Tuesday, April 25, 2017

What about Blue Ocean Faith?

While some of you may have heard of it already, perhaps most of you haven’t previously heard about the Blue Ocean Network. A few of you may have seen my friend Bill Tammeus’s recent “Faith Matters” blog article titled “Diving into ‘Blue Ocean Faith’,” but allow me to tell you more about it.
Last year on April 10 I made this entry in my diary/journal: “Interesting Sunday School class with a video of a talk by Rachel Murr. Learned about the Blue Ocean church movement for the first time.” Ms. Murr is a member of Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, a church in Michigan. Her partner, Emily Swan, is co-pastor of that church.
This month I have read the new book titled Blue Ocean Faith. It is a compelling work written by Dave Schmelzer, a former atheist who in 1998 became the founding pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cambridge, which grew into a large church—and eventually changed its name to Reservoir Church.
That church, near Harvard University, formed the Blue Ocean Network. In 2013 Reservoir Church left the Association of Vineyard Churches—and Schmelzer (b. 1962) and his wife Grace, who is his co-pastor, left to start a Blue Ocean church in Los Angeles.
The website of the latter says their church seeks to be alive in God, diverse, inclusive, politically nuanced, and attractive & comprehensible (to non-churchgoing people.) Good stuff.
The name of this new movement seems to have come from the book Blue Ocean Strategy (2005), which is about economics not about religion. But that book, as well as Schmelzer’s movement, is about connection rather than competition (which causes a “red," as in bloody, ocean), and about dynamic movement rather than boundaries. (More about the latter shortly.) 
There are eight chapters in Schmelzer’s book, and chapters two through seven set forth the six distinctives of Blue Ocean Faith. They are:
1) Our primary framework is SOLUS JESUS.
2) Our primary metaphor is CENTERED-SET.
3) Our approach to spiritual development is CHILDLIKE FAITH.
4) Our approach to controversial issues is THIRD WAY.
5) Our approach to other churches is ECUMENICAL.
6) Our approach to secular culture is JOYFUL ENGAGEMENT.
All six of these deserve careful consideration, but it was the second of these that I found most instructive, so let’s look at it a bit more.
Schmelzer contrasts “bounded set” mentality with “centered set” mentality. The former draws a circle that separates those who are “in” from those who are “out.” The latter emphasizes a center but no boundaries. Rather, there is constant dynamic movement toward or away from the center.
This illustration shows those contrasting viewpoints: 

(This is not the illustration in Schmelzer’s book, although it is nearly the same. The only difference is that at the center of Schmelzer’s centered set is a cross rather than the target labeled “God.” I like this image better, and one of my few criticisms of Blue Ocean Faith is the emphasis on “solus Jesus” rather than upon “solus Christus”—in the broadest sense of a “cosmic Christ,” not as articulated in the Protestant Reformation.)

Blue Ocean seems to be a very attractive new Christian movement, which I hope will grow and become increasingly influential. Its distinctives could, with intentional effort, be incorporated into churches of most any denomination—and I pray that that will be increasingly done.


  1. Another splinter in the "Church" in the name of relevantism? I have a couple of friends who stay out on the cutting edge of Church engagement, so I am marginally familiar with Blue Ocean. But I have also seen the schisms caused by some of their relevant engagements as they come into their own. There was a time earlier in my sojourn when I was enthralled with relevantism. Now it just looks like Americanism to me, making the culture into churches.

    I believe I shall continue my counter-culture sojourn into the historic, traditional Church.

    1. Well, I am hoping to get some feedback from Dave Schmelzer or someone who is a part of the Blue Ocean Network. My guess is they will strongly disagree that they are a "splinter" or guilty of "relevantism."

      As to the former, one of their six core distinctives is being ecumenical, working with Christians who have different styles of worship or practice. And as I wrote about in the article, they reject the "bounded set" mentality, separating those who are "in" from those who are "out." Thus, they seek to be inclusive of all people in Christian love.

      As far as being relevant is concerned, they do seek to be accepting of "non-Christians" and willing to talk with them on their own terms. But their first distinctive is being Christ-centered, and their desire is for people to know and to follow Christ. They are trying to be a new "Jesus movement."

      One reason I am so positive about Blue Ocean, from what I have been able to learn about it so far, is because of their desire to, and success in, reaching people who, for whatever reason, would be most unlikely to set foot inside a "historic, traditional church." And many of such people are becoming followers of Jesus, for which I am truly thankful.

  2. The examples you use show a distinct pattern of our own church as "centered." Amazingly, this past week we had to take steps as a "bounded" church, but with good reason! The mere fact is that the centered attitude of RMC is exactly WHY I am not unchurched today. That is both a blessing AND a miracle. Thank you, Leroy!

    1. George, thanks for reading my new article and for posting your comments.

      Yes, I think Rainbow Mennonite Church shares many of the characteristics of the Blue Faith Network--and as I mentioned in the article it was at RMC that I first heard of Blue Ocean.

      I agree that in many ways Rainbow operates from a "centered set" mentality rather than from a "bounded set" position--and I am happy that you are one among many who are at Rainbow partly, or maybe even largely, because of that position.

  3. The name is intriguing—I not sure exactly for what reason. I was particularly interested that you were positive after looking over the web site (assume you looked at the one of the “Blue Ocean Faith Network”, www.blueoceanfaith.org) and taking the further investigation to get and read Dave Schmelzer’s book. The six “distinctivenesses” seemed to me, on first reflecting, also interesting but puzzling as much as illumining. “Solus Jesus” conjures up old mottos: “sola scriptura” or “sola fides” and, in the current context, begs the question of the “historical Jesus”, or the “Jesus of faith” or… You suggest “Jesus Christ” with the understanding of “cosmic Christ.” I generally favor inclusivity over exclusivity but hold on principles there are times and situations for boundaries. I applaud movements to reach the unchurched, the fallen by the wayside, and the large numbers of those turned off by rigid practices of many institutional churches.
    I see from the website that the blue ocean ‘center” of this network starts with the Jesus of the Nicene Creed. I also noted that the website included, as a resource, 150-page manual for a start-up congregation that seemed to be akin to a new, best practices for a congregation aimed at the unchurched, or a vineyard type congregation.
    More distinguishing mottos included: “Jesus has proven to be a particularly helpful north star,” “we need connections more than we need answers,” and “we grow by taking our own high risk journeys,”
    Thanks for the information provided. Looks like existing churches will have added company in the “network”.

    1. Larry, thanks for taking the time to read my article, to view the Blue Ocean website, and then to post your substantial comments here. Your engagement with my blog articles is a great encouragement to me.

      As you wrote, I also heartily applaud their efforts "to to reach the unchurched, the fallen by the wayside, and the large numbers of those turned off by rigid practices of many institutional churches."

      I read the book (carefully) before I looked at their website, and while I had some qualms about what they said about their first "distinctive," overall I was quite impressed with what they are seeking to do--and doing with considerable success, it seems.

  4. I find much resonance with Bill Tammeus’ take. My own simplistic orientation is that I am in the world because I am of the world. My connection to all is deeper than my own sense of self.

    I don’t much speak ‘evangelical’ but I hear it. “In the world but not of it” is language I understand (so I think, :-)), but it doesn’t ring true.

    Schmelzer’s own use of the wheat and weeds parable to illustrate a need to be careful about judging other people [“(Jesus’s [sic] parable of the wheat and the weeds and his strong warning that he doesn’t trust us to rip out the damned from the saved has given us food for thought)”, from “What Exactly Is a ‘Blue Ocean Faith’” at blueoceanfaith.org] primarily invites me to wonder if the ‘weeds’ might also be nourishing and (wonder of wonders) not “damned”!

    A ‘centered-set’ which gives rise to ‘permeable and moving boundaries’ still makes more real world sense to me than contrasting ‘center-set’ with ‘bounded-set’ [I take ‘bounded-set’ to be similar in meaning/use to ‘closed and fixed boundaries’.] Living organisms require (so I think) boundaries, but the boundaries must be permeable or the organisms die for lack of nourishment.

    Thanks, Leroy, for your words which nourish my curiosity and reflection.

    1. Thanks, Dick, for taking the time, as Larry did, to read not only my article but also Bill T.'s article and some of what is on the Blue Ocean website.

      When reading what you wrote, it struck me that to say that one either has a centered-set viewpoint or a bounded-set viewpoint is to affirm the in or out dichotomy of the latter. So, I like your suggestion of the importance of "permeable and moving boundaries." Still, I think there is a lot to be said for emphasizing the center and not the boundaries.

    2. Appreciate the response, Leroy! My point in mentioning Schmelzer’s language is that focusing on the center apparently is compatible/consistent with ‘bounded-set/fixed/impermeable’ boundary language of ‘damned/saved’. I think the ‘critical’ dimension of self-critical entities is on ‘what-kind-of-boundary’ is life-giving/life-enhancing to all (interdependence). I still think a focus on the ‘center’ easily has led and continues to lead toward a higher likelihood of ‘insider/outsider’ language and thought even when one tries to turn from the center to face outward. Inviting all toward a center without some ‘exchange boundaries’ might result in such a quickly increasing mass as to produce a ‘black hole’! :-) As I have mentioned in other comments, the language of making the first, last and the last, first does not change the hierarchical nature of the thinking; same with center, periphery.

      And yet, with you I am grateful for the intent of Blue Ocean Faith to form identity/connection by focusing on shared core ‘characteristics’ (instead of?) more than differentiating ‘characteristics’. Do we draw the circle so wide that multiple ‘centers’ become possible? And thus not a ‘circle’ at all in regular geometry? :-)

    3. Thanks for your further comments, Dick. I appreciate the depth of your thinking. But I am not willing to affirm the possibility of multiple centers. My worldview is too strongly monotheistic for that. But I am willing to consider a concept of "God" that is more complex than what is usually talked about--to the "God beyond god" that Tillich wrote about.

    4. OK, perhaps what I am thinking is that in the illustrating images the ‘in’ and ‘out’ of individuals or groups (paired icons) is dependent on where (in the quadrilateral) one draws the circle [I get it that the person icons may move also]; so, also, where one indicates a (the?) center determines closer or farther proximity of the icons. Blue Ocean Faith is a ‘real world’ ‘centered-set’ movement among other ‘centered-set’ movements (Brad Braxton’s “The Open Church” seems like another current one to me). My point is that *we humans have created (one of Craig’s points) and continue to create* ‘centered-set’ movements in a real world. The diversity of articulations of *the center* may be understood as approximations toward Tillich’s “God beyond god”, but as approximations they remain ‘god(s)’. [Reminder: I think the centered-set metaphor is primarily intended to counter fixed/closed boundary thinking.]

      Leroy, I share the bias of ‘mono-istic’ thought! But I think you correctly recognize that I consider Christianity (christianities?) to be one of the approximations. Thanks again!

    5. Dick, I won't write any more about this now--except to affirm that you put your finger on the most important point: "the centered-set metaphor is primarily intended to counter fixed/closed boundary thinking."

  5. Overlap between economics and religion is neither new nor accidental. Economic books such as "Debt: the First 5,000 Years" by David Graeber and "The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations" by Michael Hudson spell out major historical connections. These are both available free on the internet. For Graeber, see this link: https://libcom.org/files/__Debt__The_First_5_000_Years.pdf For Hudson, see this link: https://michael-hudson.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/HudsonLostTradition.pdf

    The "Blue Ocean" is getting rather crowded, not only with Blue Ocean Faith, but also Blue Ocean Strategy, the Chinese based TV broadcasters Blue Ocean Network (BON), and even the literally-minded Blue Ocean Network that actually works with oceans. You can sort out these last two at these web sites: Chinese: http://cp.bon.tv/ Sea: https://blueocean.net/

    So what is the difference between a blue ocean and a red ocean? Well, established markets where market share battles are fought are the rec oceans, while new markets created by finding a new niche are blue oceans. So any church group that seeks out underserved people are in a sense blue ocean churches. Indeed, the Wikipedia article about Blue Ocean Strategy ended by questioning just how innovative the strategy really is. See link here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Ocean_Strategy

    I get frustrated when I read about someone basically claiming to have reinvented the wheel, I can see value in the open church they are attempting to create, but I fear what might be of real value in the movement may be hidden by excessive marketing hype.

    1. Craig, thanks for the research you did and for sharing additional information about "Blue Ocean."

      In carefully reading the book "Blue Ocean Faith," I did not get the impression that he was "claiming to have reinvented the wheel" or that he was engaging in "excessive marketing hype."

      I saw it more as a testimony to what he and his friends had discovered about the Jesus movement, tried to share with non-churchgoing people, and found to be somewhat successful. I didn't get the impression that his primary goal was to expand the size and influence of the Blue Ocean Network of the churches related to Blue Ocean Faith.

  6. Thinking Friend Bob Hanson in Wisconsin writes,

    "Very interesting, Leroy. Helpful, but I am concerned about the Jesus center stuff when we are now in a world where the presence of other paths is so powerful and present.

    "A lot of these bright and dynamic 'Christian' are finding new ways to separate us. I personally have throw away the word ecumenical, not useful any more.
    . . . .
    "I am thinking of getting the book on Kindle just to see how they do this kind theology. I guess I need the 'solus' divine, 'solus' ground of being.

    "I can see why it is an attractive 'Christian' movement, . . . now we have to move carefully into a larger spiritual context if we are going to do anything about '45' and his childlike stupidity."

    1. Thanks for reading the blog article and for making thoughtful comments, Bob.

      While there is a lot about Blue Ocean Faith I don't know, my impression is they are likely to be more willing to work with people of other faith​s​ that most Christian groups.

      Their emphasis on centered-set rather than bounded-set seems to be the kind of emphasis that I think you would find quite appealing.

      And, yes, as I wrote, I prefer ​see​ing God (by whatever name God is known) at the center rather than the cross.

  7. Sandra Miller, who is a part of Seekers Church on the eastern edge of Washington, D.C., gave me permission to share her comments here:

    "I found this concept intriguing, but a rather large obstacle stands in my way of accepting Blue Ocean Faith as something to explore deeply, and which seems contradictory to their belief in diversity and equality - they refer to God as he.

    "For me, that is no small thing and shows a very limited interpretation of Holy Mystery and God being something so much more than I can understand."

  8. Thanks, Sandra, for reading my article and for your important comments.

    In the Preface of "Blue Ocean Faith" there is a footnote to a statement in which "his" is used as a pronoun referring to God. In that footnote, Schmelzer writes,

    "I haven’t solved the problem of using pronouns in talking about God. I mean we know from Genesis 1:27 that God isn’t male, right? . . . One friend strongly urged me to avoid pronouns altogether and always call God 'God,' but that seems awkward. Interspersing 'she' seems distracting. So I might be wrong in this, but be ye warned: there will be some 'hes' and 'hims' that refer to God in what follows. I’m duly sheepish about it."

    That may not have been a good choice, but I think it does indicate that he does not hold the view that God is male and does recognize that masculine language for God is a problem.

    Perhaps we have to overlook this imprecise usage of English sometimes--just as we overlook the imprecise language of referring to the sun "rising" and "setting." As long as he recognizes the problem, as he did, I am willing to "cut him some slack."

  9. Thank you, Leroy, for your thoughtful response to my comment. I appreciate that it is indeed difficult to find ways to refer to God. Coming from a Jewish background, I still find it difficult to use the word God at all. After 27+ years of converting to Christianity I am still always slightly uncomfortable regardless of much more easily it falls off my tongue. I am comfortable calling God, Holy One. I even refer to God on occasion as I Am.

    It is interesting that at Seekers, despite the tremendous work the church did in the late 70's and 80's with use of pronouns and adopting inclusive language in our community, that a number of the "newcomers" refer to God as He, and think of God as the father. I try to be more than tolerant of individual choices in "local" conversation, and have been in awe of how comforting a male God is to many people. For any number of reasons it makes me uncomfortable.

    Of course, the discourse we are engaged in is about more than my personal, albeit representational of a large groups of people, that use of a gender based pronoun for God, in our present age, reinforces the diminished way in which women are held in our society, and totally dismisses people with a multiplicity of gender and sexual identity. So, all that to say that I hope that those in a church such as Blue Ocean, and in the universal church could understand the Holy One as beyond gender and anthropomorphism, and use appropriate language which might even go back to G-d.

    When we talk about churches on the fringe of traditional Christianity, I am rather fond of Nadia Bolz-Weber, http://nadiabolzweber.com, and her congregation, House for All Sinners and Saints, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Denver, http://houseforall.org/

  10. Thank you, Sandra, for writing again and for your thoughtful comments.

    I have received an email from Dave Schmelzer, and I will share your comments with him. I think he will take them seriously.

    You may be interested in the blog article I wrote in Feb. 2015 about using gender-neutral language for God. Here is the link to it: https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/2015/02/using-gender-neutral-language-for-god.html

    Yes, I have read about Nadia Bolz-Weber and have read one of her books. Unfortunately, I was unable to go hear her last fall when she was speaking in Kansas City. I think her strong emphasis on grace and acceptance is a very good one.

  11. Hi Sandra. It's Dave Schmelzer. Leroy alerted me to your comment and I hear you! Language referring to God is no easy thing, perhaps least of all for people like myself who've gone to evangelical churches along our journey. As Leroy noted in the mention I make of it in my book, if nothing else I recognize the challenge and eagerly acknowledge my own imprecision. All the best.