A Bounded Set
In 1991 John Wimber stood before the Vineyard leaders at a national pastors’ conference in Yorba Linda and projected a bell-shaped curve on the large screens above him. He told us that historically every Christian movement lasts only about 20 years before losing its life and effectiveness. Previously he had spoken to us about a concept he referred to as a centered set, fuzzy set and bounded set. He learned this concept from Paul Hiebert, a colleague from Fuller Seminary. John explained that movements birthed by the Holy Spirit always begin very simply. They are not birthed out of a refined and defined theology or pre-established methodologies and practices, but rather from a fresh revelation of Jesus and His Kingdom. Most often they are conceived out of a recognizable move of the Holy Spirit. He explained that over time leaders are raised up who find themselves living in the midst of a pioneer experience where there is little structure and much chaos. The problem with authentic moves of God is that they attract many people—and people bring their own agendas to the experience often causing strife and confusion. This threatens to derail what God is doing and thus requires the leadership to bring greater definition and even policy to control the direction of the movement. Many of these imposed rules are responsibly based on Scripture but also require human interpretation. As a result, this refines orthodoxy, which can be clarified and thus used as a means of correction. Every time this process takes place, polity is established and, in a sense, a little bit of freedom is exchanged for the ability to maintain order. (See Vineyard documents – Vineyard Refections – in tabs at the top of this page.)
When a movement of God begins, it is a centered set event with few restrictions in place allowing all kinds of people to join in. The centered set phase is an exciting time, generally led by charismatic vision and the exhilaration of life-changing ministry that is fresh and constantly spawning new life. It draws in the churched and unchurched alike. There is salvation of new believers and rededication of faith by those disillusioned or disappointed by past negative church experiences. This life-giving time with all the exuberance of craziness soon leads to an increase of policy and measures of control which closes in the center that once drew people together. Slowly but surely the centered set movement evolves into what Hiebert referred to as a “fuzzy set.” This process happens one decision at a time, each time adding one dot of confinement until the dots become so numerous that they begin to close off the very life that started the movement in the first place. The restricted flow of new life is much like a clogged artery that finally ends in a heart attack stopping life altogether. This is what Hiebert called the “bounded set” and what ultimately causes the death of what was once a dynamic move of God. John warned us that historically many authentic moves of God gravitate into over structured institutions that are dead for years before they are even aware of it.
As gloomy as this lecture seemed to me when John first presented it, I soon realized his message wasn’t just a message of warning, but one of hope. That’s when he added a second bell-shaped curve that swung upward again from the descending side of the first one. It was then that he exhorted us to “take the best and go.” Knowing that he might not be around when this event was to happen, John challenged us as leaders to be honestly aware of where we were on the curve and make a decision to start over, taking the best of who we were and leaving the worst behind. I’ll never forget sitting there in that large sanctuary along with hundreds of other young developing leaders being shocked as he announced with great passion that when this event occurred he would be the first to go. For me, it was a profound moment and one which I can’t help but revisit at this particular time of my journey.
I’ll be the first to say that I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do have a few questions that may well be the elephant in the room many of us are afraid to publicly ask. We might ask, “How do we discern when we are on the descending side of the curve? How do we know when we are becoming a bounded set? How do we know when orthodoxy has become more esteemed than orthopraxy?” No one would deny that sound theology is crucial in keeping a movement doctrinally sound and on track (Word), but when do we spend more time discussing what is right and true than investing our energy in the activities of doin’ the stuff (Spirit)? At what point do we become so defined by our theological and philosophical thought that we push away those who were once so powerfully drawn toward the life we radiated? Recently I was reminded of a prophetic exhortation given to us by Jack Hayford at a past national conference. He warned us about this very issue.
A Jack Hayford’s six minute exhortation to the Vineyard leadership.
Should we see the decline of our church membership as God’s pruning, or consider that it might possibly be the atrophy that comes before death? At what point do we honestly admit our movement is no longer moving? Until we sincerely ask the crucial questions, we have no hope of realizing and understanding our dilemma so that we might “take the best and go.”
The second issue I want to consider is this: What is the “best”? What is it that we should take, both new and old, and what should we leave behind? I can’t speak for others, but in my heart I have felt a sad loss of freedom. Retaining the best requires good administration, and courageous healthy leadership that empowers and releases people to pursue their passions. The best is when local churches enter into functional missional partnerships, working together for common Kingdom causes both nationally and internationally.
Being in the Vineyard as long as I have, I recognize that as a movement we have undergone constant change through our many phases of growth. People have always had conflicting ideas about what the Vineyard really is. I have often said that it’s like the three blind men who tried to describe the elephant based on what they felt and experienced. In the same way those who joined us at different times in our history have defined what they thought to be “authentic Vineyard” by what we were experiencing as a movement at that time. Some saw us as a movement of signs and wonders, some as a prophetic movement, some as a church planting or church growth movement. Still others viewed us as an innovative, evangelistic movement, and in later years a movement of social justice – compassion and mercy. As for me, it’s all Kingdom stuff, and because of it I see it all as being the “best.” In the end, the best is ALL of the Jesus we see in the gospels and as interpreted for the churches by the letters. The real questions are not, in my opinion, about what an authentic Vineyard is by exegeting John Wimber but by returning to the gospels, as John did, and try to emulate all that we see there. It’s about who was Jesus, what did he do, and what did he tell us to do?
I also see the best as being dozens of seasoned, passionate, committed Vineyard leaders who survived all of our ups and downs. Many of these are being used more powerfully outside of the Vineyard family than inside. The best would be our ability to harness this gifting and use it more effectively to train and equip our own emerging leadership. I see numbers of new rising millennial leaders who not only share in our conviction for the Kingdom but understand and have access to their own generation. These gifted young leaders are standing ready to help us reignite the youthful spirit that once birthed us. This is a treasure that must be at the top of our list of the “best” things.
We need a fresh new vision that unites and inspires us to jump on the new curve together, rallying us around these “best” things for a new season of work together. We must define ourselves not by the things we are against, but rather by what we are passionately for. I believe we must revisit the principles of decentralization we once decided upon at the Columbus Accords in hopes of regaining greater freedom and a movement based more on relationship than structure. This would enable younger men and women the opportunity to organically emerge as leaders and energetically help take us up the next rising curve.
John Wimber once said with great passion, “The Vineyard must die!” I can still remember him saying it and at the time not understanding what he meant. Now, as I approach my golden years of leadership I think I do. The Vineyard needs to do the very thing that every Christian must do. We must die to ourselves even to the point of surrendering leadership roles and unnecessary polity, giving our movement back to God once again. We must not define ourselves in such narrow ways that we make leaders who have been among us for years feel marginalized and pushed out. In recent years, many have come to feel they are on the outer edge of our DNA, either for their evangelical conservativeness, their perceived liberal views or their charismatic or Pentecostal practices. We need to learn to get along; understanding that the Body of Christ has many parts and the Vineyard needs every diverse part in order to reach this out-of-control broken world. We need to major on the majors (that is Jesus and His Kingdom) and let the minors take care of themselves.
Many have interpreted the teaching to “take the best and go” as leaving the Vineyard, but why would anyone want to leave the only family they have ever known? I don’t. But if we go, we must all go together, taking with us the best of who we are.