The church planter’s manual for engaging your neighbor

By Matt Hess

By Matt Hess

They found a lot of polite ways to say “no” to us over the years.

Kids’ birthday parties, backyard BBQs and other social interactions with our neighbors were always such a great time. But no matter how close our friendship developed over the years, our friends never quite made it to one of our church services—and it wasn’t due to lack of invitation.

Over and over we invited them to our Easter service, our Christmas service, our weekly Sunday services and several other special church community events. We shared with them about how great our kids’ program was, how anyone was welcome to attend regardless of their spiritual background and how they would be warmly received by everyone in our church—all facts I genuinely believed then and now.

We would invite them, and they would politely say they would try to make it out. We would invite them again, and they would respectfully say they had other plans that day. They never came.

In fact, they eventually moved away.


My wife and I always walked away from those conversations frustrated.

“What gives?” I wondered. I felt like I followed the church planter’s manual on “how to engage your neighborhood” (unfortunately, such a guide doesn’t exist).

If it did exist, most planters know what it would say:

  • Step One: Get to know your neighbors and their children.
  • Step Two: Genuinely take interest in them and their interests.
  • Step Three: Open up your home, be hospitable and share meals and lots of laughs.
  • Step Four: And most importantly, boldly share the gospel.

Do all of this in the proper order, and with enough diligence, and eventually your neighbors will be begging to take a turn in your church’s nursery!

“This plan will work,” I thought.

The only problem is … it didn’t. We did everything we had been taught in how to be good neighbors. We followed “the plan.”

But no matter how much we went out of our way to faithfully represent Christ, our actions never resulted in our friends attending our church plant. Why not? What did we do wrong? Maybe nothing.


We live in the Greater Toronto Area. While Toronto was once known as the “City of Churches,” sadly, that nickname no longer holds true. Amongst the millions who live in the region, the vast majority do not attend a church. In fact, we have discovered that church attendance isn’t even on many people’s radars.

This same scenario is occurring throughout North America. Church leaders are being forced to take a hard look in the mirror. All of the traditional metrics used for church health we typically celebrate are in decline. For decades we have equated the activity of God with big budgets, large buildings and ultimately more people in seats.

The gathering of the saints is a wonderfully beautiful weekly rhythm when God’s people come together to worship Him as we are commanded. And yet, for those who have not bowed the knee to King Jesus, it simply doesn’t make sense.

Maybe I was doing something wrong with my neighbors after all. Perhaps my motives were misplaced. I genuinely loved them, cared for them and wanted them to surrender their lives to Jesus, but were my efforts from a heart that desired to grow my church or the kingdom of God?


When COVID-19 (the new coronavirus) began to spread inn North America, we took our services online.

Our neighbors who moved away were some of the first to watch, comment and reach out to us about how much our online service brought them encouragement in a difficult time. It’s amazing how quickly and far the gospel can go through technology.

Church attendance may be on the decline, but God’s activity is on the rise. Many of our neighbors may not attend our church, but they may be open to gospel conversations and online services.

Amid the current COVID-19 pandemic, I have again been reminded that the goal is not to get people to my church. Rather, the aim is to get them to our Jesus.

People are not projects, they’re people. They are people Jesus died for. They are people who the Father loves. They are people we must befriend, neighbor and love in Jesus’ name—whether or not they ever darken the doors of our churches.


In this season, many people are fearful and anxious about what the future holds. Now is the time—perhaps more so now for our generation than ever before—to give them a taste of the kingdom of God.

If you are able, buy diapers for single parents who live in your neighborhood. Offer to babysit for the nurse working back-to-back 12-hour shifts whose daycare is closed. Deliver groceries to the elderly couple whose children live out of town. What if God’s activity is also expressed in small, daily and faithful acts of kindness in Jesus’ name?

Now is the time to be the hands and feet of Jesus.

Perhaps the manual for how we are to engage our neighbors exists after all. Mark 12:30-31 says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other command greater than these.”

The church planter’s manual for engaging your neighbor: love God, and love people—even when they reject your invitations. That’s not a bad plan.

Published April 1, 2020

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Matt Hess

Matt Hess is a Church Planting Catalyst with Send Network in Toronto. He planted and serves as lead pastor at Fellowship Pickering and is also the Director of The Fellowships. A micro-network of churches in the Greater Toronto Area. Matt is married to Arrica and together, they have four amazing kids.