This Lent, Don’t Give Up Your Neighborhood

Rebekah Simon-Peter —  March 6, 2018 — 4 Comments

I don’t care if your congregation is in an industrial section, a racially mixed or changing neighborhood, on the edge of town, or in a suburban open doorenclave.  This Lent, don’t give up your neighborhood.  It’s one of 5 things your church absolutely shouldn’t give up this Lent.  Why?   Your neighbors need you.  And you need them.

The church is nothing without neighbors.  We don’t exist in a vacuum.  We’re all about community.  The community that is calling you now is right outside your door.  Not across the world.

This Lent, I challenge you to get local and reach out to your neighbors, not someone else’s neighbors.  I don’t care if it’s been years since you stepped foot in your neighborhood, or all the people who attend your church have long since relocated to other neighborhoods.  The folks who live and work around your building are still your people.  “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood…. Generous inside and out, true from start to finish,” John 1:14 reveals.  It’s time for you to do the same.

Do you remember the scene from the movie Sister Act in which the cloistered nuns stepped out of their gated building and into their seemingly unsafe neighborhood? It’s the point at which the movie became really interesting.  Turns out the neighborhood wasn’t unwelcoming.  The nuns simply hadn’t shown that they were that interested before.  Real human connections formed.  Offers of friendship, food and play led to shared worship, music and prayer.  Once the nuns claimed the neighborhood, the neighborhood claimed the nuns and their message.

The same is true in your neighborhood.  They may not know it until you show up, but they are ready for you.

This Lent, take the neighborhood challenge.  Get to know people who live and work around your congregation.  Walk down the main thoroughfares.  See who you can meet. How do they get around?  On bikes?  Busses?  Tractors?  Horses?  By Foot?  By car?  Is the area rural or urban or industrial or just plain isolated?  Is your neighborhood poor or well to do?  Are you surrounded by office buildings, apartment buildings, store-fronts, single-family homes, cow pastures, or highways?

A curious passerby once asked Jesus a question, “Who is my neighbor?”  After telling a long story about a man who was beaten and robbed on his way to Jericho, the answer emerged: “The one who acts like a neighbor.”

In one large church I served, we didn’t act much like a neighbor.  The building was situated on a hill up above a busy highway.  We were at least a quarter mile from any other building.  We had to go further down the road to actually see homes and shops.   While most folks who worshiped at the church actually lived in the community, in some important ways the congregation was disconnected from the people they were there to serve.  We would undertake mission trips to some far-off deserving place, but never show our love locally.   I think both the church and the neighborhood missed out that way.

The next church I served was also set up on a hill, located out of sight on the far edge of town.  It was more isolated, and yet acted much more neighborly.  A laundromat, an RV park and hospital were fairly close by, but no nearby neighbors.  That didn’t stop this group of hardy Wyomingites.  They were more than willing to find people in town who wanted to connect.  We attracted people through summer Worship in the Park, seasonal outreach to apartment dwellers, and home improvement projects for senior citizens.  We went into the state penitentiary at Christmas time and at other times of year for Bible study.

Our neighbors noticed our efforts.  When the time came, our neighbors reached out to us.  They came to us for assistance with funerals, weddings, prayer concerns, and hospital visits.  I’m proud of that congregation.  They didn’t give up on their neighborhood.  In turn, the neighborhood didn’t give up on the church.  The community is richer for it.

Here’s what’s interesting.  The first church that traveled afar to show love was situated in a more churched part of the country.   They could easily have reached out locally and been well-received.  The second church was situated in a very unchurched, even de-churched part of the country.  Yet they had far more connection with their community.  The point is that people, all kinds of people, respond to love.  They respond to genuine caring.  They respond to authentic interest in their well-being.  Isn’t that what we have to offer?

This Lent, don’t give up your neighborhood.  You’re there for a reason.  It just might be that your neighbors need you.  And that you need them.

Rebekah Simon-Peter

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4 responses to This Lent, Don’t Give Up Your Neighborhood

  1. I agree with you but I am bothered you did not include the small rural communities that are akin to the urban inner core. I struggle with the same problems, and in the small congregations the problems are multiplied due to age and expense. Just once, I would like an open and honest conversation about finding solutions in these settings.

    “What is Your Signature Ministry?” by Kay Kotan and Phil Schroeder was published in Leading Ideas, March 7, 2018, is the first article I have literally stumbled upon that makes sense. Why can’t small churches in desperate settings find solutions? I fear the small, rural churches are simply going to die off as the loyal congregations dwindle away due to natural circumstances.

    I keep thinking one option is for larger churches to serve as a hub from which a team of local pastors work to meet the ministry needs within a region–preferably a county or along the school districts’ boundaries.

    At the very least it is time for our denominations to develop think tanks that focus on innovative ideas. My primary teaching experience was in alternative education and we need alternative approaches to the traditional churches. Where are the think tanks? Where are the lateral thinkers? Where — oh yes, they are in the megachurches. I wonder if they would consider adopting a small, dying rural church?

    I have a host of ideas but have no way to move them forward. I am so frustrated that I cannot see a way to make a change; and after 10 years, I fear the proverbial burnout serving a community of people I love and hurt for as I watch the struggles drain everybody of all their energy for Christ.

    Please keep us in prayer.

    • elizabeth a. woods March 11, 2018 at 9:52 pm

      My husband has pastored small rural churches in Kansas. The ones who raise funds for our Youthville (now named “Ember Hope”) have a soup/sandwich supper and small-very small-bazaar before an evening of music. The musicians are not particularly from the church but known to the wider community and across the county. They are so interested with the outreach of Youthville they give their time to raise money for this United Methodist Mission for displaced youth housed at our Youthville campus. The spokes person for Youthville, “Brother Yo”, a pastor who used yo-yo tricks in his talks about the outreach and help all ages of youth receive would be part of the evening.
      The members of the church would each take an age/sex/need card for one of the children at Youthville. They would buy the present, wrap it, attach the card and a card from themselves for a Christmas Greeting. An offering would be taken. When Brother You left his car was packed to the ceiling and trunk full of gifts for some of the children at Youthville. His travels home were accompanied with many prayers for safe travel and for all the children of Youthville.

      All the churches we served packed kits and buckets for UMCOR. They would be assembled for shipment to the Louisiana Sager-Brown site. People might do this throughout the church year so a certain kit was done each month. People knew not only were they helping other people, but they might also be in need of a kit and UMCOR would be there for them.

      Neighbor Helping Neighbor was a group of small churches who would gather, sort through requests from people and set up times to do the job needed. One group would prepare a simple meal for the whole work crews and take the meals to the sites of the work being done.
      The person requesting the job done would buy and pay for the paint but the crews provided brushes, rollers, ladders etc. If it was a yard/lot clean up then the person requesting would provide some of the clippers, rakes, hoes, wheelbarrow, etc. If they didn’t have much some of the workers for the job would bring along their own.
      It might be a job where people couldn’t wash their windows any more and a crew from the churches would wash windows, clean screens, and help the place become ship-shape.
      All ages were on hand and it was teaching the very young to be helpers, too.

      Now some people are making Quilts Of Valor. Others make small quilts for people in the Hospice Care of their communities. Or Quilts for newborn babies. Others knit or crochet scarves, hats, gloves for any children in need of these things in the public schools. The teachers will talk with the group and give the sizes and come back to pick up the items.
      Others church families buy needed under ware, socks, gym shorts, some T Shirts, school supplies, personal hygiene items and take them to the school main office where the students in need come by and pick out their personal needs. It’s done in a way which offers dignity and care for each student in need.
      Some churches have gone together and house with other denominations the families of Family Promise. One church is the designated homes, selected by the Board of Family Promise. The rest of the churches make meals, act as hosts and hostesses for the evening meals, maybe bring some age appropriate toys, some stay the night as helpers if any of the families have emergency needs. (All these activities are within the guidelines of the Family Promise Board.)
      Some times churches are open during tornado seasons at night to be a tornado shelter for any in the community. Safe rooms are designated.
      There are other ways churches serve. I hope some of these might help your small churches.
      Also, my husband agrees with your thought larger churches should partner with the smaller churches by sending some of their ministers to minister to their congregation and nurture then because there can be some beautiful ministries grown from this shared pastoring
      Hope some of these ideas help. As ever, a grey haired minister’s wife, Elizabeth Woods

  2. Claudia Roberts March 9, 2018 at 9:08 am

    First UMC Casper was my home church in the 1960′s. I was last there in August 2016 when I attended my 50th high school reunion. (NCHS). We learned how to serve our neighbors even then. Thanks for continuing the good work. Blessings, Claudia

  3. I think part of the reason for church lack of community is that people tend to form relationships at work, or in another type of community setting based on similar interests and not necessarily through their church, and in the business of life let church fall by the wayside unless it is a Sunday visit. Children used to keep us in community in our neighborhood. However, with military transfers, there are no longer any children about. Doors remain shut and not a soul is seen on the streets or in the yards, unless a peddler comes by or one is going from house to car, or walking a dog, or doing some yard work. Our church does have many different groups, appealing to many different needs of support, hobbies, and service to the community which helps make connections, but not necessarily in a neighborhood. “Cell Groups” used to be a big thing down here, and the various groups would meet in homes which facilitated relationships, but not so much now. Perhaps “neighborhood” is being or should be redefined in this day and age??) Our church does work hard on addressing the needs of the community in many ways, such as backpack programs for children at school who can’t afford school lunches or in the summer, don’t have many food sources. In high schools, there are dozens of homeless children attending that need food and clothing, and so on There are members tutoring grade schoolers in inner-city schools, street ministries, jail ministries that bring people together. So Church is in action in many ways, but not traditionally so. We see many inner-city churches doing much outreach in their neighborhoods, but a street barbeque, or music, or other idea to create a gathering. I understand in smaller towns these methods may not be effective. Would love to hear how the different churches brainstorm this issue.

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