If this were a fill-in-the-blank question, your initial response may have been something like, “Where do I begin?”
That’s certainly not true for all of us, neither is it true for all of our neighbors, but we can all imagine it is true for others. In like fashion, even if we don’t have a beginning place of problems with our neighbors, we are not sure if the opposite is not true. Something as simple as the frequency or timing of mowing the grass or where we keep our outdoor trash cans can cause a less than positive opinion. Move on to the color of our house, the noise our kids make, or even the unintended failure to wave a greeting in the past can all color our neighbors’ opinion of us.
We know this to be true. Those who live next to us know us better than we think they do, just like we know them better than they think we do. We see each other’s comings and goings, values, child-rearing skills, hobbies, how we spend our money, and more. And that’s part of the problem. Because we know them, and they know us, they fall into the category of the “difficult” to reach. Nearness breeds knowledge and knowledge is power: power to compare, power to resist, power to reject. A tough crowd for the Gospel.
In addition, helping your neighbors is part of the give and take of getting along. They help you, you help them – quid pro quo. If nothing else, it helps to keep peace in the neighborhood. There is inherently something “in it for you” when you help your neighbor and vice versa. Just last week, I asked our neighbors to bring in our trash can after the pickup on Monday, as we would be out of town. They know they can ask the same of us (and have). It takes time and much effort for your neighbor to see that you are genuinely a helpful person. I’m not suggesting that you don’t take the time and effort, I’m just suggesting that it is part of the problem in getting to the place where you can share Christ with them.
Another part of the problem is that we don’t understand Jesus’ instructions about neighbors. While it is absolutely true that Jesus cares about those who live closest to us, He cares equally about those who don’t. There are two Biblical passages that we need to understand together.
The first is found in Luke 10:25-37. We know it as the story of the Good Samaritan, but for the purpose of this post, let’s call it the answer to “Who is my Neighbor?” And to be very, very clear, Jesus was not trying to teach us anything about those who live closest to us. Let’s pick it up on vs 29:
But he [a lawyer], wanting to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus answered and said: “A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, who stripped him of his clothing, wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a certain priest came down that road. And when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. Likewise, a Levite, when he arrived at the place, came and looked, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was. And when he saw him, he had compassion. So he went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said to him, ‘Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, when I come again, I will repay you.’ So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?”
And he [the lawyer] said, “He who showed mercy on him.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”
Jesus could have very easily told a parable about the tough crowd. He could have just as easily talked about the neighbor across the street that was beaten severely when his home was broken into and robbed. He could have talked about the neighbor on the left who ignored the situation, as well as the neighbor on the right. He could have introduced the neighbor across the street that just moved in, who went to take care of the wounded man: …to .. bandage his wounds, pour on oil and wine; and he set him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
But he didn’t tell this story. He told a story about a stranger – someone who did not share proximity. I believe there are at least two reasons for this.
The One who tells us to go into the whole world to share the Gospel never wanted us to condense our concern to those whose space borders our own. He knew this crowd was tough. Look at Matthew 13:53-58
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.
But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town and in his own home.”
His own town. His own home. “Neighbors”.
In almost every circumstance where Jesus showed mercy, it was to a stranger. It is true that before His time came, many he helped had heard of Him, but they were still strangers, or at the most acquaintances who had seen Him before.
The T-Ball Approach
The church could learn much about discipleship in this area from baseball.
Very young players learn the game by hitting a ball on a tee. They call it T-ball. They graduate from that to coach pitch. Balls are lobbed in by a coach so they can learn to hit a moving target from someone who is not trying to strike them out.
Neither of these levels are considered the “tough crowd” of baseball.
Then, you move up to the next level. You get a pitcher that wants to strike you out. But by then, you have had enough practice to be able to stand in there and deal with what comes your way. Hang in there long enough, and you can get to high school, college, the minors, and for the very rare few – a shot in the Bigs.
Each step along the way prepares you to be able to deal with what comes your way. Your previous experience makes the next crowd less tough. So why is our first step today in encouraging people to share their faith to point them at one of the toughest crowds they will face? (Family is also very tough for all the same reasons.) And often, we point them, but we do not show them.
We tacitly imply that since God cares for our neighbors (and family) it is solely our responsibility to see to that they hear about Jesus, as if in their decades of existence no one else has or will; as if they will certainly be hell-bound if we don’t tell them – it will be our fault… this is not true!
Why don’t we show them (show, not just tell) how to share the Gospel in less difficult situations, giving them practice and experience that will be valuable when God does provide an opportunity at the next level.
Here are just some of the other issues with focusing on near neighbors instead of focusing on those to whom you can show mercy (service, help, aid, assistance, care) without quid pro quo… doing for others in need who cannot return the favor… strangers.
It just doesn’t add up. Regardless of how big your church and community are, Christians are the minority. If you were to fill up every seat in every church in your town on a given Sunday, it would not be out of line to consider that 75% or more of your town would not be seated. Near Neighbor Focus means that up to 75% of your town will not have anyone who is working to share Christ with them, because they don’t have a Christian neighbor.
Of the 25% who are sitting in the church seats, my experience is that less than 10% of those know how or have shared the Gospel with a lost person. (That is, in part, because they have never had a pastor, mentor, friend, or leader that has trained them and shown them how.) That means that 90% of your town will not hear the Gospel from a neighbor, because they have no Christian neighbor or their Christian neighbor is not going to tell them, even with the strong push from their church leadership.
In addition, I don’t begin to know how to factor in the percentages of those in a church who are not encouraged to share the Gospel. If we accept it as fact that there are churches that do not encourage evangelism, then it may be safe to assume that this Near Neighbor Focus will effectively influence evangelistic conversations with 1% to 3% of the “neighbors” in town.
Jesus never intended for us to condense our concern to our own neighborhood. That is not what he meant by “neighbor”.
It can be a waste of time and energy. Another way to say this is, “When do you stop?” The easy answer is “Never”, but that is not the Jesus model. Again, you are not the only person that God can send their way. Your responsibility, if you accept and act on it, is to tell. Their response is between them and the Lord.
In Mark 6:8-12, Jesus sent the disciples out in pairs to various towns. Among the instructions he gave them, was to discern when it was time to move on, to stop in that place and go to the next. He said, “And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (6:11)
If your near neighbor doesn’t listen, please don’t imagine that Jesus intends for you to keep banging on them until they submit. To keep spending your time and energy on someone who might hear it differently someday from someone else – perhaps a Christ follower who helps them in a real time of need with no quid pro quo. There are so many more that need your time and energy with the Gospel… it’s OK to move on.
What do you do when you’re done? Let’s say you are one of the rare ones that make it to the “Bigs” – you are ready willing and able to share the Gospel with your near neighbors. Either they listen or they don’t, but you’ve done what you’ve been encouraged to do. All eight of your neighbors have heard about Christ from you. They understand the Gospel message and have responded or not.
Now what? Are you done? You no longer have to share the Gospel because you’ve shared with your neighbors? Hardly. You apparently have two choices.
- You can move to a new home so that you have new neighbors.
- You are now you’re at the place that Jesus taught about and ministered to – strangers and acquaintances. How are you going to do that? We should figure this out because there are so many more of them….
What are you going to do?
The church needs to be The Church. Jesus did not intend for most of us to stand alone. In fact, the church – the body of Christ – should be the source of our ministry together in the community, not just disparate individuals living out the Christ-life and alone serving and witnessing to others. The church needs to foment the spirit of and practice of the evangelistic lifestyle by modeling, training and creating the reputation for the church that aligns with Scripture.
When Jesus showed up in a place, He quickly created a presence and reputation of help and relief. Remember, he called it “mercy” in the parable? Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. The word of His ministry spread because of the integrity of His reputation. Those who traveled with Him shared in this reputation. Their word about Jesus was believable because of this reputation.
We live in a culture where the “church” has a different reputation. Thanks to the internet and very public fails of prominent Christian leaders; very public falls of those who preach something other than Jesus, but in His name; and the very real legalism and culture wars within local congregations, the community around us “knows” our reputation even though what they “know” may not align with what we think our reputation is. But get this if you don’t get anything else: If your church is not proactive in the community, demonstrating your real values and heart – your reputation, then you will inherit whatever reputation your neighbors believe all churches have.
As church leaders, you must lead your church to be that place of hope, grace, and relief for those in your community and beyond. You will have to double-down to overcome the reputation that you have been painted with by virtue of the fact that you are a church. Find needs and meet them. Help people in real need. Involve your members in building a reputation that your members can be proud of, so they can, like Jesus’ followers, easily say, “Come and see”, and their words will be believed because of the reputation of the church.
“Come and see” is T-ball witnessing. It is up to the church to create a reputation that will empower the witness. As a believer learns to handle the harder stuff coming in, the reputation of the church will not be as important to their individual witness. But there should always be new believers that need to first step up to the tee.
When people “come and see”, the church needs to be prepared with systems and a process whereby those with more experience can create opportunities to share the Gospel.
Experienced believers may even get to the point where they can share with a really tough crowd. This may be, while Paul went to the Gentiles, all of the other disciples, for the most part, stayed with the Jews. God loves the tough crowds, too. But, in this journey, many others will hear about Jesus along the way.
Does it really matter who tells your near neighbor about Jesus, as long as they are told? Does it matter more that your neighbor is told than the people 3 doors down? 5 Blocks away? A church – or churches working together in a community – who provide the reputation, motivation, resources, training and experience necessary for T-ball witnessing through “Bigs” evangelism will be The Church. Many neighbors will be told. Many more than with the Near Neighbor Focus.
They just won’t all be your… neighbor.