I once heard Deb Hirsch tell a story about ranching. She says that the typical American way of ranching is to get some cattle, build a fence, and get to work. The fence serves multiple purposes: 1) it keeps your cattle from getting out; 2) it keeps your neighbor’s cattle from getting in; and 3) it keeps predators from attacking. Hirsch says that in other parts of the world, where the land is more vast (like the Australian Outback), ranching takes on a different form. Instead of building a fence, the farmer will dig a well. In this system, the cattle will drift and wander, but they will always come back to the well because the water is their source of life.
Hirsch then poses the question: shouldn’t our churches look more like the well-based model of ranching instead of the fence-based approach?
Deb’s husband Alan picks up this analogy in his book with Michael Frost, The Shaping of Things to Come. Hirsch and Frost suggest that the fence-bound churches represent a bounded-set, whereas the well-based churches represent a center-set model. In a bounded-set approach, “[the church] is a set of people clearly marked off from those who do not belong to it.” Contrasted with a center-set approach where “people are not seen as in or out, but closer or further away from the center. In that sense, everyone is in and no one is out.” (1)
The center-set approach resonates with me in part because this is how I see Jesus living out his ministry. In John’s gospel alone, we see Jesus telling the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4) that he is the well (center) that provides living water. The crowds flock to Jesus in John 6 (5,000 plus!) but then retreat the very next day (John 6:66). Just like cattle, there is a drifting away and a coming back. But no boundary. Jesus loved people where they were, but allowed them the freedom to wander away and come back (or not).
And there’s the rub. As Christianity moved from a movement to an institution, we started to draw lines in the sand that served as boundaries determining who belongs and who doesn’t. Church membership, dress codes, and common views on moral issues replaced an openness to the idea that everyone belongs. Perhaps unknowingly, we placed limits on love. And love that has limits is not love.
As Jesus is teaching his disciples that he must die as part of God’s plan for his life, he says, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). My hope and prayer is that our churches would start to take down the fences and boundaries that may be limiting access to the Christ who is at work drawing all people to himself. Let’s stop setting a boundary regarding who should be in and who should be out, and instead point people to the center, the well, the Christ. Continuing to drive the point home, Hirsch and Frost conclude, “Churches that see themselves as a centered set recognize that the gospel is so precious, so refreshing that, like a well in the Australian Outback, lovers of Christ will not stray too far from it. It is then a truly Christ-centered model.” (2)
Author’s note: this approach to ministry has impacted us at FaithBridge in such a way that we have begun to make some changes in order to move towards a center-set approach. You can hear about some of those changes from my sermon on April 30, 2017 here. More to come.
- Frost, Michael and Hirsch, Alan. The Shaping of Things to Come. 2003, 2013 Baker Books, 68.