October 21, 2020

They’ll know we are Christians by our language


I passed a church sign the other day. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stop and take a picture of it to show you, but I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind since I saw it. The sign said:

God makes useful saints
Out of useless sinners.

Believe me, I understand black/white, in/out, saved/lost, saint/sinner thinking, having been a member of faith communities that ate that stuff up for years. There is a lot we could talk about here.

In fact, there is a lot that has been talked about, especially in so-called “emergent” and “missional” teachings. Missiologist Paul G. Hiebert’s writings on understanding Christian identity in terms of bounded and centered sets have had a profound influence on the discussion. Hiebert observed differences in how people in different cultures answered the question: “Who is (and isn’t) a Christian?” His concern was that missionaries, who had assumed they were acting “biblically” were actually reflecting the cultural perspectives of their backgrounds and churches concerning the answer to this question and that it was adversely affecting their ministries. Hiebert loved mathematics, and as he began to think about set theory, he developed his ideas and captured them in his missiological writings.

This article in Leadership Journal by John Ortberg captures the thinking well. “Bounded-set” thinking emphasizes the boundaries of a set. Those within the boundaries are “in” the set, and those outside its walls are “out” — not part of the set. In a “centered-set,” on the other hand, the set is not defined by its boundaries as by what is in the center, and “the key question is whether I am oriented and moving toward the center or moving away from the center. I’m defined on where I am, and where I’m moving, in relation to the center.” Ortberg commends that latter as a better way of thinking about Christianity and points out one of the main problems with “bounded-set” thinking that led him to abandon it:

The problem with a bounded-set approach to Christianity is not that it highlights the difference between Christians and non-Christians; it’s that it highlights the wrong differences, and encourages us to exaggerate and claim differences that don’t exist. For instance, Jesus had a lot to say about concern for the poor. But if we think that non-Christians are also concerned for the poor, we won’t focus on it much because it doesn’t highlight “how we are different.”

If we focus on Jesus as the center, then the key question becomes whether someone is oriented toward him or away from him. We realize that God is in a much better position than we are to know who’s in and who’s out. We also realize that everyone has something to learn, that everyone has a next step to take, and we don’t have to make ourselves seem more different than we really are. We embrace our common humanity.

Ortberg puts his finger on what I consider to be the main problem with this church sign. For not only does it represent in/out bounded-set thinking, its use of adjectives grossly exaggerates the supposed “differences” between Christians and their non-Christian neighbors. In fact, it does so with insulting bluntness.

  • Christians are useful people.
  • Non-Christians are useless people.

How’s that for “embracing our common humanity”?

I don’t know much about “bounded sets” and “centered sets.” But I do know a little bit about people. If my neighbor knew I was a follower of Jesus and that this is what I thought of him, I can’t imagine he would feel the warmth of my Christian love.

Theology matters, and the language we use to talk about it matters even more.


  1. ALL people are useful sinners…to God.

    He uses it ALL. In some mysterious way. Like the Cross…for example.

  2. sure, steve martin. One of the things I find most attractive about Christianity is that, if it is true (and there’s good reasons to think so), YOU….MATTER! You are endlessly important, and… the next person you meet, cashier, vagrant, whoever, is endlessly endlessly endlessly valuable, of unsurpassable worth, because he or she is someone Jesus thought was worth dying for…. people can say the gospel is untrue, but they SURE cannot ever say it is dull…

  3. Another problem with this sign is that it locates the value of human beings in their utility, rather than in their being. Last time I checked, the term was still human being, not human doing.

    • +1

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Doesn’t a Narcissist or a Sociopath look on other human beings as Useful Resources, to be discarded when they are No Longer Useful?

    • The problem with the signs is that they’ve moronic for the most part. But then, what is their purpose? Simple, its MARKETING! To get people to come. The more provocative the better. As a matter of fact, today might not be the day, but how about a discussion about churches market themselves sell themselves, and generally sell themselves? Gospel for sale, get your gospel here!

  4. Church signs can certainly be problematic. I would probably be a little more generous than you are to the one who put this sign up because I doubt the thought process in his or her mind was “Christian = useful and Non-Christian = useless.” It was probably more along the lines of encouraging people who think they can’t be used by God because of their sin or their past. But of course even if that is what the person meant, that doesn’t mean that is the way people will take it, as this post shows.
    Perhaps the two most cringe-worthy church signs I have ever seen are:
    1. God can’t be everywhere at once, that is why he created mothers. (This was on mother’s day)

    2. If baby’s had guns there wouldn’t be any abortion. (Yes this was an actual sign. If I had a camera I would have taken a picture.)

    • I don’t think their intentions were to be cruel. Frankly, knowing the way things work, it’s likely they just got this out of a book of things to put on church signs (I’ve actually seen this one in such a book). But that just shows even more how careless we are with our words.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I tend to cut church signs some slack. I mean, whoever’s in charge of the sign (the pastor?) has to come up with a clever Spiritual one-liner each and every week. After a while, you run out of the good ones, and then you get desperate and punchy.

        • Too funny Headless! As a pastor who had this “privelage”, I soon ran out of the cute signs and began putting up encouraging scripture verses. Couldn;t go wrong and plenty of great one liners.

    • There’s a local church near me that recently had a sign that read “It’s all about that grace, about that grace, no devil”.

      Jesus Christ, have mercy on our souls….I wanted to self-flagellate after seeing it.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I assume this sign was a “See How Clever I Am?” take on some pop song lyric or pop culture reference?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      2. If baby’s had guns there wouldn’t be any abortion. (Yes this was an actual sign. If I had a camera I would have taken a picture.)

      Now THAT’s a weird one.

    • ————
      “1. God can’t be everywhere at once, that is why he created mothers. (This was on mother’s day)

      2. If baby’s had guns there wouldn’t be any abortion. (Yes this was an actual sign. If I had a camera I would have taken a picture.)”

      I’m trying hard not to vomit here…

    • My all-timed despised church sign was “Have a nice worship.”

  5. Funny how even Jesus Himself seemed to think along these lines. One of the verses that seems to speak most clearly for a “bounded set” POV – “whoever is not for Me is against Me” – actually deals with the question of whether Jesus is at the center (putting cultural obligations before discipleship). It becomes much clearer when paired with the parallel story (which it isn’t, too often) when the disciples told Jesus to rebuke somebody who was doing miracles but wasn’t “one of us”. Jesus’ reply – “do not hinder him, for whoever is not against you is for you.”

    • People are always going to the Gospels to find the Jesus they want to see. He can speak to either side of this if you want him to, but it’s really more of a both/and. There is an inside and an outside, but we are often not the most perceptive judges of it, and making those decisions are not something to concern ourselves with.

      Jesus is in some ways the ultimate “bounded set” speaker, while at the same time creating the “unbound boundaries,” with statements like Luke 5:31-32.

  6. I think John “The Life You’ve Always Wanted” Ortberg misses the point. The problem with the statement, “God makes useful saints out of useless sinners” is that it is man-centered, not simply ethnocentric. Everyone wants to be a useful engine. Certainly, Jesus at the center (Is that Daniel Amos I hear?) is the right answer, but I think he fails to see what truly pushes Jesus out and what replaces it. It is the church’s appeal to the base nature to convert is what pushes Jesus (as well as grace) out of the picture. It’s worldly marketing applied to the church. Wouldn’t you like to be a “Christian”™ too? It appeals to the fear of being left out of the cool kids’ club. Ethnocentrism is merely the result of this marketing to differentiate Christianity in the marketplace of ideas. The end goal is to get people to come to church, to buy the product. No grace, no Savior, no cross, no tomb is needed to do that. To embrace our common humanity would require admitting every day we need a Savior as much as our neighbor does. But that doesn’t sell quite like “I was a rotten sinner, then I got “Jesus”™, and now I’m a saint everything is wonderful”.

  7. This is such an important article. Thank you CM. “Bounded-set” thinking leads to a lack of compassion for our neighbor and the world. And it betrays the reality that we are just as sinful as the world. What “usefulness” we have is irrelevant.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Bounded-set thinking” as in who’s in the Inner Ring?

      (I was introduced to Set Theory in elementary school, as part of The New Math. Never had occasion to use it until college, when I had to take a math class in Statistics and discovered Set Theory is vital to statistical analysis. And that’s it.)

      • Yes, “bounded-set” thinking: as long as WE are in the Inner Ring and not Left Behind its “all good.”

      • To nerd out further, one could add that a proper mathematical notion of “boundedness” probably requires a metric space structure, rather than just a generic set, and that “centeredness” further requires some sort of vector space notion, if not an actual embedding in n-dimensional Euclidean space.

        I feel so much more spiritual now for having pointed all this out.

      • “As in who’s in the Inner Ring?”

        More like, who’s in the fundagelical ghetto?

  8. It’s pharisaic: “I thank you, God, that I am not (or no longer) like that sinful/useless tax collector over there” vs “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner”.

  9. I wish I could find the name of the Orthodox monk who said the Jesus prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” is a prayer of intercession. For God to have mercy on me, the chief of sinners, he must first have mercy on the rest of humanity less sinful than I.

    • Oof… you provided my gut punch for the day. I’ll be thinking about this for awhile.

      Perhaps Paul had this in mind, consciously or subconsciously, when he declared himself the ‘chief of sinners.’ As though he was saying “listen people, I know you think this forgiveness thing is outrageous, and God doesn’t really want anything to do with you. Well, I’m worse off than all of you, and he has loved and adopted me. So NO EXCUSES, his grace and forgiveness is for all of us.”

    • I love your comment, Dumb Ox. Well said!

    • Says who ? God can have mercy on anyone he see’s fit to extend it. He is under no compulsion to extend it to anyone. This is what happens when we try to tell God what he has to do.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I assume you are Calvinist?

        • My reply was to dumb ox comment. I am no Calvinist at all. I simply believe in a God who can do as he chooses rather than what I expect or demand him to do or think.

          • That’s how I took your comment, too, David. And that’s much what I believe, and I’m far from being a Calvinist, as defined by Calvinists, anyway…LOL.

        • It’s a matter of perspective. If you think you’re an insider, then everyone looks like an outsider. If you think you’re a hammer, then everyone looks like a nail.

          • ——–
            If you think you’re a hammer, then everyone looks like a nail.

            Wasn’t there a song written about this?

            If I was a hammer,
            I’d hammer in the morning,
            I’d hammer in the evening,
            All over your head,
            I’d hammer out danger,
            I’d hammer out a warning,
            I’d hammer out love between,
            My brothers and my sisters,
            All over their heads

            Something like that…

      • The point is about how we consider ourselves, not what God can and can’t do. If I conceive of myself as the furthest from God, then for his mercy to encompass me means that it has become big enough to encompass anyone else too. It’s not what God has to do, it’s what God has already done: provided a long enough rope to reach anyone, no matter how far from the boat.

        • Isn’t there a kind of reverse pride, which is pride nonetheless, in thinking myself, “The worst of all miserable sinners!“? Doesn’t this, in a subtle way, pay me a compliment, and place me rather than God at the center of everything? Isn’t there a rather clever form of ego-inflation, and self-aggrandizement disguised as pious self-abasement, in such a melodramatic claim? Why can’t we get off the religious stage, and acknowledge to ourselves and others that we, like they, are almost definitely not the best or worst of sinners or saints or anything else, but merely humdrum, ordinary, unimportant sinners and saints that God loves, not because of our spectacular virtues or in spite of our spectacular sins, but because God is love?

          • I’ve certainly seen that. At this point we are getting into psychology more than theology. One of the usual tenants of Protestantism that I generally disagree with is the idea that theology is the problem. More often than not the problem is me, not my theology.

  10. When I read this: ” Missiologist Paul G. Hiebert’s writings on understanding Christian identity in terms of bounded and centered sets have had a profound influence on the discussion. Hiebert observed differences in how people in different cultures answered the question: “Who is (and isn’t) a Christian?” ”

    I thought about a post over at SBCvoices that addressed the phenomenon of some Southern Baptists questioning whether or not the 21 Coptic Egyptian martyrs were ‘Christians’.

    There was quite a discussion and the responses were diverse, but it was interesting to read and to try to comprehend some of the thinking of the participants. In some ways, I was saddened by what I read, and from some comments I drew encouragement.

    Obviously, how ‘Christian identity’ is defined is one issue that the whole Church might examine and look at when it is confronted with certain segments of the Church so affected by their unique cultural points of view as to miss that when men in their dying moments say ‘Jesus, help me’, that these men trust Our Lord to see them through their crisis and to welcome them into the world He has prepared for them beyond this Earth.

    • Well put Christiane.
      But it’s not just So Baptists who might question if Coptics are Christians. A certain US Lutheran synod refuses to “pray and worship with all other Christians,” as it puts it, because to do so would “compromise the truth of God’s word,” which, apparently, only it understands. I’m familiar with the practice of closed communion, but it’s the synod’s ban on its members praying with other Christians that gets to me. Does that really “compromise” the truth?

    • Christiane,

      I went over there to SBC Voices to see for myself and was both horrified and saddened by the thread. I spent a good portion of Mass this evening, praying for them.

      Where is the knowledge of what our Coptic kin live through, churches destroyed and unable to be rebuilt, daughters kidnapped to be wives of Muslims , etc.

      Where is God’s love for the martyrs? Where is the cry for God’s mercy?

  11. There is a brief but very helpful exploration of bounded sets in the 2003 book A is for Abductive by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren and Jerry Haselmayer; complete with diagrams for illiterates.

  12. I think that the way of thinking displayed in this article is even helpful when trying to run down the concept of us being “of one mind”. Rather than being a strict uniformity, it is a unity of purpose. We are all pointed in one direction. Good stuff.

    • Agree completely. I often try to tell people that disagreement CAN HAPPEN while still being unified. Demanding complete agreement is NOT unity.

    • Really good point. Since we are located on all different sides of the center point, that means it will appear that we’re all going in different directions. But we’re all moving towards the same thing.

  13. Thanks for this, CM. Reading Ortberg’s words and your take on them helps me get my mind around why I struggle so much with the “we’re in” theology of some denominations. I mean, I understand that I’m a part of God’s kingdom and I’ve been adopted into His family, but I need to be smart and humble in describing that to others. I need to help build bridges into where I’m at, not walls around it.

    • Good points. Smart and humble. It’s very easy to go the other way and say “God, thank you that I am not like other people–pharisees, conservatives, bubblers – or even like this evangelical”

      Amen, Lord help us build bridges, not walls.

  14. Good post. Missiology has made a lot of good advances in the last few decades, and this is surely one of the more helpful insights. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much it trickles down to the average congregation or missionary today.

    I grew up as an MK on a third world mission field with missionaries from a lot of different sending agencies and nations. Some came with a very bounded set mentality, but before long the need to work with other missionaries of very different backgrounds, combined with the need to find practical ways to reach Muslims, broke down a good bit of that boundedness. Funny how that happens when people have to do actual work instead of be armchair critics. And a lot of this happened even before some of the more recent work in missiology.

    By contrast, I’ve been shocked and, frankly, alienated, by some of the bounded mindset thinking I’ve run across in the U.S., particularly in the last decade or two. I’m not sure the church as a whole is making much progress on this score at the grass roots level, and certainly not among the more fundamentalist wings (who have not just a bounded set mentality but a hermetically sealed one!).

  15. I see so much concern for making ourselves useful to God. There’s entire books about it, like “the man God uses.” It must be a pretty pathetic deity that depends on us to make ourselves usable before he can do anything.

    “God uses cracked pots.” Well then, I suppose that most of us already qualify.

    • If a person is in the dark, though, or in the night, the only way to know the sun exists is if it hits the moon, if the moon reflects the sun’s light. Likewise, maybe to those living in the dark and the night, the only way they know if God exists is for him to reflect off of us. If we’re not there, reflecting His light, maybe they’ll never know that He exists.

      (Just a thought.)

    • Politics has ruined our understanding of entitlement. It doesn’t mean I’m lazy and want a free ride; it means that I intrinsically deserve something because of who I am, what I do, or what I have earned. Grace destroys entitlement thinking. Jesus’ parable of the workers in the field all receiving the same wage nails it; entitlement has nothing to do with what the master gave the workers. Grace makes us powerless with no means to control God. The only response is humble gratitude.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Cracked pots” or crackpots?

    • Don’t get me started.

      I work at a church (not the one I attend). I overheard an assembly of high schoolers last week being ranted at by some puffed up lunatic shouting at them in angry Christianese. The rant (which went on for three minutes easily) consisted of this theme repeated ad nauseum: “If you don’t __________, you will never be _________.” Stuff like “If you don’t stop sinning, you will never reach your full potential.” and “If you don’t take your faith seriously, you will never be the leader God wants you to be.”

      It got much worse than that, though I can’t remember specifics. I had to make a quick choice whether to run into the auditorium and shout “Buuuuullshiiiiit!” at the top of my lungs, or leave the area quietly and keep my job.

      • “puffed up lunatic shouting”

        Is his name Matt Foley and does he live in a van down by the river?