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 enclave. 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.