Who Is Your Neighbor? A Local Church Initiative

Who Is Your Neighbor? A Local Church Initiative

Love God and love your neighbors. In the Great Commandment, Jesus boiled 613 commands down to these two. He went on to say, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:34-40, NIV). In other words, if Jesus’ followers do anything, they should focus on these two things. The Neighboring Life focuses on the second commandment in order to follow the first one.

Who is My Neighbor?

The act of taking time to learn a neighbor’s name demonstrates obedience to Jesus’ command. Once a believer knows their neighbor’s name, then they can pray for their neighbor. Pray for their lives, their families, their jobs, and even an opportunity to get to know them better.

Neighboring is also serving next door neighbors. By offering a helping hand, often the next step is offering a listening ear. “We love our neighbors because we are Christians, not because we are trying to make them Christians,” says Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, co-authors of The Neighboring Church. “We need to stop hijacking the endgame with other things. It happens so subtly. We love our neighbors so they will go to church. We love our neighbors so they will join our small group…Those motives turn people to be loved into projects to be directed…People will know when they are a project.”

The Neighboring Life is the creation of Rick Rusaw, Brian Mavis, and the team at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, CO. Built on the foundation of The Externally-Focused Church, co-authored by Rick Rusaw and Eric Swanson (Group Publishing 2004), LifeBridge along with many other churches, has sought to transition ministry from missional, community-wide, Service Day approaches to a more granular form of ministry. Rather than donning matching t-shirts, serving for one day, and making local headlines, The Neighboring Life is a daily, personal experience with one’s neighbors. More importantly, it adds the relationship component to serving.

“The bridge between being missional and incarnational is relationship,” according to Scott Campbell, The Ascent Church, Colorado Springs, CO. “You can be missional without being relational. You can’t be incarnational without relationship: ‘love neighbors as you love yourself.’”

“For years [LifeBridge Church] had been getting into the stream of our community to serve. A city employee asked if we would take care of a woman’s yard for her. I said I would look at the situation and get back to her,” said Brian Mavis. “As I was driving up, I spotted the house from blocks away. They weren’t exaggerating. The grass was almost as tall as I was. I knocked on the door and a woman in her young thirties answered. Standing next to her was a little girl. I learned that this woman had recently survived stage-four cancer, and she was taking care of the nine-year-old girl, who was in foster care. This woman was tearful and embarrassed about her yard, but she said her health prevented her from trying to take care of it.

“My heart broke for her, and I was happy that our church was going to help her. I gathered a dozen people and they brought their own equipment. A few hours later we had the yard looking almost as good as new. We came back the next week to put down some mulch. We prayed for the homeowner, and we felt great about what we had done. I was proud of our people, and I was glad the city knew they could call us and count on us to take care of it.

“Over the next year, I called the woman a couple of times to see how she was doing. After the second call, while I was silently congratulating myself, the Holy Spirit said, ‘This is nothing to be proud of. This should never have even happened.’ I immediately knew the full meaning of this gentle rebuke by God. The woman’s grass should never have grown more than six inches tall.”

What should have been done differently? “First,” said Mavis, “I wouldn’t just ask a dozen people from our church. Instead, I would look to see who lived near her. We have several families within a couple blocks of her house. I would’ve called them and asked them to help me help their neighbor. Then I thought I would go one better. I would ask them to help me, but I would also ask them to knock on their neighbors’ doors, no matter if they were Christian or not, and invite them to join in helping this woman…If the church had done a better job of helping our people learn to love their neighbors, then I never would’ve received a phone call from the city in the first place…For years our church was serving the community, but were we loving our neighbors?”

A dilapidated house or an unkempt yard are easily recognizable signs of a family in crisis. But, not all needs are revealed from the curb. Needs are revealed as neighbors are known. Since neighboring is not a program and neighbors aren’t projects, the focus on neighboring is more of a spiritual discipline than a ministry initiative. Neighboring is moving life from the backyard to the front yard. It’s taking time for a neighbor when they are outside. The heart of neighboring is putting others ahead of oneself.

Neighboring requires no special talent. Anyone can be a neighbor. Neighboring does require a shift in thinking for pastoral leadership. Emphasis is given on scattering equal to the emphasis on gathering. This is not to discount the value of gathering, but to balance receiving and giving.

Stay, Pray, Play, and Say

Neighboring almost seems to harken back to years gone by when neighbors knew everyone and helped each other. It was the norm. Today, the norm is cellphones, garage door openers, and quiet streets in neighborhoods. Neighboring requires intentional effort.

The practices of neighboring are simple, yet significant. They can be summoned up in four words: Stay, Pray, Play, and Say. Stay means being available to get to know one’s neighbors. It’s stopping to talk to a neighbor instead of hitting the garage door button. Maybe it means sitting on the front porch instead of the back porch. Pray means praying for neighbors. Praying for both neighbors who are known and those who are unknown. Praying for opportunities to connect and serve. Play is offering hospitality to neighbors from dinner invitations to backyard barbecues to small scale events. The fourth word is say. When the opportunity arises, Christian neighbors are prepared to share Christ with their fellow neighbors. This isn’t the completion of the “project.” This is the start of a new journey.

Leaders Go First

As with any focus, leaders go first. Pastors and church staff can prepare to lead neighboring in their churches by starting to neighbor themselves. Resources such as The Neighboring Church by Rick Rusaw and Brian Mavis, and Becoming a Neighboring Church, a six session study by the LifeBridge team with its companion video are a couple of ways to get ideas on leading a community-wide movement in neighboring. Other resources include The Art of Neighboring by Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon, Neighborhood Initiative and the Love of God by Lynn Cory, and Neighborhood Mapping by Dr. John Fuder among others.

Once pastors and staff have some experience with neighboring, the entire church can be engaged with The Neighboring Life study and companion video used as a church-wide campaign, group study, or individual study. These resources are available at TheNeighboringLife.com.

Jacob & Mary Alice: An Unlikely Pair

Ever since his wife’s death, 80-year-old Jacob called his neighbor, Mary Alice, regularly. Somehow Mary Alice had broken the ice with this self-proclaimed “crotchety old Jewish man who doesn’t make friends easily.” The two were quite a pair in the neighborhood: a mom of two teenagers chatting the ear off the grumpy old man.

When Jacob’s number came up on caller ID, she answered it, but on this evening, when she picked up the phone Jacob wasn’t talking but she could hear difficulty in his breathing. Rushing over to his house, she found Jacob at the bottom of the stairs and quickly called 911. The paramedic in the ambulance, the emergency room receptionist, the technicians drawing blood, and the doctor all asked her, “Are you his daughter?”

“No, I am just his neighbor” she answered every time, as she kept Jacob calm and answered their questions about his past medical history. As Mary Alice left the emergency room after Jacob was fully stabilized, the doctor asked her with a smile, “Will you be MY neighbor?”

Takeaways

Neighboring requires no special talent. There are no scripts or methods to follow. The heart of neighboring is taking an interest in one’s neighbors. Pastors can start their own neighboring movements by encouraging their members to take a few minutes to talk to their neighbors when they see them outside. This might be an introduction to a new neighbor or a bit of an apology for living next door for so long and having never met. This shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should be a start.

As churches embrace neighboring, any step toward a neighbor: a conversation, a meal, a prayer, or an act of service should be celebrated. What pastors tell stories about will cast vision to their congregations.

If pastors are ready to get serious about neighboring, then some tough questions must be answered – How can you be the best church for your community rather than just the best church in your community? What if you got better at the two things Jesus said mattered the most – loving God and loving your neighbor? How can the church put equal energy into scattering into the community as they do gathering for weekend worship services?

If your members move out of their neighborhoods, would they be missed?

The Future is Disciple Making

The Future is Disciple Making

By Allen White 

Small groups are no longer making disciples at the rate they once were. For many churches, the purpose of groups is to assimilate new people and keep them connected so they won’t leave. Everyone needs to go where everybody knows their name, and they’re always glad you came… But, if the purpose of small groups ends with assimilation, host homes, and the church-wide campaign, then how are disciples being made? Host homes and campaigns are great to get groups going, but not so great for on-going discipleship.

Disciple Making is Not Complex.

Programs are complex. Disciple making is not. Jesus told us what we need to know to make disciples.

First, Jesus gave us the Great Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40, NIV). Jesus boiled 613 commands down to two: Love God and Love your neighbor. God is easy to love. But, neighbors, which neighbors? Look out the window.

Second, Jesus gave us the Great Compassion in Matthew 25. “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). Feed hungry people. Clothe those in need. Show hospitality to strangers. Visit the prisoner. Care for the sick. Essentially, love your neighbor as yourself. See #1.

Third, Jesus gave us the Great Commission. Read this and try not to “yada, yada, yada” it. “Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20). Jesus told us to “Go.” How well are we scattering? We’re pretty good at gathering. Jesus didn’t say the lost should come to our seeker services. That’s not working as well as it once did.

Does this seem too simple? If our lives were focused on these things, we would grow. Our people would grow. As Jim Collins says in Good to Great, “If you have more than three priorities, you don’t have any.”

Disciple Making is Customized.

Disciple Making relies on a system to produce disciples. When we hear the word system, we often resort to a manufacturing process, a catechism, or a training program. While some of these methods might add to disciple making, there is a considerable flaw in the thinking. People don’t come to us as raw materials. They aren’t blank slates. They have a past. They are different – genders, races, backgrounds, educations, experiences, personalities, gifting, callings, opportunities, abuses, and so many other things contribute to who people are. I’m not like you. You’re not like me. Yet, we are called to be like Jesus.

While we must all know basic things about the Bible and what it teaches, how we reflect more of Jesus is a different journey for all of us. I grew up in church. That’s a funny statement, but we were there so often that at times it felt like we lived there. I learned all of the Bible stories in Sunday school. Our church was more of the Arminian persuasion, so I’ve gone to the altar more than 100 times to make sure I was saved. I called this eternal insecurity.

I learned to live by a code of conduct which included no smoking, no alcohol, no dancing, no movies, no playing cards, and the list went on. In my church we couldn’t belly up to the bar, but we could belly up to the buffet. That’s how we got the bellies!

In a holiness tradition, there is a fine line between setting yourself apart for God and becoming legalistic. Legalism defined the don’ts for me, but not all of the don’ts. The don’ts seemed more significant than the do’s. But, if I lived better than other people, then God would bless me. The others got what they deserved. I didn’t need to understand people from other backgrounds. They were sinners. They were going to hell. There wasn’t a lot of love going around.

Now, put me in your church. How could you help me become more like Jesus? How can I learn to love my neighbor as myself? How can I see people who are different from me as people who God loves? I don’t need to know more of the Bible. I know it. Bring on the Bible Jeopardy!

How would you affect my attitudes and my behavior? How could I think more like Christ? How could I act more like Christ? By the definition set in the church I grew up in, I’m a model citizen. I fit with the tribe. They’re proud of me. Yet, I lack so much.

This is where cookie cutter disciple making goes wrong. We produce rule followers with cold hearts and no actions to demonstrate God’s love to those who are far from Him.

Fortunately, I’m much different now than where I was when I graduated from high school. But, it wasn’t college, seminary, or another church’s process that got me there. It was something unique that God is doing in my life. I’m not the exception here.

My friend John Hampton, Senior Pastor of Journey Christian Church, Apopka, FL lost a ton of weight recently. By ton, I mean, 50-60 lbs. and he’s kept it off. How did he do it? He joined a gym who gave him a personal trainer. The trainer’s first question was “What do you want to work on?” The trainer didn’t prescribe a standard course of physical fitness. The trainer connected with what John was motivated to change. In turn, John’s team is now sitting down with people at their church and asking them, “What do you want to work on?” Then, offering a next step to get them started.

There is nothing outside of us that can motivate us more than what is inside of us. For the believer, God is inside of us – in case you didn’t know where I was going there. What we are motivated to change right now should be the thing we focus on changing. If we don’t sense a need to change, then we need to bring that question to God: “What do you want to work on?”

Disciple Making is Obedience.

The last phrase in the Great Commission punched me between the eyes not long ago: “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Read the phrase again. What did Jesus tell us to teach disciples? Hint: Jesus did not say to teach his commands. Jesus instructed us to teach obedience.

In the area where I live, everyone goes to church. There are more than 75 other churches within 10 miles of the church I attend. It’s part of the culture. While these church-going folks are faithful to church attendance, it doesn’t stop them from being hateful, passive-aggressive, and racist. There’s a high incidence of domestic violence here. The daily news is not good news. Now, this isn’t everybody. But, with so much access to church, you’d expect people to be a little more like Jesus. Bible knowledge is there, but changes in attitudes and behaviors are lacking.

Recently, a man who grew up here, told me about his family history in the area. His family has lived here for over 100 years. It’s a colorful family history – running moonshine and other illegal activities. At one point, he told me, “My grandmother was a fine Christian woman, well, except for running a brothel.” I had no response.

Concluding Thoughts

How’s your disciple making? What results are you seeing? What’s missing?

There is so much to unpack here. Please join me in the comments for a discussion. We’ve got to get our people beyond just coping with life. We’re on a mission. How can your members join that mission?

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