I recently read Deep Church by Jim Belcher. It’s a great book that discusses the potential middle ground between traditional and emergent church. In the midst of the book Belcher uses a story that has been on my mind a lot lately.
When ranchers were settling the midwest, they had a hard time keeping their herds together in the open land. Many ranchers built large extensive fences to keep their herds close. While these fences could provided a temporary solution, they often caused more problems. If the herd grew time and resources were spent on expanding the fences. If a large part of the herd died off or was sold the fences would have to be brought in to keep the herd in close quarters. These ranchers found themselves consumed with the constant expansion, retraction and upkeep of their fences. Fence maintenance was costly, time consuming, and did not work very effectively.
Eventually, ranchers figured out a better way to keep their herds together. They dug deep wells to create watering holes to draw the herd in. Entire herds, regardless of size, have a tendency to stay near the water that they desperately need. Ranchers were soon able to keep much better track of their herds and provide better care more efficiently, all without needing to fence the herd in.
It’s very easy for the church to be focused on fences. We worry about who is ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’. We spend a lot of time and energy trying to create events, programs, sermon series, ministries etc trying to keep people from leaving, or wandering off. We have this fear that if people don’t stay within our fences we will lose them; wether they will wander off completely or be picked up by another church. So many measures of success within the church are based upon how well we operate with a fences mentality. How many people do we have? How many people did we lose? Why did this family leave? Where has this person gone?
What if instead of worrying about who is in and out, and where the holes in the fences are, we focused on digging deep into the well of Christ? Isn’t that why we are a part of the church in the first place? Are we close to Christ because someone has fenced us in or are we close to Christ because we know that He is the key to our survival, and we don’t have a desire to stray off?
Here is a practical example. On several occasions I have been consulted on how to break up cliques in different youth groups. Often, I point out that just because a group exists does not necessarily mean it is centered around Christ. There were plenty of ranchers that built fenced in areas with little or no water around, then wondered why their herd did not thrive. Typically, the problem with cliques is that they are simply groups that have naturally gravitated towards each other, without Christ being the main draw.
If we aim to create wells in ministry and draw all of the students together in close proximity to Christ, we take care of the issue of proximity, or relationship among the cliques. In other words, we can spend our time moving the fences closer and closer together forcing different species (and there are plenty of different species of teenagers) to coexist, or we can focus our time and energy helping students draw near to Christ. With students focused on being close to Christ, we then reap the benefit of students being closer to each other as well.
I’ve been criticized in the past for ‘letting students go’. Frustrated parents, leaders and church members do not like to hear about one of ‘their’ teens going to visit another church. On a few of occasions, I’ve had students with a boyfriend/girlfriend that attended a different church invite them over, which eventually led to that student not attending our youth ministry events anymore. In one of my favorite conversations I was told that our student shouldn’t have left, their significant other should have come over here. Essentially it’s okay if someone goes to a different church as long as it’s ours. Fences. Never mind that the student is growing in their faith, getting their needs met in a different way, or able to serve in a life changing capacity. That student needs to be inside this fence.
My prayer is that we can leave behind this fences mentality. That we stop spending our energy calculating who is in and out. That we stop worrying about where we stand with each other and focus our energy and effort on where we stand with Christ. May we stop relying on our own methods of retainment and start utilizing the well of living water that draws us all together.
One love, one heart.