In her article “Digging Wells or Building Fences”, Dr Sheila Pritchard tells the story of a visitor to an Australian outback cattle ranch being 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.” 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.
Sheila goes on to use this illustration as a paradigm for a type of spiritual growth that is based on digging deeper wells rather than on building higher fences. Paul Hiebert, in his 1978 paper “Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,” writes along similar lines in describing true Christianity as a “centered” rather than a “bounded” set.
In a bounded set you are either in or out. You either fit or you don’t and the lines are clear. The goal is to get someone on the outside of the line to the inside. The problem here is that, as human beings, we tend to judge people on externals whereas God looks at the heart. A person could be seen to believe all the right things and behave in all the right ways and yet not have a relationship with God at all. This was certainly true of some of the religious people of Jesus’ day (see Matthew 15:1-9), who were theologically orthodox, kept the Law, mostly lived good lives, studied the Bible, prayed and tithed and yet were moving away from God.
The Old Testament presents a bounded set. It was about erecting fences like circumcision, the Law and Jewishness. The morning prayer from the Jewish prayer book read, “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, ruler of the universe who has created me a human and not beast, a man and not a woman, an Israelite and not a gentile, circumcised and not uncircumcised, free and not slave.” The Temple was built as a bounded set with the Courts of Priests (for priests only), the Court of Israel (for Jewish men only), the Court of Women (for Jewish women only) and the Court of Gentiles (where proselytes could gather). It was all about those who were “in” verses those who were “out.”
When Jesus came along He dismantled the fence (and some people took offense). Jesus demonstrated the end of the bounded set and introduced a centered set approach to God. The fence was removed so that EVERYONE could come towards God and drink from the Well. One of Jesus’ first spiritual conversations was with a Samaritan woman (see John 4:1-42). She was definitely outside the fence for many reasons – she was Samaritan, female and had led an immoral life. Much to her surprise, as well as the surprise of His disciples, Jesus engaged her in a fascinating dialogue in which he encouraged her to come into relationship with a God who loves her: “whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman responded positively to Jesus’ invitation, and so did the entire Samaritan town in which the woman lived.
The Bible reports that when Jesus died on the Cross, the veil in the Temple was torn from top to bottom. The veil was a “fence” designed as a “keep out” sign. Jesus ripped the fence up showing that the way into the presence of God was open to all (Cf. Ephesians 2:11-22).
Thus Jesus demonstrated a centered-set approach to a relationship with God rather than a bounded set. In a centered set the thought is about moving towards the center, moving towards Jesus. Here, as long as you are moving towards the center, growth is good. Some arrows may be moving faster or slower, but the goal is to be moving in.
centrered setAs important as Christian conversion is, it’s important to realize that it’s not an end in itself. The Christian life is a journey – a process – not just an event (2 Timothy 1:9; 1 Corinthians 1:18; 1 Peter 1:9). Paul Hiebert put it this way; “A Christian is not a finished product the moment he is converted.” Christianity is not just about “getting over the line” or “getting into the circle.” It’s about a long obedience in the same direction. Every choice and decision we make, every act we perform is to be put through the filter of “will this lead me closer to Jesus or take me away from Him?”
Growth is an equally essential part of being a Christian. Having turned around, one must continue to move towards the center. There is no static state: conversion is not the end it is the beginning. We must think in terms of growing to Christian maturity (2 Cor. 3:18; Philippians 1:6; 3:13-14).
In a bounded set you are either “in” or “out.” A person would be either a “Christian” or a “non-Christian.” In a centered set all those who are moving towards the centre are included even though they are all at different stages.
In 1 Corinthians 14:23 the apostle Paul speaks of three categories of people that he would expect to see in a church gathering: believers, unbelievers and the unlearned. The unlearned are people who may have become Christians but they don’t know much about the Christian faith. Paul teaches the church to be sensitive to people who are at different stages in their spiritual journey so that they will be attracted to Jesus rather than repelled. We need to be sensitive to people in everyday life as well, not just in the church gathering.
I’m told that 80% of Australians are open to having a spiritual conversation. They might not be ready to come to a church service but they want to talk about spiritual things. I’ve certainly found that to be true with the people I chat with in every day life.
So often our goal when it comes to those who haven’t chosen to be Christians yet is about getting them “over the line.” But not every person is ready for that. Some are and that is wonderful, but for those who aren’t what is it that I can do or say (or not do or say) that will move them a little closer to Jesus?
The Engel Scale was developed by Professor James Engel as a way of representing the journey from no knowledge of God through to spiritual maturity as a Christian believer. It’s a useful tool to have in mind when you’re having a discussion with someone about spiritual things.
The goal in a conversation or a friendship is not about “getting someone converted.” This can so easily lead to friendship with an ulterior motive – to “love with hooks.” When we genuinely love people and have their best interests at heart, our motive will be to help them in any way we can in their quest for truth and spiritual fulfillment. How can we help them move just a little closer to Jesus? How can I take down fences that the religious too-often erect to keep people out? How can I dig a well that will attract people to the water of life that Jesus provides for all to quench their spiritual thirst?