Centered Sets, Belonging, and Being OK Where You Are


cherry blossoms_b
Photo Credit: Patrick Down


My best friend attended a Vineyard USA church in Boston for years.  I sort of attended vicariously for years, too, through her and conversations we would have over the weekly sermons presented there.  It was a congregation and church leadership that indirectly had a huge impact on my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. They helped me begin to ask the hard questions that would eventually lead me away from much of mainstream Christianity.  Kind of ironic…Christians inadvertently and unintentionally opening the door for me to walk away from my childhood faith.

Anyway, there is one concept that the lead pastor spoke of on occasion that really helped me rethink the whole “Are you a Christian or not?” question.  This was an important question in my youth…I desperately wanted to know who was “in” or “out”, because then I could have the assurance of which destination I was likely to end up in, heaven or hell, and who would be joining me. I wanted a firm set of criteria with which to evaluate people’s faith.  Knowing boundaries and being certain of ‘in-ness’ felt safe and secure.  The idea of not knowing for certain who was good in God’s eyes and who wasn’t terrified me.

But Dave (the Vineyard pastor) turned this type of thinking of mine on its head with the concept of centered sets versus bounded sets in relation to faith and who is considered “in” and who is considered “out”.


bounded set
photo credit


The picture above is an example of a bounded set.  Imagine that everyone inside the red circle has asked Jesus into their lives as their personal Savior.  They are now within the fold, under God’s safe umbrella.  Those on the outside of the red circle are out of the club, the ones certain to be left behind in case of rapture.  While I grew up with bounded set thinking in Christianity, it is a harsh way to go.  It defines people as “we” and “them”.  Those outside the protective circle are “other”. And anyone on the inside of the circle is “right and justified”.

But Dave offered another perspective in his sermons, that of a centered set.


centered set
photo credit

As you can see in this graphic, there is no circle delineating who is in or out.  The point is all about relationship and where people are in reference to the cross, or Jesus.  The fundamental premise behind this centered set idea is: are you moving closer to Jesus, or away from Jesus? Not, are you a born-again Christian or aren’t you?  And, along with that, where are you in relation to others, where are you within community?


It took me time to realize it, but this concept of bounded set versus centered set was a stepping stone to help me walk away from my childhood beliefs that following Jesus meant separation from everyone who didn’t follow him.  While I no longer believe at all in atonement theory and the need to accept Jesus as Savior, I still love these graphics as a model for looking at life in general.  Now, instead of a cross being at the middle of the centered set graphic, it becomes awakening, or ultimate love, or the discovery of the Ground of Being through uncovering our true selves.  Once again, the point is not whether we have awakened or become completely self-aware as compared to those who have not.  It’s about the fact that we are all on a journey.  We are all at different points on that journey, and some of us are moving towards love and our true selves, while others may be moving away.

The funny thing about these journey continuums toward that center goal: they aren’t necessarily linear.  From the outside, we may think someone is going the opposite direction from what is good for them. But we have little grounds to judge, because in the paradoxical setup of life, sometimes we have to descend to ascend.  People may need to go backward for a while to get farther along down the path. So, determining whether they are “in” or “out” becomes impossible, and in fact, is no longer a question even worth asking.  This simple understanding brings freedom.  Everyone is OK; they just are where they are on their own journey.


Krista Tippett interviewed Brené Brown recently on her podcast, On Being.  Both Krista Tippett and Brené Brown are amazing, so if you haven’t already, I highly encourage everyone to check them out. In this particular episode, Brown talked about some research she had done in the past with middle school-aged children. She asked them what the difference was between “fitting in” and “belonging”.  The kids offered profound answers, like “Fitting in is when you want to be a part of something; belonging is when others want you,” and “It’s really hard not to fit in or belong at school, but not belonging at home is the worst.”

I was driving in my car when listening to this podcast, and when I heard those two statements, I had a visceral, gut-wrench response.  Because I know exactly what this feels like.  As I drove and pondered and listened to Brown, I went back in my mind to my childhood, adolescence, and even early adulthood.  I think the first twenty-five years of my life can be succinctly summed up as “Julie tried her damndest to figure out where she belonged, and if she belonged at all.” I struggled so hard to fit in, hoping that I would be accepted and fill the belonging-shaped void in my heart.  Sometimes I did fit in, but often I didn’t.  The hard part about trying to fit in is that you do it at the expense of your own true self, your authenticity. You play-act at different roles, hoping that you will finally find one that will make people want you.  Then, you either struggle with the pain that comes with not being true to yourself, or you desperately hope you can keep the facade up and no one will find you out and label you a fraud.

This is probably why I clung so hard to the Jesus story of my youth.  If I believed the right things, did the right things and prayed the right prayers, I was IN!  I belonged!  The God I believed in then set criteria for being “in” or “out’ that felt tangible and clear, which felt safe.  Jesus was my friend if I did whatsoever he commanded me (Bible reference here), so check, check, check…I fulfilled the requirements. I was good and God wanted me.

But it really didn’t work, because that bounded set model is all about conditionality and making sure to stay within certain boundaries.  Ultimately, it is an illusion of belonging based in fear.

*************************************************************************************When I was little, I used to get a horrible feeling every so often. It was sort of like a “someone walking over my grave” shiver, but more of an internal feeling than an external shake. Basically, it was this deep sense that I didn’t belong.  Not in this life, not in my body, not in my family, not in this world.  It was dreadful really, because it made me feel illegitimate, like I was an imposter human, a wannabe. I felt like I took up space that wasn’t rightfully mine.  And from a very early age, I felt unwanted and unseen at my core.

Now, this is not a knock on my family or the community I grew up in. I was loved by many, but I was also very neurotic, so what I perceived may not have been at all what others were trying to express. However, the fact is, the feeling of not belonging had a tremendous influence on the shaping of my life.

But this is why I love the centered set model, why I love the enchanted expression that we all came from stardust, and the idea that growth in life is not linear as we tend to assume.  Breaking free from the bounded set borders was liberating because now, instead of having to judge and evaluate everyone based on their doing the “right” things, I see that we all just “are”.  We can love everyone in their “is-ness” and love ourselves in our “is-ness”, too.  And if there are no boundaries, no walls, no checklists, no criteria, then we don’t have to try and fit in. We just automatically belong. I belong.

I think, at the most basic, simple level….this is the real definition of salvation, the thing that we want more than anything in the deepest, hidden places of our hearts. Salvation is the realization, the awakening to the true understanding, that you’re OK where you are, and you belong.

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