Focusing on the well and not the wall

by Josh Meyer, Franconia Mennonite Church

Josh MeyerI vividly remember sitting in one of my seminary classes when a classmate asked our professor, “What’s the single most important piece of advice you’d give us as we prepare for ministry in the church?” The professor responded by saying, “Keep the main thing the main thing. Don’t ever allow Christ to become secondary because you’re distracted by other issues, pursuits, or debates. Those other things may have value, but they’re not the center. Jesus is the center. Above all else, keep the main thing the main thing.”

After nearly a decade in ministry, I’ve seen how easy it is to get preoccupied trying to define the parameters and defend the borders of our faith, rather than focusing on Christ. Debates about who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s one of “us” and who’s one of “them” have a way of distracting us from the main thing.

It’s kind of like a farmer caring for sheep. One way to prevent the sheep from running away is to build a fence. The downside to fences, though, is they require a lot of maintenance. You need to continually make sure that every part of the perimeter is secure, because just a small gap in the fence will allow all the animals to roam free.

Fences require a lot of resources, though. If you’ve got a three-acre property, you can probably afford to build a fence around it. If you’re a rancher with a huge amount of land, it’s not possible fence the whole thing.

The other option is digging wells. Since a well is a source of water, animals will stay relatively close to it. They are free to roam, but won’t wander too far from the well because it is their source of life. In this scenario, you care for the sheep through what you’re drawing them toward, not what you’re restricting them from. The goal of both approaches is the same, but it’s a whole lot easier and more efficient to dig a life-giving well at the center than it is to maintain a bunch of fences along the border.

I believe the same thing is true when it comes to our faith. Some people spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to define and defend the boundaries. Here are the lines we can’t cross, the issues we can’t discuss, the things we can’t do, the words we can’t say, the ways we can’t vote, the people we can’t let in because they believe differently than we do. It’s all about building fences that separate us and erecting walls that distinguish us from everyone else.

The danger of this kind of “bounded set mentality” is it elevates and accentuates peripheral issues while minimizing and diminishing the center. This approach to faith breeds a mentality where we’re extremely clear what we’re against–we draw really thick lines around the edges–but the center tends to get neglected.

I believe a far healthier model is to spend less time defending the borders and more time focused on the center. This “centered set mentality” acknowledges there are some lines we shouldn’t cross, but makes our primary objective the well, not the wall. The bulk of our time and energy is spent inviting people to the source of Living Water.

If we’re really clear about that–if we’re passionate and unwavering in introducing people to Jesus–we won’t need to spend as much time arguing about the border because people won’t want to leave the center. Frankly, I think the problem for many Christians and many churches isn’t that the boundaries of our faith is weak, but that the center of our faith is weak. We’ve spent far too much time on secondary issues and not enough time being formed into the likeness of Christ.

Therefore, we’ve tried to be very clear about what we’re committed to as a faith community: we’re committed to Jesus being the Christ, and we’re committed to Jesus being the center. For that reason, we will unapologetically focus more on the well than on the wall.

As a church, we’re far more interested in proclaiming Christ than we are getting into arguments about who’s in and who’s out. More interested in lifting up the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus than we are debating secondary issues that distract us from the main thing. More interested in introducing people to Jesus than we are engaging in culture wars. More interested in seeing people have their lives changed by Christ than we are convincing them of a particular theological position. More interested in opening the doors of faith to anyone who’s interested in Jesus than we are turning people away because they don’t agree with us on every single issue.

In other words, we are far more interested in the center than we are in the boundary. And Jesus is the center, so that’s what we’re going to preach, that’s what we’re going to teach, that’s what we’re going to study, that’s what we’re going to rally around, that’s what we’re going to get passionate about, that’s what we’re going to give our lives to– because Jesus is the Christ, and Jesus is the center. We want to be really, really clear about that.

May we remember and reaffirm the profound truth that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. May we be a church that is deeply committed to the well rather than to frenetically building fences. And may we always, always, always keep the main thing the main thing.

This is an excerpt from Josh’s sermon last Sunday at Franconia Mennonite Church in Telford, Pennsylvania.