Collaborating for the Common Good

Collaborating for the Common Good

Although only the author’s name is on a book’s cover, others are always involved in its creation. That is especially true with my current project. Many significant collaborators are part of the Fresno Pacific University-Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary community.

The first connection came almost 20 years ago. After reading my first book, Larry Dunn, Ph.D., professor of peacemaking and conflict studies, asked, “Mark, have you read Paul Hiebert’s work on bounded and centered churches?[1]” I replied, “no,” and Larry told me I should. He was right! I wish I had read Hiebert before I had published that book, but his work is the foundation of my current project, tentatively titled Centered Church: Moving Beyond Judgmentalism and Relativism to New Creation, to be published by InterVarsity Press.

Hiebert, a 1957 seminary graduate, Mennonite Brethren missionary to India and later the leading missionary anthropologist of his generation (and uncle of Fran Martens Friesen, assistant professor of the humanities) borrowed from mathematical set theory to analyze three approaches churches use to identify who belongs to the group. “Bounded set” churches draw lines of judgmental exclusion that wound insiders and outsiders. In reaction some churches have erased the lines and become “fuzzy set” churches, solving some problems and creating others—such as relativism and weak group identity. Hiebert advocates for a “centered set” approach that discerns someone’s status as Christian by looking at their relationship with the center: are they oriented toward or turned away from Jesus? Are they moving toward Jesus?

There is more explanation on bounded, fuzzy and centered churches at my website, but the focus of this blog is not the content of the book, but the collaborations making the book possible—specifically through FPU connections.

Besides Hiebert, seminary students have made perhaps the most significant contributions. Their questions have led me to tinker with and polish my explanations, and readers will benefit from that refinement. More significantly, student questions convinced me of the need for the book. When students asked questions like: “What is a centered church’s approach to membership?” or “How would a centered church deal with X situation?” I often could not give very good answers and had nothing to point them to. Thanks to them I decided to write the missing resource.

Other collaborations came from focus groups and interviews with over 40 practitioners—many of them former seminary students—during my 2018 sabbatical. I asked questions to learn how they put in practice a centered approach. For example, Scott Carolan graduated from the seminary in 2008 and began serving at The Well, a multi-site community church in the Valley. Not only did he set out to apply the centered paradigm, he passionately told others on staff about it. Talking with Scott and others at The Well provided excellent material for the book. For instance, many assume a church must use a bounded approach in recovery ministry. Therefore, in the book I want a chapter on how to do recovery ministry in a centered way. Where to find an example? Dave Obwald (M.A. in Peacemaking and Conflict Studies) leads the recovery program at The Well. His excellent insights and stories exceeded my expectations.

My sabbatical research shaped the outline of the book and provided much of the content. Before sending the manuscript to the publisher I wanted to field test it. So, I again searched for collaborators among practitioners.

I invited eight people to not only read and give feedback on the manuscript but to come together for a day and discuss how to improve it. Most had FPU connections, five were current or former seminary students. The pastors came from a variety of churches—from a large multi-site to a small church plant. Some had more experience in bounded churches, others in more fuzzy churches. All have worked at practicing a centered approach. It would be hard to overstate the value of that diversity. For instance, I have limited experience with fuzzy churches, but April Alkema—FPU grad, degree completion instructor and seminary student—and seminary graduate Dustin Maddox, repeatedly suggested ways I could better communicate to people with a fuzzy perspective. This group together yielded more than just the sum of our individual ideas. One comment spurred another, ideas melded and sparked new ideas. Before the meeting, I had a complete manuscript. Now I have a lot more work to do, but it will be a much better book thanks to the input of this group. The finished book will be the fruit of collaboration—mostly with people connected to FPU and FPBS. I am grateful for those connections, and how they improved this book and the education it will provide students and other readers.

[1] Paul G. Hiebert, “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,” Gospel in Context 1, no. 4 (October 1978): 24– 29; Paul G. Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 107–136.


Mark D. Baker, Ph.D.

Professor Mission and Theology, Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary