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Social Set Theory (Centered-Set) in Doing Church

I have been asked a few times how we use “Centered Set” in how we ‘do church’ in Vineyard. Here is some of my feedback to various debates in this regard over the past years.

I was honored to work with John Wimber in 1982, learning, among other things, the Social Set Theory – the three sociological models (Fuzzy, Bounded, Centered) – introduced by Jack Simms, a sociologically trained market researcher on staff with Wimber in Yorba Linda between 1978 and 82. Wimber’s understanding and usage of it, in terms of how we do church, is recorded in my book Doing Church (pp. 50-59).

Over the years I have seen – and had questions from – leaders and people applying the Centered Set model in ways never intended, resulting in confusion. We can use models to make them mean what we want, as some do with the Bible! These points are meant to clarify aspects of how Wimber used and applied Set Theory as I understood it.


  1. Social Set Theory is from Sociology, proposing three contrasting models on how societies/communities organize themselves. Each model is incompatible with the others. Some in the Vineyard ‘mix’ elements of Bounded Set and Centered Set in a ‘hybrid’ model to cover a multitude of things they want to justify or explain. It shows they haven’t understood the purpose and function of the models.
  2. By definition a model is a pictorial overview of how segments of reality are arranged and work. Models have limits to what they represent, to what they say and don’t say. Hence we don’t use Social Set Theory for theological or ethical reflection regarding church and society. We must be clear on the biblical theology of church (from a Kingdom hermeneutic) and then see where and how the Centered Set helps us to articulate it, and NOT the other way round. I.e. to make the Centered Set the basis of our ecclesiological or ethical thinking and praxis is to loose our biblical base.
  3. “Integrating truth” (a Vineyard value and practice) from other disciplines into Christian-Biblical faith and praxis (e.g. how we do church) needs critical theological evaluation as to its usability and application. We use the language and idea of the sociological models for their original purpose: contrasting views of approaches to society – how communities arrange their common life. We use it to explain aspects of how we do church (Centered) and do not do church (Fuzzy and Bounded).
  4. In Social Set “values” are the underlying norms determining the arrangements and ethos in each sociological model. Applied to church, some see values as doctrines – leading to values as ideology that reinforces the boundary of who’s in or out. Others see values as relevant moral principles in market terminology. Values, as Wimber used them (at the center of the centered set, to which we draw people), are where core beliefs, social relevance and what the Spirit is emphasizing, intersect. They communicate in relevant terms what are non-negotiable principles, what forms our ethos in terms of our beliefs and Spirit-given purpose in the context of our times.
  5. Some in the Vineyard use “adult to adult” relationship as a license to believe or do what they want. When held accountable (confronted and/or corrected) they take offence accusing us of “parent-child” relating. As with sociological model, the concepts and language of Transactional Analysis has to be correctly understood, taught and enacted.
  6. In my book Doing Church, I apply the Centered Set to membership as a dynamic process of belonging in increasing levels of relational involvement toward the center. I also say that membership is a theological category: biblically there’s a clear point of commitment to Jesus and his people, publicly attested to in baptism, with formal reception into the local church. It was debated with Wimber in 1982. He said formal membership is not incompatible with the Centered Set – one concentric circle could be a line indicating a point of commitment – though his practice was more fluid via relational belonging. Many Vineyards have membership courses with a formal commitment to membership, adding value to the centered set approach without contradicting it. The dynamic-process view has been reworded in post-modern terms of “belong, believe, (then you) behave”, correcting the modernist “behave, believe, (then you can) belong” – Vineyard has never taught nor practiced the latter. The problem with postmodern “belonging” is that without any agreed criteria of what it means – with no process of membership – it can ongoingly cover a multitude of (wrong) beliefs and behavior, as in remaining unconfronted and silently endorsed in the name of unconditional acceptance.
  7. This raises the issue of social ethics vis-a-vie the Centered Set model of doing church. We’ve all been asked, “Can Christians who live together (unmarried) be members of our church – we’re centered on Jesus who accepts everyone?” “Can practicing homosexuals be members, even leaders – Jesus taught unconditional ‘love, acceptance & forgiveness’” (a phrase from Jerry Cook’s book, referred to in Doing Church). The same applies to facilitating same-sex marriages and similar challenges. These are ethical issues that must be decided biblically in terms of Theological Ethics and Ecclesiology (church membership and participation). To place them in the category of human rights and/or to decide from a centered set model on how we handle them is to use sociological assumptions to decide theological-ethical issues. This always results in theological relativism and eventual heresy. Biblically, we are called to accept and love everyone unconditionally, regardless of who they are, what they believe or do. But acceptance is NOT agreement with or endorsement of identity, beliefs, behavior, character and lifestyle, which is always challenged by the gospel as we follow Jesus. Repentance from sin, healing from brokenness, moral transformation, etc, is a given as much as unconditional love and acceptance is. The decision as to how we integrate this with church attendance and then membership – let alone ministry and leadership – is a theological-ethical evaluation and decision, with pastoral wisdom, not a sociological one based on the centered set.