socially engaged with, the purpose is the same – to alert all people to the Kingdom and to point all people to Jesus. Discipleship is an activity that is universally occurring; every single relationship is either a pre-conversion discipleship relationship or a post-conversion discipleship relationship. Each disciple, in community with other active disciples, has the capacity (and expectation) to reproduce disciple-making disciples; which in all cases should result in exponential gospel movement.
A Paradigm for All People & All Places
If we are to witness the powerful and transformative potential of the gospel in our day and truly see God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, it is imperative that we return to the organic/multiplicative nature of discipleship. If we are strictly bound to an “addition strategy” for reaching the world, where by all people are forced to respond to a structure rather than a savior, we will continue the tragic downward trajectory of Christian influence in the West. But we now have an opportunity to listen and learn from the radical “Jesus-Centered” discipleship movements happening in every other corner of the world! (At least those areas that are unencumbered by Christendom.)
This is a paradigm that we can all live in. Like we say at Forge, “this is for Moms, Mechanics, Bishops, Bartenders, Artists and Accountants.” It is simple enough for any person to understand, adaptable for any context, relevant to any culture, highly-mobile, and easily reproducible in the lives of others.
Wells & Fences
There was once an American businessman that traveled to the Australian Outback on an expedition. He observed that there were huge cattle ranches, but interestingly noticed that there were no fences! The businessman asked his guide, “How is it that you manage to keep your cattle from wondering off without any fences?” The guide responded, “Oh, we don’t need fences here in the Outback. All the rancher needs to do is sink a well of fresh, clean water and the cattle won’t venture very far.”
Jesus is the Living Water. He said that if we will drink of him, we will never thirst again. If we are to be God’s missionary agents in the world, it is our task not to be Fence Builders – dividing who’s IN and who’s OUT – but rather, Well Diggers – that all may taste and see that the Lord is good.