A few years ago I was the worship leader and an associate pastor in a large church. There was a new guy in the church who was an excellent guitar player, and who was looking for a way to both connect to people and re-connect in his relationship with Jesus. I started hanging out with him, developing a friendship with him, and getting to know him.  After a few weeks, I asked him to join the worship team.  Two things instantly happened once he got on the team:

1. Everyone realized how amazing our music sounded with Dave on the guitar. He took us to a whole new level. He also looked like he was enjoying himself and was so happy to be part of the team.  He finally felt included, loved, and IN with God and his people.

2. A significant number of people on the worship team, in the congregation, and even on the staff had a problem with my decision to let Dave on the team because… DAVE SMOKED CIGARETTES!  “We can’t have a smoker on the worship team.”  Dave not only smoked cigarettes, he came to church with cigarette smoke in his clothes and would often smoke a cigarette out in the parking lot between the early and late service since he played in both. People would see him out there, then up on the “ministry platform” and wince at what they thought was Dave’s hypocrisy.

Our lead pastor asked to talk with me about Dave, his involvement, and his cigarette smoking since he was getting most of the complaints.

Here was my proposal to our pastor:

1. I do not want to remove Dave from the worship team even though he smokes. He is serious about Jesus, and in time, I think he’ll deal with his smoking, but I think it’s good for him to be involved. He is a good guy, an addition to the team, and it will help him grow in his faith.

2. There are other people on the worship team who have deep sin problems that are just as evident (some struggle with gluttony, some have marital difficulty, some have been divorced, some have confessed long-term struggles with sexual issues).  I was not comfortable removing any of them from the worship team since I knew that all of them wanted to move away from their sin — toward Jesus, and grow. The exact same thing was true for Dave, but his “sin” had a smell that stayed in his clothes, and chemicals that were in his body which would take a lot of work to remove. It would take time.

3.  Unless everyone on the team would be willing to confess their “hidden” sins and step down from the team, I was not comfortable removing Dave for his “obvious sins” because he was walking in step-by-step repentance and would continue to grow.

4. I would tell Dave that on Sundays, in order to protect him from the immature conclusions of others, He should not smoke before or during Church, and he should wear clothes that did not smell like smoke. Otherwise, I had no other requirements for Dave.

This was acceptable to our Pastor, and Dave continued to serve. To my knowlege, he continues to serve the Lord to this day.

This is a pastoral example of processing an ethical question using a “Centered-Set” approach.  Here’s that approach compared to two others.

Fuzzy, Bounded, and Centered Sets

A “Fuzzy Set” approach to this would have said something like, “Don’t judge Dave. Who are we to say it’s wrong for him to smoke cigarettes? Where is the verse in the Bible about smoking? Leave him alone.

A “Bounded Set” approach would have said something like, “Here it is in black and white on the worship team credo: No worship team member is allowed to smoke cigarettes. If you smoke cigarettes, you cannot be on the team”  – thus, we would make the “boundary” or a boundary for serving based on whether or not a person smokes cigarettes, and we would not take into account any other factors.  The “bound(ary)” is smoking. Smoking = OUT of the bound. Not Smoking = possibility of being INSIDE of the bound.

A Centered Set approach (what I tried to use before I understood it) was – “Is everyone on the worship team growing in their relationship with Jesus (the center) — are they teachable, moving TOWARD Jesus and AWAY from destructive practices in a process?  If they are, then they are modeling what it means to follow Jesus even if they are right in the middle of difficulties.  Are they centered on Jesus, even if they still have struggles, and do they want to be free?

My approach (which I think was closest to a centered set, though some might feel it was fuzzy) was acceptable to our pastor, but I fear that in many churches, the bounded set is the way things usually go, and in many other churches, I see things moving toward fuzzy sets.  I found this approach to ethics very helpful in pastoral work where religious ideals tend to drive discussions about (and responses to) ethical issues.