No More Faking It

Get off the performance treadmill and focus on Jesus


A few years ago Palmer Zerbe, former superintendent of the Western Pennsylvania District of The Alliance, asked me to be the evening evangelist at Mahaffey Camp. I said, “You guys asked me to leave that camp early a lot when I was a teen. Are you going to let me stay the whole week this time?”

“We’ll see,” he said.

It was a blessing to go back to where I grew up and minister out of who I am now. But all week long people kept saying, “Hey, Ron, remember when you did this? Remember when you did that?” I felt like every prank I had ever done at Mahaffey was pulled out and put in my face.

At the end of the week, Rev. Zerbe said, “Ron, does it bother you that people keep bringing up stuff from your past?”

“No, it doesn’t—for two reasons,” I said. “First, they don’t know the half of what I actually did. If that’s all they know, they can tell their stories. The second reason is that it is no longer who I am. I’ve been set free.”

Often someone who grows up with religion opts for rebellion. Jesus set me free from religion first and then set me free from rebellion. God put me in California for 10 years—a place where no one knew me—so I could become who He was making me, not who I had been.

Bounded set/centered set” is an anthropological term coined in the 1970s by Dr. Paul Hiebert, a missiologist and anthropologist, to describe types of culture a missionary may encounter. A “bounded set” is more rigid, often blocking people’s acceptance. There are specific things that must never be done and specific things that must always be done in order for a person to fit in. The “centered-set” culture is much more relational, more fluid, making it easier to enter.

As I learned about this description of cultures, my thoughts immediately went to the way we do church. I grew up trying to do spirituality in a bounded set, and all it did was drive me away from Jesus, not to Him. I believe in transformation, sanctification, and the deeper life—but I am convinced that a bounded set will never create that. I do not propose cheap grace or “easy believe-ism.” I want radical disciples who, in contrast to the rich young ruler, are willing to sell it all for Jesus. But I don’t think we get those radical disciples the way we used to think we did; we need a new perspective on how that happens.

In his groundbreaking book, Invitation to a Journey, M. Robert Mulholland, wrote: “Spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ.” This implies outside pressure, but I think spiritual formation happens from the inside out, and not just for ourselves but for those around us. Therefore, my modification is: “Spiritual formation is a process of being transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others.”

Transformation is a relational process. Our transformation—your sanctification and mine—was never meant to be accomplished through a set of principles and regulations. The apostle Paul traded the bounded set of Old Testament Judaism for a relationship with Jesus. In Philippians 3:7 Paul wrote: “[W]hatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . .”

Paul did not find in Jesus the self-righteousness that comes from doing the right things and avoiding the wrong. The only thing the law does is show us how broken we are and drive us to a person—Jesus. Transformation comes “through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” Paul wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection . . .” (Phil. 3:8–10).

Radical disciples are sold out for Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul again contrasts the New Covenant with the Old Covenant, which caused adherents to cover their faces with a veil. But in the New Covenant, the veil comes off. Believers come into the presence of God just as they are, not as they should be. “[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:17–18).

The secret of transformation is coming into God’s presence, sin and all. In the New Covenant we don’t run from God; we run to Him, walking in the light. We are not perfect; we just don’t fake it anymore.

Yet centered-set, relational transformation is not as tidy as a bounded-set series of regulations. In a bounded set we begin to believe that if we follow the rules we’re OK. As Christians, there are things we want to embrace or avoid, but in a bounded set, a list develops: go to church, tithe, read the Bible, pray every day. Certainly these are good things, but sadly, people’s discipleship model revolves around checking off both sides of that list, thereby including or excluding other believers. Behavioral expectations become norms for the group.

In a bounded-set culture, image is everything. But when the way things appear is all important, the way things really are never gets dealt with. The by-word for the bounded set is “behave.” By following the rules, people think they’re OK—but nothing is further from the truth.

When a bounded-set culture is taking over, a church often develops the same “no-talk rule” as dysfunctional families, not allowing anyone to admit anything is wrong. If someone finally has the courage to say, “Hey, we’ve got some problems here,” the family turns on that person—and real transformation never happens.

When our kids were little, the ride to church was fraught with spiritual warfare: fighting, complaining, and yelling. But as soon as the car door opened in the church parking lot, a miracle happened. It’s not OK to not be OK, so we shifted to the emotions the bounded set expected.

But when performance fails, guilt and rebellion follow. At Nyack College we encounter countless students from Christian churches who are stressed out because they can’t keep up on the bounded-set treadmill. It’s not Jesus they are rejecting but bounded-set weariness. Guilt opens the door for rebellion, and we have prodigal people.

I love prodigals, maybe because I was one myself. But rebellion is never the solution to religion because it just trades one bounded set for another. We think the group at the bar will accept us unconditionally, yet once our money runs out or we no longer want to do what they are doing, they too will reject us.

However, if performance works, an elder brother is born. The Christian students I find the most difficult to reach are those for whom the bounded set is working. They went on every mission trip. They went to camp (and never got thrown out like me). They were Bible quizzers. They did everything right and have their performance nailed down.

In Luke 15:20–23, Jesus tells us what happened to the prodigal and his brother: “‘So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”

But the father, seeking relationship, says to his servants: “‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.’”

One character (besides the fattened calf) was not happy with this homecoming. The older brother says, “Come on! I’ve done everything you wanted me to do and avoided all the bad stuff. How come you never threw a party for me?” Sadly, many elder brothers are pastoring churches, and some are on mission fields. We don’t have to run away to go prodigal; we just have to believe that intimacy with God is based on rule keeping.

And, finally, obedience in a bounded set flows from religious duty. Jesus unmasked the bounded set when they brought him a woman caught in adultery. “Our rules say she should be stoned,” they said. Jesus answered, “Look, if anyone has kept the bounded set perfectly, then let him throw the first stone.” Slowly the rocks began to fall from their hands because they knew in their hearts it wasn’t working for any of them, not just the one caught in sin.

What does a centered set look like? First, it’s about focus: Truth is everything—and truth comes in the person of Jesus. He is the center. Some people are closer to Him than others and some are moving toward Him at a higher speed. Yet, for all of the believers in a centered set, Jesus is the focus.

Are we looking at everyone else? Are we judging? Are we feeling intimidated? When we compare ourselves to others, we either compare our weaknesses to their strengths or our strengths with their weakest spots. As a result we either feel better or worse about ourselves. Both superiority and inferiority complexes are driven by bounded-set shame. Our eyes have to be on Jesus.

Second, the centered set is about whether we are drawing toward Him rather than how fast we are going. Some days it feels like I’m taking three steps forward and two steps back. But I am living in relationship to Jesus, always moving nearer.

What happens when we fall? In a centered set, when somebody struggles, we help them get realigned and refocused on Jesus. We become fellow travelers with our brothers and sisters instead of competitors. We begin to see that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are for us, not against us.

Finally, a greater intensity of obedience will flow out of a centered set than ever can be produced by a bounded set. In Jesus, obedience flows not out of religious duty but out of passionate relationship.

In our journey toward freedom we have choices. The first choice is prodigal-type rebellion. A generation of young people is running from God, but I believe He is going to bring them back. I had a vision in which I saw many sheep in wolves’ clothing. As I was contemplating it, the Lord said, “Many who have run from the church are my sheep. Right now, they are garbed in the clothing of the world, but I’m going to bring them back.” I’m praying for revival among the 20- and 30-somethings. The day is coming when they will throw off the world’s disguise and become who they really are, the sheep of God’s pasture.

If your kids are running from God, remember this: a prodigal will never return to the bounded set but only to the loving arms of a compassionate father. We have been fighting too long about behavior; if we fight the battle for their hearts, they will come back. Their rebellion isn’t going to work. Their hearts long for love.

Another choice is elder-brother legalism. It may appear to work, but what is the result? Some of the meanest Christians I know have been produced by a bounded set. An angry spirit comes from keeping all the rules, and self-righteousness finds its way into Christianity. Thus, the bounded-set success of legalism is not really success.

Every day we have a choice: Are we going to live in the centered-set riskiness of the Father’s love or are we going to opt for the bounded set? Paul wrote: “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in your weakness.” The reality is that His power has given us everything we need. Let’s choose the centered set. It’s messy, but it will bring real transformation and true discipleship.

It’s a Process

I was lecturing about bounded set/centered set at Nyack College and about 80 people were in the class, including Betzi Schroeder, the wife of David Schroeder, who was then Nyack’s president. At the end of the lecture, several students started weeping.

“I think a few of you need to pray out some stuff,” I said. A big young man stood up, a junior youth ministry major from a fundamentalist background. “O God,” he sobbed. “O God, I’m so f-ing tired.” Only he didn’t say “f-ing”; he said the word.

I was a new professor, the president’s wife was in the class, and someone just dropped the F bomb under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. I put my head on the podium, expecting to be fired at any moment!

Suddenly, I heard chairs moving, and when I dared to look up, I saw Betzi Schroeder pushing her way toward this kid. She threw her arms around him, and with tears streaming down her face, said, “That’s right; don’t you censor a thing. Our God can take it. He’s here to set you free.”

A few weeks later I led the students on a retreat at a Catholic monastery. I put this young man in a field next to a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. I said, “I want you to process your anger.”

Throughout the day, he prayed but also vented, using language he never used in his fundamentalist church. I’m just happy Mary didn’t drop baby Jesus to cover her ears.

At about noon I drove to the edge of the field and saw a nun standing there looking at him. I said, “Ah, Sister . . . um . . . he’s processing a lot of anger, and I’m very sorry for the language he’s using.”

“Don’t apologize for him,” she answered. “I was getting ready to go out there and join him.”

“Really?” I said.

“I pray that way all the time,” she responded.

Three years after that I visited eastern Pennsylvania and one of the pastors asked, “Hey, this guy, Chris—is he from Nyack? I want you to know that young people’s lives are being changed through his ministry. He’s one of the first youth pastors I have seen who is getting to the heart of our young people, not just entertaining them. Not just trying to get them to behave themselves so they keep their parents happy but getting them free.

“I don’t know what you did to this kid but send us as many young people like that as possible.”

17 responses to No More Faking It

  1. I grew up in western PA. I think I even worked with you in the dining hall at some point. I never thought I would hear such freeing words from a western PA C&MA mouth. Growing up there definitely marked me. It took 6 years of counseling for me to begin to understand what a centered/set relationship looked like. I’m still gaining a deeper understanding of it everyday and hope that will continue all my life. It is heartening to see God’s work in my life reaffirmed by a witness from home.

  2. Observations about Set Theory

    1. The distinction between the two sets is somewhat artificial. Both have rules which define how people relate to each other within the set. While the rules are different for each group, neither group can escape them.

    2. As it applies to the church either model can create problems, rigidity on the one hand or over tolerance on the other.

    3. It appears that set theory, as applied to the church portrays the bounded set as legalism and the centered set as a grace oriented approach to the faith.

    4. However by comparing legalism to grace, one compares the distortion of one trait (truth) with an undistorted trait (grace). While this highlights the flaws of one approach it overlooks the dangers of the other.

    5. Applying set theory to the church creates a bifurcation between grace and truth which are both attributes of God held in tension within His nature as displayed in the character of Jesus (Jn 1:14).

    6. A centered set model can create just as much rigidity as the bounded set if one dogmatically embraces it. When the journey becomes more important than Jesus freedom becomes as destructive as legalism.

    7. May God give us the wisdom to reject legalism, without the knee jerk reaction of embracing freedom for freedom’s sake, lest we exchange one dysfunction for another.

  3. Ron,Excited to read your article and hear you name. How fast time flies. Memories of our parents visiting back and forth. If you remember my niece Katherine from Nyack. She and her husband are planning To go to China in August. He will be teaching at a University. She has 4 children. My other niece Heather Focht Borchert are at New Stanton Alliance church. God has been good to me ,2013 I had surgery for pancreatic cancer and had the whipple which is a major surgery but no chemo or radiation which definitely was a miracle. Good to see your name again. God bless you and your family.

  4. I grew up in the apostate Roman Catholic church. I was born again on October 27, 2009. I currently am listening to Pastor John Soper (http://ridgewaychurch.com/#/staff-and-leadership)and his 91 week bible series, entitled “91 Weeks…” (mission119.org) This past week I listened to his review of Luke 22, and in that review he warns about the non-biblical Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation…changing a wafer into the actual flesh of Jesus (another Jesus!)…So my concern is that Ron Walborn in “The Process” is promoting the praying to a statue of Mary, which is part of the Roman Catholic false doctrine of prayer intercession through Mary and “saints”, thus promoting the Roman Catholic church. This is a very dangerous path to begin to go down, so please, stop this practice of promoting Roman Catholicism, which is not a Christian church, and its pagan practices in “your” magazine, as it will mislead some to believe that the Roman Catholic church is indeed a bible-believing Christian church…

  5. Ron,
    I grew up in a “bounded-set” church and home. Thank you for your article. I plan to re-read this article and want to be set free from the weariness of keeping all the rules! I plan to join you in praying for revival among the 20-and 30-somethings who have been rebelling from the bounded-set.
    Excellent article!

  6. Ron, I have this message on my iPhone (you shared at an Eastern District pastor’s conference a few years ago in Carlisle)…
    I did not attend, but your message has been a powerful reminder. I listen to it at least 2-3 times a year, as the reminder of bounded-set performance is not true measure. Growing up in CMA, I figured out how to look OK – and I never was kicked out of Summit Grove :) . Thank you for sharing and the ongoing impact.

  7. Similarly, the Lord spoke to me regarding the paper Bible intercepting the Living Word: “My voice is like a beacon of light meant to guide those who are willing to be lead. I shine in the darkness for all to see, but I speak only to those who are willing to hear. I respond to an expectant heart, but to those who place boundaries around what is acceptable to them; to those who limit and devalue my power, I withdraw. I am the living Word. I was with the Father from the beginning. The word became flesh when I was sent to earth to be born of a virgin. My book tells of the history of mankind and of my activities on earth and of things to come, but the paper book is NOT a replacement for the Holy Spirit of God. My people are not called to serve a book! They are called to serve the Living God! My Spirit rides the truth coming from My book, but the book itself is not to be worshipped; revered—YES! Worshipped—NO! Scriptures quoted verbatim can be used as a cover to hide a multitude of sins. Demons can and do quote vast amounts of scripture, twisting and contorting the meaning, manipulating words to say what heresies they wish to propagate. It is necessary for the Spirit of God to quicken the understanding of the heart if scripture is to be fully known.”

  8. Ron, I and others have been bereft over the longstanding legalism and worship of the family in our little congregation (there are reasons it’s little), and have been voicing our impressions to the pastor and elders, without any seeming success. Your article has given us, not only encouragement, but a concept other than “legalism” for our fight to allow the Holy Spirit to effervesce His life into the body, so that it will truly be a beacon shining the glory of God to all! We have started taking our efforts to the individuals within the church, and now will be armed, not only with the transforming Word, but with your article as an example of what we’ve allowed to happen within. Thank you for your precise and concise article!

  9. Gery, My only modification to Mullholland’s definition is to change the word “conform” to “transform.” The word “conform” has the feeling of “outside to in” pressure and the word “transform” brings more of a “inside out” change. I am not sure why Mullholland insists on using the word “conform.” I love his book and material save for this one small critique.

  10. It’s not just this generation of 20-30 year olds who have run way from the church. Many from the 1970’s/80’s ran away too and some are still running. If I ever wrote a book I would title it ‘Unloving People’ to depict the “bounded-set” people I’ve seen in the past and present churches that I’ve attended. It’s a shame that the majority seem to be this way. I call it “playing church” and I can think of so many other things I rather do than “play church”. “Radical” Christianity must become the rule not the exception.

  11. Dear Pastor Walborn:

    Glad you wrote this article; I needed to be refreshed in these truths.
    From the “older” school (I’m 66), Mahaffey and Christmas were the two events in my year; my grandparents – friends of the Zerbes from my home church Williamsport – owned the cabin straight out the back door of the main tabernacle. My folks owned the one on the hill next to Dorm 3 as you turn the corner.
    As you describe, Nyack College “processed” properly pious actors and actresses – many unwittingly so – even when I attended. I know; I was one of them.
    Too many wasted years followed trying to achieve a home and family of my own – on my terms, not His. And yet through all the calamities I invited, He had His hand on me though I didn’t recognize it at the time; I lived with no regard for Him at all. But eight years ago, Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow, I collapsed at the Cross. Jesus was waiting for me, and since His arms are open to me, They’re open for anyone. Oh for grace to trust Him more.
    Though I much regret the lost years and rue that I hurt His heart by my continued indifference to His claim on my life, I will continue – as He gives me grace and opportunity – to serve my Lord in whatever capacity He chooses for me. Meanwhile, I study the Word with online expositor commentaries (Precept Austin – great site), writing out each chapter’s notes on 5X8’s.
    Now half-way through, I’ve got a few thousand of them, bound with rubberbands, book by book.
    I do remember the Walborn name from Mahaffey, but we were from the Eastern District, so as a kid I “hung out” with the Hickes kids next door to my Mom-mom’s cabin, and the Stephenson clan whose family donated the camp property to the C&MA. My younger brothers buddied up with Doug Conley; Doug’s father Jack grew up with my dad at the West End Church.

    Thank you again for your timely article. I hope the truths of its message encourage other Christians – as it has me – in the direction of the Resurrection Life of Jesus, and away from a mindset that often – even unwittingly – over-emphasizes conformation to a life of “spiritual protocol”.

    Because He lives,
    Rhonda Mechtly

  12. This is a wonderful article and I am loath to lesson it’s impact. It may need an edit as the author’s own modifies Mullholland’s description of spiritual formation to “Spiritual formation is a process of being transformed into the image of Christ for the sake of others.” Which is almost verbatim of Mullholland’s description in Invitation to a Journey as Mullholland’s often emphasized phrase “for the sake of others” is added to the authors current description of his definition in “Invitation.”

  13. Ron,

    I was riveted to every word in this article. You are exactly right on every single point. We need to lay down our self righteous judgements and give room for the Holy Spirit to reveal himself to the most tender parts of one’s secret heart. His love and unconditional heart for the “sheep” that have gone astray will allow them to return to the reality of what the Cross is really about. We have been taught and believe that if we can’t get it ALL right, then none of it matters. The “Centered Set” is truely the path to a relationship with Jesus Christ. Those of us on this path need to be more real, more transparent and willing to take the time on this journey to encourage and support those that keep stumbling…just like others that really get it have done for us! Lord Jesus forgive us. Help us to look for those on this journey and let them see us on this same trek.

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