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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.
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Extraordinary Jubilee Of Mercy declared by Pope Francis

As some Catholic Popes have done from time to time, Pope Francis has declared a special Jubilee, which begins Tuesday 8 December 2015.

What is a Jubilee?

God commanded the Jews to declare every 50th year a Jubilee, a Year of Freedom (Leviticus 25). All property was returned to original family ownership, slaves were set free, all debts cancelled and the land was free to rest. The decks were cleared to give everyone a fresh restart on a free and equal footing. The record does not show if and for how long Israel implemented (celebrated) the Jubilee. Some scholars say that when Jesus began his ministry, taking his mandate from Isaiah 61:1-2a, he actually declared the Jubilee, “The Year of the LORD’s favor and mercy” (see Luke 4:16-21). Jesus proved to be God’s promised Messiah and his ministry of the Kingdom was The Jubilee of all Jubilees – The Day of Salvation.

Pope Francis continues his courageous leadership as a follower of Jesus, by announcing a Jubilee of Mercy, thus radically stirring the Roman Catholic Church and challenging the world. And the rest of the Church of Jesus should take note.

Why choose the theme of mercy? Why an “Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy”?

In his Bull of Indiction, Misericordiae Vultus, he motivates why: “Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy” (n. 10).

I fully agree! I support this Year of Mercy. What follows is from my reading of the Vatican News on, with a mix of quotes from Francis and my interpretations and comments. I’m doing this to motivate YOU to ‘do’ this Jubilee – for God’s sake! Continue reading Extraordinary Jubilee Of Mercy declared by Pope Francis

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Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Session 6


Listen to the audio of the Sermon for Session 6

We have looked at:

  1. Jesus and his first community – to follow Jesus was to join his local group;
  2. The Early Church – initiation into Christian faith (in baptism) meant belonging in the local church;
  3. Three Sociological models of ‘doing church’ and their underlying values – we do ‘centered set’ church;
  4. Our Ministry Framework – our mission, vision, values, priorities and practices (the circled triangle); and its structured implementation via HELP (Holistic Equipping Life Process) and the People’s Flow chart. Continue reading Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Session 6
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Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Session 5


Listen to the audio of the Sermon for Session 5

FROM Session 4: Priorities and practices are what we actually do… what we do first, of most importance, before we do other things. They answer the question of What? we do, and How? we do them… i.e. our basic disciplines and skills that we learn to do and practice on a regular basis – in order to live out our core values, in pursuit of our vision, to fulfill our mission under God. Continue reading Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Session 5

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Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Session 4


The Sociological Framework contrasted three models of ‘doing church’ and membership – we embrace the centered set with its values. We now examine the Ministry Framework through which we do church – key information for a responsible commitment to Following Jesus. We lay out our mission and vision; values, priorities and practices; leadership, structure and programs; and the specific expectations of belonging and membership (the content of the remaining 3 sessions).  Much of this key information, including our Vineyard history, is on our website  

Continue reading Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Session 4

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Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Notes Session 3


We’ve looked at a) Jesus and his disciple-community (following Jesus meant joining his community), and b) at belonging and ‘membership’ in the Early Church. What does this mean for our church?  In answer to the question we examine different models of “doing church” and what membership means 

Continue reading Exploring Membership with Following Jesus Notes Session 3

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Exploring Membership with Following Jesus: Session 2


We looked at following Jesus, which meant joining his community: Following Jesus… in community… for others (one reality in three inseparable values). Jesus told them to “go, make followers…” How did the early church do this? What did belonging in community (‘church membership’) mean in this context?

Continue reading Exploring Membership with Following Jesus: Session 2

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Exploring Membership with Following Jesus (Notes)

As promised, here are my notes from session one of Exploring Membership with Following Jesus. The audio will available this week on (or check

Continue reading Exploring Membership with Following Jesus (Notes)

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Invitation to a Key Vineyard Leadership Institute Teaching Course

Please bare with me in a little foolish boasting (as Paul said and did!)

In God’s sovereign design I was privileged to work with John Wimber in 1982 for 8 months as a pastoral and research assistant. I researched and wrote the healing courses that John taught – now summarized in my book Doing Healing, and in the 2 Healing courses that I teach at VBI and VLI.

Continue reading Invitation to a Key Vineyard Leadership Institute Teaching Course

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A Call for a Week of Fasting & Prayer

We’re calling our church to a week of fasting and prayer in preparation for the launch of Following Jesus on Sunday 20 January @ 09h00 at the Vineyard Community Center.  We begin today Sunday 13th Jan and will end Saturday night 19th Jan.  Keep this page in your Bible to motivate and guide you this week in your personal prayer, in the two’s and three’s who pray together, and in our corporate praying (see below – try to make it!)

Why pray? 

To bathe the beginning of our journey as Following Jesus in prayer, in God’s presence. Without him we can do nothing. As Moses prayed, “If your presence is not with us, among us, leading us, then we will not go anywhere! What else distinguishes us from all other people except your Presence?” (Ex 33:15-16). This church is HIS church, we follow HIM – as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, in his life and teachings, death and resurrection. Prayer is following God in Jesus – we pray in Jesus’ name. Prayer is invoking God’s Presence. Prayer is total dependence on God. Prayer is partnering God, waiting for his initiative in all things. Prayer is working with God in what HE is doing in our church and in the world around us. God calls us to become “A House of Prayer for ALL nations” (Is 56:7). This is where reconciliation and discipleship begins. We pray because it’s our only and ultimate means of entering and participating in the Trinity, in their conversing and working, by the indwelling interceding Holy Spirit (Rom 8:26-27 cf. Heb 7:25).   

Why fast?

By abstaining from (certain kinds of) foods, and even (certain kinds of) liquids, we “amplify” our groaning to God. Every time we feel hungry and weak, we’re reminded to cry out to God and pray for the issues listed below. By denying ourselves food we discipline our bodily appetites and turn them to God; e.g. take the time you’d use to prepare the meal and eat it, and give it to God in focused prayer. Fasting humbles us to live not by bread alone but by every word that comes from God (Deut 8:1-5). More so, fasting empowers prayer by confronting and defeating evil opposition (Lk 4:1-14). So decide before God what foods or meals or treats (even TV!) you can fast this week. Continue reading A Call for a Week of Fasting & Prayer