|Digging Wells or Building Fences
A visitor to an Australian outback cattle ranch
was intrigued by the seemingly endless miles of farming country with no
sign of any fences. He asked a local rancher how he kept track of his
cattle. The rancher replied, "Oh, that's no problem. Out here we
dig wells instead of building fences."
"Out here we dig wells instead of building fences." The
implication, I hope, is obvious. There is no need to fence cattle in
when they are highly motivated to stay within range of water, their most
important source of life.
Let's consider this as a paradigm for a type of spiritual growth
which is based on digging deeper wells rather than on building higher
fences. To do this we need first to take a little excursus into
mathematics. I promise it will be brief.
The word "set" in mathematics refers to a group of objects
which belong together because they have some defined similarity which
marks them out. For example a set of all odd numbers would include 1, 3,
5 and 157 but not 2, 4 or 100.
Sets can be defined in various ways. For example: in a roomful of
people the set of males is usually a clearly recognisable set which could be
further divided into subsets of single males and married males. Or we
could define a set in terms of age, the set of those under thirty-five;
or in terms of knowledge, the set made up of all those who know what the
prophet Ezekiel was instructed to do with the hair he shaved from his
head and beard (Ezekiel 5). Or behaviour, the set of those who have not
exceeded the speed limit today.
It is possible that someone here might have been included in all
those sets. On the other hand, any speedy female over thirty-five who
doesn't know Ezekiel intimately will have been excluded from them all.
Obviously the way we define sets determines who or what is included
and excluded. Only one further piece of theory is needed. Most sets are
bounded sets. In other words, the focus is on the boundary. At 50 kilometers
per hour you are within the set of law abiding drivers, at 51 kph you are not. If
you turn 35 tomorrow you are within the set of under thirty-fives. If
your 35th birthday is today, you are not.
However, there is another kind of set where the focus is not on a
boundary but on relationship to a central goal. For example, the set of
those who are losing weight. There is no boundary defined by a specific
number of kilos. Rather, the central goal is weight loss. All those
moving in that direction are included in the set. Or take another
example, the set of all those whose central relationships are growing
stronger in intimacy and communication. Again, the crucial feature of
the set is not a boundary but the direction of movement towards (in this
case) a relational goal. This kind of set is called a centred set.
So we have bounded sets and centred sets. Or if you prefer stories to
mathematics, we have fences (bounded sets) or wells (centred sets).
Paul Hiebert, a missiologist from Trinity Evangelical School of
Divinity (Deerfield, Illinois, USA) suggests that it makes a great deal
of difference to our perspective on evangelism and mission whether we
think of Christianity as a bounded set or a centred set.
If we take a bounded set view, who qualifies? Where precisely is the
boundary? Who is "in" and who is "out"? How much
must a person know of doctrine and scripture before we can call that
person a Christian? What differences of lifestyle need to be apparent as
proof of change? At what point has conversion taken place?
These are tough questions.
Hiebert suggests that it is much more realistic and helpful to think
of Christianity as a centred set, a set defined by movement towards the
centre, the person of Jesus.
Now, conversion is the point at which a person turns towards the
centre and begins the journey. That new fragile follower of Jesus (about
whom he or she may know very little) is as much part of the centred set
as is the missionary who told him the gospel story. The fact that the
missionary has a degree in theology is irrelevant to defining the set.
The fact that they are both moving towards the central goal is what
We'll leave the implications for cross-cultural mission for the
moment and turn our attention to the implications for ourselves.
If we view Christianity as a bounded set we will pay a lot of
attention to the boundaries. We will have clearly defined parameters as
to what constitutes a Christian, usually linked to certain doctrinal
statements, understanding of those beliefs, and commitment to them. We
will have our ways of determining who is "in" and who is
Another feature of bounded sets is that they are static. Once within
the set no further attention to definition or development is needed. To
take a non-spiritual example, let's identify the set of Granny Smith
apples. A Granny Smith apple is a Granny Smith apple whether it is ripe
or unripe, rotten or shrivelled up. Those factors may be very
significant to the consumer of the apple - but they have no bearing on
its designation as a member of the set. I leave you to draw your own
But what if we view Christianity as a centred set?
Centred sets, you remember, are created by defining a centre and the
relationship of things or people to that centre. All those attracted to
the centre and moving towards it are members of the set. All those
moving away from the centre are not members of the set. Distance from
the centre is not as important as direction of movement. One person can
be close to the centre but moving away from it; another may be less
close but moving towards it.
Although boundaries are not the primary focus of this set, there is a
clear distinction between those moving in and those moving out. The
primary characteristic of centred sets is that they are dynamic not
other words there is always attention to direction of movement. It is
"movement towards" that defines the members of the set, not a
What I am suggesting is that it is both more biblical and more risky
to entertain a centred set approach to Christian faith. Centred set
Christianity is defined by active, dynamic relationship to Jesus.
There is no place in centred-set Christianity for us to shelter
behind the fence of theological orthodoxy, denominational superiority,
or a verbal assent to gospel values which bears no resemblance to
One of Paul of Tarsus' most striking victories for the early Church
was his insistence that the "fence" of Jewish orthodoxy - and
in particular, circumcision - should not become a barrier to entry to
the Christian community. Paul insisted that faith in Jesus alone was the
And consider Jesus himself and his scorching condemnation of
Pharisees in Matthew 23. While affirming that what they taught was
orthodox, he says, "Do not follow them because they do not do
what they teach" and "Woe to you, scribes and
Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven.
For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop
Or Jesus in the sermon on the mount, "Not everyone who says to
me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who
does the will of my father in heaven."
Or Jesus in his discourse to the Jews in John 5: "You search the
scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it
is they that testify of me. Yet you refuse to come to me to have
Jesus clearly does not undervalue doctrine or the study of scripture
or verbal commitment. But what he does is to indicate that they cannot
be used as "fences" to define disciples. The emphasis
throughout the gospels is never primarily on what theological
understanding people had but on whether they were willing to follow
So who is the true disciple - the churchgoing graduate who can defend
Christianity against all opponents in a theological argument, or the
hesitant, barely literate young woman who comes to the drop in centre
but never to a church service?
From the perspective of bounded set thinking the answer is obvious.
The graduate is clearly "in". The young woman "out".
But from the perspective of centred set thinking we cannot answer the
question without more information.
We need to know about the personal relationship of each to Jesus. If
the young woman is, however stumblingly, moving towards discovering what
relationship with Jesus can mean for her, while the churchgoer is
quietly ignoring all aspects of personal commitment and prayer, and
moving towards increasing self sufficiency, materialism and disregard
for others, what then?
Our purpose is not to theorise about imaginary "others".
The question we need to consider is this: If Christian disciples were no
longer to be defined in terms of fences, but only according to their
movement towards Jesus at the centre, where does that leave you and me?
Let me suggest five implications for our own Christian discipleship:
1. Radical Commitment: We need to take a new look at what
Jesus' life was really like. It was radical and it was non-conformist.
It involved lack of security in physical terms. It was characterised by
opposition from the religious establishment and frequent
misunderstanding and hardship. It was marked by an absolute priority
given to time to be alone listening to God, and by self-giving love that
cut across all social and cultural boundaries.
Jesus was as much at home with non-Jews and outcasts as with those of
his own race and social standing. His friendship was available to those
whom others would shun and avoid. I could go on and on - but it is this Jesus the centre of the Christian faith. And if movement towards
likeness to him is the goal, we need to be clear about what that
commitment really means.
2. Challenging Responsibility: Living with wells rather than
fences feels very risky at first. Apparently when ranchers introduce
cattle which have been used to fenced paddocks into freedom to move
around in the Australian Outback, the cattle tend to huddle nervously
around the well or water source, fearing to move very far. Fences
provide a feeling of security but they also allow a certain degree of
To no longer rely on boundaries which keep me in and others out
leaves me exposed and responsible. Now I cannot doze peacefully in the
shelter of the fence. I must stay alert and active in my connection to
the source of life which alone is my security. And that source of life
and security is in Jesus and a living relationship with him, not in a
theoretical fence which absolves me from action.
3. Freedom from Defensiveness: Paradoxically, however, the
nearer you are to the centre the more freedom there is to explore
widely. After a while the cattle on the ranch realise both their
security and their freedom and no longer need to huddle.
Similarly, a deep relationship with Jesus develops in his disciples a
confidence which transcends fearful huddling. It enables them to reach
out in ever widening circles of experience and relationship without
defensiveness - just as Jesus did. His confidence in who he was in
relation to God enabled Jesus to cross boundaries of every kind.
Christians who have that kind of freedom from defensiveness and fear
seem to attract others to the well also. This kind of freedom is quite
different from license or from a grey wishy-washyness. Remember the
determining factor is likeness to Jesus - and no one could call him
4. Dynamic Growth: Another aspect of this freedom is that
there is always room for growth. Bounded-set thinking can stunt growth.
What often happens at transition points such as adolescence, young
adulthood or mid-life, or at some life crisis, is that the previous
theological boundary is no longer adequate. And because the focus is on
the boundary, the person faced with this uncomfortable fact feels as
though the only choice is to "step outside" the boundary.
I think many people leave our churches for this reason and are often
labelled as having "lost their faith" when in fact what may be
happening is very faith-full. The freedom of centred-set thinking over
bounded-set thinking is that it allows
each of us to expand and explore as each new life experience challenges
us. The only criterion is ongoing relationship to Jesus.
Spiritual growth, from a centred-set perspective, is not optional. We
all know that in this life we will never come to the end of the process
of being conformed to the likeness of Jesus.
In bounded-set thinking, it is quite possible to stop moving towards
Jesus without any great sense of concern. Whereas in centred-set
thinking it is that very movement from "one degree of glory to
another" that marks us out as those whose life comes from "the
Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3.18).
In Philippians 4.10-15 Paul gives his own view of spiritual growth:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the
sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if
somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have
already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press
on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this
one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to
what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the
heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us then who are
mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about
anything, this also God will reveal to you."
Movement, development, dynamic growth are at the heart of every stage
of a centred set approach to Christian life.
5. Evangelism by Attraction: Evangelism in centred-set
thinking is motivated by personal, life-changing experience of Jesus. It
focuses on pointing others in the direction of the source of life. It
"works" by attraction to the centre. Our lives serve as
witnesses to the extent that they contagiously attract others to what
has so captivated us.
Sadly, some forms of bounded-set evangelism pay more attention to the
numbers of people who can be corralled within a particular doctrinal, or
even denominational, fence. They do little to attract folk to the Jesus
of the gospels.
A good biblical example of centred-set evangelism is the Samaritan
woman at the well (John 4.1-26). Her own encounter with Jesus so
transformed her that she was freed from defensiveness and fear in such a
remarkable way that even those who had previously shunned her were
attracted to the source of life she had found.
Are our lives dynamically connected to their source in Jesus and
freely and fearlessly crossing boundaries to attract others to the same
well? Or have we lapsed into complacent sheltering inside a respectable
theological fence which hides our own lack of movement and serves mainly
to keep others out?
"Out here", said the rancher, "we dig wells instead of
(First published in Reality February/March, 1994. Used by