Why neighborhood integration improves ministry opportunities

God has taken our family on a surprising, exciting and somewhat overdue journey the last two years. We have gotten serious about loving our neighbors—yes, our actual neighbors. I have been distracted and given excuses for not taking time to know or love my neighbors. “I won’t live here very long,” “They won’t live here very long,” “They’ll think we’re weird,” “I don’t have time to add one more thing,” “They don’t have time to hang with us” and my favorite “Everyone in the world is my neighbor.” Maybe you can identify. My excuses were motivated by two things:

  • Fear of failure.
  • A life that was far too busy.

But last year my wife and I started to see our neighborhood differently. We noticed neighbors who were isolated, school parents giving an empty wave with no relationship and empty front porches. Something was strangely wrong but also strangely…normal. God gave me missionary lenses to see the cracks. I then started to imagine how our neighbors longed to see these cracks filled. The final straw for me was seeing that the Gospel can fill all of these cracks in my neighborhood. These people aren’t waiting for a government program—they’re waiting for relationships. We realized it was no accident God had placed us in this home—He had planted us as missionaries.

“Offering Our Lives” To Our Neighbors

We began to “offer our lives to our neighbors” instead of just having incidental encounters at the trash can or walking to my car. The fears of failure and wasting “my” precious time tugged at me more at the beginning than they do now, but they still rear their ugly heads sometimes. Here are a few of the simple changes we have made to our lives that are bearing fruit: Consistency in one place once a week. We knew consistency would be the key to gaining credibility. People needed to “count on us” regularly in order to invest their time regularly. We live across from a school, so our context is very unique. After much thought we settled on being on the same corner when school starts every Friday serving coffee. We call this “Free Coffee Friday,” and it has become the consistent face of our community of missionaries. Frontyard community instead of backyard community. Growing up in suburbia my wife and I were used to playing and partying in the backyard. We shifted our fun to the front. We moved our grill to the front, kept our lawn chairs handy and set up a small café table next to the driveway where we can watch the kids ride bikes and sip sweet tea. Parties with neighbors instead of parties with friends. Since our community of missionaries is with us we have some existing friends around, but we put our true focus on partying with our neighbors. Through parties and gatherings they have become our friends. We used to throw Christmas parties and cookouts for our friends, and now we throw them for our neighbors and invite existing friends into them when appropriate. We’ve had to make little tweaks, like adding a cookie exchange to our Christmas party to see if this would draw in the little old ladies from our neighborhood. Intentional living, not extra stuff.Most Americans don’t have time for MORE, but we all have time for BETTER. Trading good for best (or normal for fruitful) has been our constant focus. This has forced us to wrestle through how we can do things we ALREADY do and include neighbors. We’ve had great connections watching football games, drinking coffee, throwing cookouts, joining another family at the park and helping neighbors with outdoor projects. I have led lots of mission trips, planned a lot of events and led a lot of ministries, but I have never experienced anything like this. I have even done a lot of missional things, but this has been my first cannonball into incarnational living. Sadly, it took me this long for our home to become a ministry center instead of a refuge from ministry. I have never been able to involve my kids in this many chances to share our lives and our stuff with others. I have never experienced this many “holy interruptions” that yielded fruit. Prior to this year my heart had never truly broken for my neighbors. We have walked through death and depression with neighbors, shed tears and belly laughed on the corner. We have given gifts and received them. We have celebrated birthdays with neighbor game nights. The crossing guard at the school even called the local TV station three times to tell them about these crazy people who give away free coffee on Friday mornings. Previously I grabbed ministry opportunities, but now I can truly say ministry opportunities are grabbing me.

 Previously I grabbed ministry opportunities, but now I can truly say ministry opportunities are grabbing me.

Further reading: I highly recommend “The Art of Neighboring” by Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon and check out more resources and ideas on their site. This is the most practical book I have read on this topic. Also, Caesar Kalinowski and the Soma Communities team have great insight on the topic of “from additional to intentional.”

Published August 14, 2015