Frameworks for Mission: Direction or Dogma

How are women and men “saved”? Are we saved by cognitive acceptance of certain dogmas? Are we saved by the direction of our lives? Or both or neither.Iceberg

Another form for this question might be “Must we “hear” about (as well as believe in)  Jesus to be connected to God?”

THE CASE OF A FIRST CENTURY GENTILE NAMED CORNELIUS

Acts chapter 10 provides interesting insight for what a biblical point of view on this might include.  In chapter 10, Luke introduces us to a 1st century man named Cornelius. Cornelius was a gentile who had neither heard about nor believed in Jesus. He was not a part of the Christ following community. Had he lived in the 21st century, we would say he was a non Christian.

Cornelius and all of his family are described by Luke as “devout and God fearing.”  Cornelius was marked by the habits of giving generously to the poor and praying to God (10.2).

Cornelius receives a vision from God because his prayers and giving inspired God. Luke says it like this:

The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” (10.4)

The angel instructs Cornelius, “Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter.” (10.5)

God wants Cornelius to hear the gospel. But there is a lot we can learn about the God of mission before that happens. This text pulls back the curtain on the life of a man who is connected to God but not yet a follower of Jesus. In other words, there is such a thing as connection to God before Jesus is embraced and the gospel is believed.

In fact, my premise is that before there can be an acceptance of certain truths (such as the resurrection of Jesus) or an adherence to a humane life (such as giving to the poor or prayer) there must be a prior connection to God. Based on that premise, and on the basis of this story, I suggest that all Christians would be served by moving from “closed set” thinking to “centered set” thinking.

CLOSED SET AND CENTERED SET THINKING

Many of us think of the church in terms of a bounded or closed set of numbers or letters.

Imagine a set with the letters (X, Y, and Z) in it. The letters X, Y, and Z may stand for belief, customs, rules, or rituals.

In closed-set thinking, everyone who believes or practices X, Y, and Z is in the set. If a person, for example, believes the right doctrines (X, Y, and Z), he or she becomes part of the set.

The issue here is –who is “in” and who is “out”.

Ok, that’s closed set thinking…Now

CENTERED SET THINKING…OR MOVING TOWARDS THE MAN ON THE HORIZON

Luke’s story demonstrates a God who creates centered sets, not closed ones.

Imagine a person standing on the horizon. The person standing on the horizon is God in Christ who wishes to reconcile the world to himself.

He has started a set that will include everyone and anyone who will move toward him.

People surround him in every direction, both on our side of the horizon and on the other side of the horizon.

Some people are standing quite close to him and others are quite far away. Those standing closer to him are better able than those far away to know some of the detail of his life and person.

Everyone is either facing him, facing away from him, or facing somewhere in between. Everybody is moving in the direction they are facing.

Standing quite near to the person on the horizon is someone who happens to be in the closed set (X, Y, and Z) perhaps a church leader, a longtime church member, or even a pastor. He believes all the right doctrines that qualify him for inclusion in most local Christian churches, but he is turned away from the person standing on the horizon. With every step he moves farther and farther away from the person on the horizon.

Far away from the man on the horizon stands someone who is not part of the closed set (X, Y, and Z). This may be someone like Cornelius in Acts 10, or a Hindu in India. This person is outside the membership of a Christian church. She or he has no clue about the historical events that surround the Christ-following faith but is responsive to the voice of God that woos every person and is thus turning and moving in the direction of the person standing on the horizon.

God woos every person, no matter how close or far, to face and walk toward the person on the horizon. It is conceivable that an outsider someone who does not yet know Jesus and may not affirm or even recognize Christian doctrine may be facing and moving in a direction toward the man on the horizon (whom we believe to be Jesus) and that an insider who knows all the right doctrinal positions may be facing and moving away from Jesus.

The issue here is –in what direction are you moving.

THE VISIBLE IS ONLY THE TIP OF THE ICEBERG

Many of us think we are “made human again” by correct doctrine or teaching. Others of us believe that we are saved by leading humane lives. Before our dogma (doctrine) or our direction (humanity), there is the prior initiative and work of God among us. There is (before we comprehend true doctrine and before we embrace true humanity) a prior act of love on our behalf.

The issue here is –before we cognitively grasp anything, before we move in any direction, before we even breath, God is at work among us (the Cornelius’ of the world) whether we are Hindu, Muslim, Christian or secularist.

Knowledge that God is at work in the world at large and not just in the religious institution of Christianity is a basis for a wider hope for the inclusion of the nations in the human future.

Our activity of proclaiming the gospel and forming churches is the tip of the iceberg. God’s invisible activity to make the world human again is the deep and invisible underbelly that supports our efforts. There are Cornelius’ out there whose connection to God may be greater than the connections of many Christians who have grown up close to the truth that makes the world human but harden their hearts against it.

What do you think?

See you in the mystic…

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If you like these ideas, pre-order you copy of Making the World Human Again, by Alex McManus

Join me (and others) in Orlando, Fl on Feb 5-6 for more conversation on frameworks for mission at the HUMAN EVENT.

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14 thoughts on “Frameworks for Mission: Direction or Dogma

  1. Thanks Alex for the way you have articulated this. Grace exists far above the religions of the world and He woos all to Him. It is a beautiful thing to watch. Most of the time I pray I stay out of the way and allow God to do what He does and be thankful to be a part of the journey.

  2. Thanks, Nic. Man, I miss that dining room table in Pasadena. Lots and lots of cool things happened there. Glad you found it helpful Shawna, Alycia and Sam.

  3. I remember you explaining Bounded Set vs Centered Set thinking… ages ago, sitting at your dining room table in Pasadena, I think. I have had years to ruminate on it, and it continues to unfold deeper and deeper insight for me. Not just in its implications for evangelism and mission, but discipleship as well, and personal devotion too.

    Grasping this truth has meant remembering, far more often than I would have in my Bounded Set era, to take frequent “compass bearings” on Jesus rather than running through doctrinal algorithms (whether decision-making or in private devotional prayer).

    Can’t wait for your new book to arrive!

  4. Alex, Thank you for a fresh way of understanding our place in the world. I have recently begun to experience the joy of knowing this way of seeing life. All of us belong in that relationship with God and He/She has been reaching out to us our whole life no matter what culture or faith tradition we start in. Your image of the iceberg is a great analogy for helping us see more than what is immediately visible to us. Thanks, Ken

  5. Alex this is a great way of explaining our pursuit of following Jesus. I think God “hinges” us with each other too and just like when you pull the pin in door hinge the door falls down, the same happens in our relationship with each other and our pursuits of following Jesus together. Jesus on the horizon ensures community and process for everyone, no matter where they come from.

  6. Ken and Thomas, Thanks. I’m glad you found this post useful.

    OneBadPig, Nice question. For an extended answer to that very question, see Making the World Human Again (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/Making-World-Human-Again-Religion/dp/0310285143). Yes, it will eventually be published.

    For a one word answer to your question: Human. He becomes human.

    The story of Cornelius addresses actually touches on your question. The first Christ followers were Jews. They asked the same question you do. If a man becomes a follower of Israel’s messiah, what does he become? They debated the idea of whether or not gentile converts to Christ must become Jews. They decided that gentile converts did not automatically become Jews nor needed to become Jews. There were no such things as Christians yet.

    I think Cornelius became a Christ following Gentile. Sometimes I refer to myself as a Christ following Secular Humanist …other times as an atheist still surprised with his own conversion.

    I think that the natural result of following Christ is to become human again. Becoming human is also what is happening to those whom God woos. It’s a process towards the same end.

    Thanks for the question.

  7. Okay, so I get the wooing part from God. Once a Hindu, Muslim, or Pagan responds to that wooing and comes to Christ (the man standing on the horizon) what does he become?

  8. Alex, thanks for the response… but it leaves me more confused than answers. If I understand correctly what a secular humanist is, are you saying you prescribe to the belief that only reason, ethics, and justice, while rejecting the supernatural and spiritual as the foundation on your morals and decision-making? Is that not contradictory to being a Christ follower who upholds him to be God, both supernatural and spiritual?

    Also, I am a bit fuzzy about what becoming “human again” really looks like if I am a Christ follower? If I understand you correctly are you saying that the process that is going to the same end is being human again? I thought being human was THE problem and not the GOAL. I look forward to (and appreciate) your reply of clarification.

  9. OneBadPig, Thanks for the Questions. My next two posts will address them. Monday’s post will address the question of “what does one who turns towards Christ become?” It expands a little my response here. Thanks again.

  10. Again, I think you misinterpret God’s plan. He has made known to us the mysteries of His good pleasure, established before the foundation of the world; His plan is to go far beyond the “Human” and to grant to those whom He has chosen, those who choose Him in return, a place in His imidiate family. He has granted to us “Sonplace” through spiritual birth. That is far more than creation bestowed to Adam. It is far more than being made “Human again.” It is the master plan of the Ancient of Days, I Am that I Am, established before the World was, before the garden, before the tree. Conceived in the very heart of God; a future for all who believe.

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