Imagine the impact if members of your church increased the number of meaningful relationships right in their own neighborhoods by ten-fold.
We also learned from the experience of a number of churches that the senior pastor and staff must buy into, present, and cast the vision in order to attain sustainability. People will self-motivate on a strategy so close to home, so natural and comfortable, and so results-oriented, but only if they feel they are part of a church-wide movement.
IS THIS YOU?
Every church urges members to reach out to neighbors; every pastor longs that his members connect with their neighbors. But these days, the typical person knows on average less than three people (some studies say 1.5) on his own street or in his residence complex well enough to have a meaningful conversation about personal hopes, fears, or needs.
“We just have to redefine neighborhood,” one pastor suggested to me with a tone of resignation, “because in terms of relationships, neighbor no longer has much significance if it’s about where a person lives.”
He is right in one sense. America is a society that has largely lost the meaning of neighborhood. “Cocooning” in our homes has become the prevalent lifestyle, with “neighbor” and “neighborhood” increasingly just a marketing concept, like a Hallmark movie evoking warm memories of a fading past.
This trend away from in-neighborhood relationships is not appreciably different for church-going Christians than for Americans in general. Many a pastor’s neighborhood outreach strategies founder on the simple fact that the church members who are expected to do the outreach or the inviting, know too few people on their own street or in their own residence complex. Meet-your-neighbor tactics intended to help overcome this obstacle often get artificial.
THE SEARCH FOR A SOLUTION
Several years ago, while I was on staff at Walk Thru the Bible Ministries, we asked the question why churches in third world cultures are growing explosively through member-led ministry and neighborhood connections, while in America the Christians hardly even know their neighbors.
I accepted an assignment to search out a solution, if one existed, any church strategy I could uncover somewhere in the country that
I went to denominational headquarters, churches, and parachurch ministries. I went to church conventions. I listened to innumerable testimonials about ideas that “worked.” Many did work, at least for the particular characteristics of a particular church, or with a major financial investment by the local church, or in the unique timeframe and demographics of a particular community. None met all six criteria.
When the solution came, it turned out not to be a one-idea strategy, but a multi-layered concept – several great ideas that, uniquely blended, have created something bigger and more remarkable than any of the components.
And remarkably do-able.
Your church could start implementing this in weeks, if you chose to. And see results on at least one very measurable level by the end of the first week.
A large religious publisher asked on a nationwide survey what churches ought to do more of in order to be credible and true to purpose. Among respondents who are active in a church, the predominant answers focused on sharing Christ (and on worship). The predominant answer from non-church attenders:
We often validate ourselves by outreach, by the Great Commission. The people we want to reach validate us by the Great Commandment.
But it’s slightly more subtle than that.
The subtly has to do with the very concept of outreach. Outreach categorizes people as "in” or “out,” and targets the ones who are out. We tend to be very skilled at this. We name committees and annual campaigns “outreach,” we have “outreach” training, buy “outreach” programs. But few people like to be targeted.
What people do respond to, is when we seek to come alongside, connect with them naturally and at a meaningful level, develop community with them, listen for their heart’s dream as well as their hurts and needs, discern what God may already have begun within them, and journey with them toward God and toward God’s dreams for them and for us.
As to the matter of doing more for the poor and hungry, people in contemporary America – think of your neighbors – are far more likely to respond to being asked to help, than to be the “target” of our charity. “Withreach” applies to the Great Commandment as well.
First identify a purpose shared by the church, by the neighbors, by the community, and by God.
People everywhere in America, poor or wealthy, rural or urban, native or immigrant, Christian or not, want to do something for the hungry. It’s one of only a few universally-shared purposes in American society today. We only need to watch the proliferation of food-collection drives at Thanksgiving and Christmas to know this.
God said something about that, too:
So our strategy starts by the church inviting the neighbors to help feed the hungry.
BLEND IN UNIVERSALLY-APPRECIATED PRAYER
As you continue the food collection process, make it a neighborhood project, show personal interest without pressing, and use the appropriate approach, within as little as four months you will be able to ask neighbors for prayer needs, and many will respond. Over subsequent months, if you stick to the plan and stay within the parameters, neighbors will increasingly open up about spiritual needs and heart dreams.
This part works because in contemporary American society one of the few remaining non-taboo religious subjects is prayer. No one is offended by an offer to pray, and even people who don’t believe in God are willing to have someone pray for them.
Within the context of this neighborhood strategy, while the neighbor is joining you in doing Kingdom work (possibly before he is in the Kingdom), you will learn what actually matters to that neighbor, his or her own real dreams and hurts and needs, so that instead of targeting someone for generic prayer, you come alongside and pray for what they feel matters. In so doing, you join with the Holy Spirit in what He has already begun to do that neighbor’s heart.
WHERE DOES THIS STRATEGY LEAD?
What comes of all this? You don’t have to imagine. We’ve listed likely outcomes, short-term and longer-term, on a separate page.