loren Eric Swanson: Wells not Walls

Friday, March 09, 2007

Wells not Walls

This morning Jay Williams sent me this picture from an AIDS walk folks from his church participated in a few months ago. One of the working principles of externally focused churches is that they partner with those who care about what you care about. The people of First Evangelical Free Church care about people infected with and dying from AIDS...and so do a lot of others. (Click on the picture for a better visual)

In 1978 Paul Hiebert of Fuller Theological Seminary developed a construct that help us think about who we can and cannot align ourselves with. Hiebert makes the distinction between a “bounded set” and a “centered set.” Picture a bounded set as circle. Inside the circle are the distinctive beliefs and practices of those inside the circle. It is this set of distinctive beliefs that determine who is in the group and who is outside the group. Traditionally, this is how denominations have defined themselves—by how they are different from everyone else. The major question of those in the bounded set is, “Are you one of us?”

A “centered set,” on the other hand, consists of persons who share a common affection, interest, pursuit or allegiance to someone or something. The centered set can be depicted as a dot on a sheet of paper without any boundary determining who is “in” or who is “out.” Some people may be less passionate or committed than others but they are all directing themselves toward the same center. The major question of those of the centered set is, “Do you care about what I care about?”

Recently, a couple of Aussies came up with a good illustration of the difference between a bounded set and a centered set. They write,
In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighboring farms out. This is a bounded set…. In our home in Australia…ranches are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die. This is a centered set.[i]

Churches that are transforming their communities think in terms of sinking wells rather than building walls. A “well” is what people in the community mutually care about. Churches that are transforming communities don’t divide over their differences but unite with other churches and organizations around their common love for the community. It’s about the well not about the wall.
[i] The Shaping of Things to Come, by Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Massachusetts, 2004, p.47


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