The Good Neighbor Church

The Good Neighbor Church

A congregation nestled comfortably in the midst of a two-mile radius of middle-class homes strongly desired to reach new people for Christ. They had deep hearts of compassion and felt God speaking to them to become invitational. To accomplish that goal, they had been investigating the possibility of planting a new worshipping community on the city’s outskirts, 13 miles away in an area filled with young professionals. A preliminary estimate of the cost to support this plant for the first three years added up to a few hundred thousand dollars.

I asked a simple question and the answer surprised us all. “Have you researched how many of your current members happen to live within six blocks in any direction of the church here?” The pastor responded immediately, “Yes, we have done the work of plotting where our congregation lives. Only one family attending here lives within six blocks. Interestingly, though, no one else does. Everyone else drives in from other neighborhoods.”

Do you know your immediate neighbors?

“Do you happen to be acquainted with who lives in the houses on either side of the church, or the three houses right across the street? Your neighbors, so to speak?” The room was silent. “How about the four houses along your parking lot in back? Have you met any of them? What are the names of their children, their pets? Do they have any needs the church could care for, or any way the church could be good neighbors to them and build friendships with them? Do they even go to church anywhere?” More silence.

After further contemplation, the pastor and leadership realized it wasn’t necessary to drive miles to the outskirts of the city and invest significant funds to reach the churchless. They had a mission field immediately around their existing church building that was completely untapped. Perhaps launching a satellite campus in the upscale suburbs seemed trendier and more glamorous, but simply walking across the street or parking lot to meet and get acquainted with the church’s neighbors was intimidating yet free — with eternal reward potential.

A Good Neighbor team

A “Good Neighbors” team was formed, composed mostly of the church’s newest members. The team’s single purpose was to get acquainted with every person or family whose home was within sight of the church building, a two-block square. The Good Neighbors team would gather to prayer walk the “Neighbors Square” as they nicknamed it, introducing themselves to the residents who happened to be outside. They identified themselves as being from the church and simply asked, “How can our church be a good neighbor to you?” They also asked, “Do you have anything we could pray about for you?”

Their goal was to make friends. Sometimes they took plates of homemade cookies to share. They learned the names of children, of cats and dogs. They heard about griefs, challenges, and joys. They occasionally helped change a flat tire. One on the Good Neighbor team went to a court hearing in spiritual support of a church neighbor. Others on the Good Neighbor team decided to start a quarterly neighborhood birthday party in the church fellowship hall, and invited the church’s immediate neighbors and their families for one afternoon of celebrating every neighbor’s birthday at the same time. Many others in the congregation attended and brought cards; some even brought small gifts. A few neighbors from houses down the street — not on the Good Neighbors team’s route – heard about the party and unexpectedly showed up as well. They were immediately added.

Eventually several of the church’s neighborhood residents were spotted sitting in worship with their new friends from the Good Neighbors team. Some of the children attended Vacation Bible School. And at the fall all-church vision dinner, the pastor had two members of the Good Neighbors team share stories of their experiences. The congregational response was so enthusiastic that his church eventually developed several additional Good Neighbors teams to befriend an entire six-block square area around itself. The teams each took spiritual responsibility to help the church become a loving, relational neighbor to those living in its immediate mission field. A few months ago, the pastor baptized a mother and her four children whose home he can see from the church’s office window, and they have all become deeply involved in church life. A weekly Good Neighbors Bible study has started on three of the blocks, led by individuals serving on those teams.

Who are your church’s neighbors, literally?

You Will Be My Witnesses

You Will Be My Witnesses

In his second letter to the Christian community in Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ and has given to us the ministry of reconciliation. “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors” (2 Cor. 5:20).

Before his ascension, Jesus promises those gathered, “[Y]ou will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

What if you thought of your congregation’s vocation in terms of ambassadors, or witnesses, sent to share the good news of God in Christ with our neighbors? Doing so shifts the focus of your congregation’s mission from the people inside the church toward who’s outside the walls of the church, that is, your neighbors.

For some congregations, this is a significant shift in orientation. But, as the people of God, our ministry is primarily to represent Christ in the world (Book of Common Prayer, 855). We gather on Sundays not for our sake only, but for the sake of the world. We are unique in this way. As Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “The Church is the only society that does not exist for its members.”

How do good ambassadors begin their work? By getting to know the people in the place where they reside, by listening to their neighborhoods. How well do you know your neighborhood?

Given the high rate of mobility in our society today and the demographic shifts in Washington, DC and the surrounding region, it is likely that your neighborhood has experienced significant changes over the past few decades. Some neighborhoods have become increasingly racially and ethnically diverse. Some have grown younger. Some older. Your long-time members may have noticed these changes while your new members may not. Either way, thriving congregations attend closely to the demographic and social changes in their area and understand the distinctiveness of their community– both of who they are and who they are becoming.

You might begin getting reacquainted with your neighbors might by gathering demographic data. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington offers its congregations access to MissionInsite, a program that offers in-depth demographic data, including religious beliefs and concerns of demographic groupings in the area surrounding your church. If you’d like to receive a MissionInsite report for your congregation, reach out to the Rev. Jenifer Gamber.

To really get to know your neighbors, to really listen to them, however, requires being on the ground, building face-to-face relationships. Through listening, you can become attentive to your neighbor’s needs, interests, and desires.

To help you and your leadership practice getting out in your neighborhood, the School for Christian Faith and Leadership will be hosting a workshop at Church of the Ascension in Silver Spring MD on Saturday, July 30th called Connecting with Your Community.

Consider attending – and bring your team!