Weekly Edgework #43 - Apr. 25, 2005

Watering Holes and Fences

In Australia’s vast outback it is impractical for ranchers to build fences to keep their cattle from wandering away. Instead they just dig watering holes, since they know the cattle won’t wander far away from their sources of life (Andrew Ross, as quoted by John Longhurst, Winnipeg Free Press, March 2005).

Fences have a way of domesticating a landscape. Once sturdy fences are built they form clear demarcation lines. The property on my side of the fence belongs to me, while that on the other side belongs to someone else. Fences also have gates and gatekeepers who control who or what passes from one side of the fence to the other. Fences make us feel safe. If we are inclined to wander we will always come up against the fence beyond which lie dangers of various sorts. Fences can also keep out dangers by preventing intruders from trespassing on our property.

Fences can guide us home when we are lost. My dad used to tell the story of how he and his father got caught in a blinding snowstorm while hauling hay from a distant field to their farmyard in winter. The blizzard came up suddenly and they encountered a complete whiteout. Fortunately they were close to a fence. By staying right up against that fence they found their way home to safety.

It seems to me that churches often like fences because they like a domesticated gospel. With clear demarcation lines it is easy to see who is “in” and who is “out”. All members in good standing are “in”, which implies that all others are “out”. In such a context it is easy to sing the smug and comforting chorus, as I did in Sunday School: One door and only one, and yet its sides are two. I’m on the inside. On which side are you? Of course open-minded churches will concede that there may be other legitimate fences behind which people can be on the “inside”. However, the more closed-minded lean in the direction of thinking their enclosure is the only legitimate one.

I once spoke to a bishop who was the gatekeeper for about 200 colonists in Bolivia. When I inquired of him whether he thought there might be others belonging to the true church of Christ, he conceded that there might be a few, but insisted that his flock of 200 souls certainly comprised the majority. He then proceeded to tell me how hard it was to maintain the fence surrounding his flock. He noted that keeping the fence firm enough to keep the world out was child’s play compared to strengthening the fence enough so that members of his flock couldn’t escape into the world.

As Longhurst points out in his article, this focus on being “in” or “out” has been referred to by missiologists, like Paul Hiebert, as a “bounded set” view of conversion. One of the key ways of determining whether one is “in”, according to this view, is to know your conversion date. While giving credence to a journey leading to conversion, this view maintains that until you have had a conscious conversion experience you are on the “outside”. Once you have made your decision for Christ you are forever on the “inside”.

One of the problems with this view is that it tends towards a fortress mentality for those on the inside. When I made my decision for Christ I was encouraged to drop my friends still on the “outside” because they might try to lure me back to the other side of the fence. Then, from the safety of our fenced in fortress, we would on occasion charge through the gate on a crusade to bring others back with us on our return to the safety of our fort.

Writers like Brian D. McLaren, and Jon Bonk are beginning to agree with Hiebert that this view of conversion and church membership is inadequate. Hiebert proposes instead a “centered set” approach which he considers to be more biblical. In this model Christ is seen as being the center. Anyone moving toward Christ, no matter how tentatively, could be considered on the “inside”. Conversely, long-standing members of the church moving away from Christ, are really on the “outside”. The Prodigal Son just setting out on his homeward journey is “in”, while his older brother already at home is in fact “out”.

This way of thinking might be called the “watering hole” approach to conversion and church membership. Instead of being gate-keepers, we leave that task to God. After all, Jesus did not have many good things to say about the greatest gate-keepers of his time, the Pharisees. In this way of thinking we pull up our fences and dig watering holes. And then we encourage one another to stay near the source of life, the watering hole.

While this is a major paradigm shift for being in mission, I think it holds great potential. Granted, this model will change our understanding of church membership from having our names on a list to something much more active and dynamic. With the fences gone and a focus on the center, we will begin to notice how God is already at work on the other side of where the fences used to be. And we will be free to mingle with all our neighbors, pointing toward the watering hole on occasion, and rejoicing when we see someone looking in that direction. Of course those resting on their laurels, content to simply have their names on a list, could in this model find themselves on the “outside” as they become distracted and gradually turn away from their source of life.

I am convinced that watering holes will ultimately win out over fences. But it will require a lot of reorientation for us all. Are we ready to begin tearing down fences and digging watering holes?