In each of the synoptic gospels, Jesus enters into conversation with a crowd about the traditional summary of the Torah: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart … and your neighbor as yourself.”
In Luke’s gospel, a man seeking clarification (if not also self-justification) poses a follow-up question to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus doesn’t respond directly to his question. Instead, he explodes the crowd’s potentially self-serving categories about mission by telling the parable of the good Samaritan. From the perspective of God’s Realm, he insists, a neighbor is any person in need whom we meet on the road, even if we tend to think of him/her as “other.”
If Jesus were having the same conversation with us today, though, I think it might go in a slightly different direction. I imagine him focusing on the more traditional understanding of neighbor as a people who living in your immediate geographical area. I see him asking us a follow-up question: “How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know your neighbor?”
Most of us might start to protest, saying that our churches really do love our neighbors, even want to serve our neighbors. But the truth of the matter is that many of our churches don’t know our neighbors or what our neighbors’ needs, hopes, and dreams might be.
Maybe that’s because the neighborhood has changed around us, as demographic shifts mean members who used to live nearby have moved to other parts of town and different populations have taken their place in the immediate area of the church. Maybe we’ve been in our particular location so long that we have simply quit paying attention to our neighborhood, so that we “no longer see the forest for the trees.” Or maybe we think we still know our neighbors, without actually having paid attention to the subtle cultural shifts that have taken place over the years. Whatever the reason, if we want to be faithful in carrying out God’s mission, we need to get to know our neighbors again. There are any number of ways to do this.
Take a neighborhood walk. Send teams of church members out onto the sidewalks around your church on a weekday and again on a Saturday. Ask them simply to notice and record what they see. Are the houses and other buildings in good repair or are some looking a bit shabby around the edges? Are people out walking on the streets, or does the neighborhood feel deserted? Who do you encounter on your walk: what ethnicities, what ages? What kinds of family units do you see? Are there different businesses in the area than you remember?
Strike up a conversation. Invite church members to spend some time sitting in a neighborhood coffee house, or laundry mat, or anywhere else people from the neighborhood congregate. Ask them to start up a conversation with the people at the next table, asking what they think about the neighborhood and what issues concern them most. Inquire about needs they have that could make their life better if they were met. Ask them what they know about your congregation. You may be surprised by some of the things they know … and even more so by some of the things they assume about you.
Talk with community leaders. Invite the principal of the school closest to your church to tell you about the children who attend and their families. Have the chief of police tell you about neighborhood issues they notice most often. Ask the city council member who represents your part of town to tell you what requests for service s/he most regularly receives. Do the same with the head of the welfare/social services department. Ask each of them what your church might do to help address the unmet needs they have identified.
Look at the demographic data. There are several sources for demographic data about your immediate surroundings. Your denomination may have information that will help you better understand your neighborhood. You can use publicly available data like census reports for the zip codes in your immediate area. You can purchase relatively inexpensive reports from “data mining” vendors who not only pull together a lot of information about your neighborhood but also will help you understand it. MissionInsite (missioninsite.com) is a commonly used vendor that – in addition to hard numbers – can tell you about your neighbors’ religious preferences, their lifestyle choices, and their values and dreams.
You certainly can imagine other ways to hit the sidewalks and learn who your neighbors are. Knowing your neighbors and their real needs is an important first step toward loving them in the way Jesus calls us to do.
Jim Kitchens is a consultant with the Center for Healthy Churches. A native of Mississippi, Jim has served Presbyterian churches in California and Tennessee for almost 35 years. He loves helping congregations prayerfully discern how the Spirit calls them to adapt to changing cultural contexts. Jim is the author of The Postmodern Parish published by the Alban Institute.