Who’s With Me!?, Pt. 1: Why Does it Matter?

December 19, 2022

by Greg Henson, CEO Kairos University; President of Sioux Falls Seminary and David Williams, Kairos Executive Partner; President of Taylor Seminary


Let’s take a moment to see where we are in this conversation about following Jesus. We began by reflecting on the fact that following Jesus is something we do in community with others. Then, we noted that we are sent ones who are invited to follow a missionary God into the world, an act that requires ongoing discernment. When discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit, we recognize the authority of the Spirit has, and will, invite us down new paths. That conversation led us to wonder aloud, who, then, is with me on this journey? How do we, as Christians, organize ourselves for the communal task of following Jesus? Fortunately, we are not the first to ask this question nor will we be the last.

Over the next few weeks, we are going to review some of the work by Paul Hiebert, a noted missiologist who introduced some language and potential frameworks for thinking about how Christians could be organized. Many others have interacted with, added to, and/or restated his work over the years. We contend that it may be time to introduce some new language into this topic of conversation. Let’s begin, however, by looking at the “problem to solve.” Then, we will look at bounded, centered, and fuzzy sets. Eventually, we will get to something we call a directional set.

Paul Hiebert grew up in a conservative evangelical Christian denomination. His parents were missionaries in India, and he eventually served as a missionary there, as well. Like us, he accepted Christ at a young age during a worship service in which he was invited to come forward. For Hiebert, and for us, what marked him as a Christian was his decision (i.e., a specific moment in time to which he could point as his conversion) and the attending beliefs and behaviors that came along with it. Over time, both while living in India as a child and eventually as a missionary, he began to notice that different cultures thought differently about what marked someone as a Christian. Some cultures, particularly Western cultures like the United States, tended to have clear lines of demarcation. Others, particularly non-western cultures, tended to have fuzzier lines of demarcation. How then, he wondered, might we define who and who is not Christian?

Hiebert began that conversation through his writing in 1978 and continued to hone his thinking all the way through 2008. Along the way, he suggested various ways to consider conversion and what it meant to be Christian. Others have taken up the conversation in response. This includes people like David Hesselgrave, Dean Gilliland, Darrell Whiteman, D.A. Carson, David Clark, Robert Johnson, Roger Olsen, Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Brian McLaren, Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch, Tony Jones, Phyllis Tickle, Judith Gundry and Miroslav Volf, Carl F. H. Henry, and many others. In case you are not aware, that list covers a wide swath of the theological spectrum. Some were very supportive and others we not. A few suggested new ways forward based on Hiebert’s work and others called the church in a different direction. The conversation Hiebert initiated has garnered consistent interest and conversation for more than 40 years.

But why does that matter? As Hiebert noted, none of us have the privilege of reading the Lamb’s Book of Life so why waste time worrying about who is and is not Christian?

That’s a fair question. For us, the answer is simply that following Jesus is something we are called to do in community. Because that is the case, we need a way to understand, imagine, and gather with that community. In order to be the “hands and feet” of Jesus, the Body of Christ needs to be a body. We might argue that the Body of Christ is pretty adept at “cutting off its nose to spite its face,” especially in today’s culture. It is important, therefore, to have the conversation about how the Body of Christ might envision itself and the means by which it makes those determinations. We are called to follow Jesus into the world, by the power of the Spirit, to the Glory of God the Father. And we are invited to do so in community.

We think it is time to look at this issue through a new frame. Our current frames, especially when amplified by cultural tendencies, give rise to anger, infighting, and divisiveness. More importantly, however, they tend to ignore, or at least greatly diminish, the authority of the Spirit thereby limiting our ability to join with God in his redemptive mission. We might also suggest that the math isn’t quite right.

So, let’s jump into seeing the different kinds of social sets that Hiebert suggested and see what we learn. We will begin next week with bounded sets.

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