“Am I loving my neighbor?” When I commuted to a church 25 minutes from my home, that question began to plague me. I was leaving a condo building downtown to participate in a church in the suburbs, investing mostly in people who lived far away. Were those people my neighbor in some sense? Yes. But what about my literal neighbors?
My church encouraged a degree of involvement that left little time for my neighborhood. Even the ways we were encouraged to love our neighbors did not fit where I lived. My neighbors had no yards, no trash to clean up and strolled silently in and out of the building staring at their cell phones.
Eventually, I could no longer convince myself I was living out the command. Thus began my search for a church near me that would help me love my actual neighbors. During the search, I would find that most churches had the same problem: a practical disconnect between church practices and the need to love my direct neighbor.
So I am writing to challenge church leaders: Attending your church should help us love our neighbors, not make it harder.
Here are some practical steps you can take in that direction.
Even the less programmatic churches typically ask for a significant chunk of time. Sunday morning, a weeknight for small group, regular service on a ministry team, occasional church projects and retreats … Add the expectation to be friends and find community with other church members beyond the organized settings, and I have little time left for my neighbors. The more time I spend in the church, with church people, doing church things, the less I will be with my neighbors. At the very least, we need more overlap with the neighborhood.
Continue to have the Sunday morning gathering, but make the weekly groups monthly or semimonthly. If a small group wants to meet weekly, then make every other week a service project in the neighborhood or a dinner for the neighbors, nothing more. Let church projects arise naturally out of the ministry to neighborhoods and open up your doors for community activities that have nothing to do with church.
Leaders seem to be afraid that the people aren’t ready for this; they’ll make mistakes. Of course they will! So do I. So did Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus didn’t coddle them. He sent them out to minister, let them get in fights with the Pharisees, let Peter put his foot in his mouth and more. Then He used it as a teachable moment, and they grew. You may be surprised how fast God will grow your people if you free up their time so they can get some experience.
Let Your People Do More
As you do less, empower your congregation to do more. Schedule time for the congregation to love their neighbors. Jesus sent the disciples on a missionary journey by telling them to go. He did not micro-manage every aspect of their trip. Rather than planning service projects for everybody, plan a service project day. Challenge your people to find places to serve in their neighborhood. That evening or shortly after, have a congregational dinner where people can debrief, celebrate the victories and share their experiences.
When you have a few leaders plan all the service projects and outreach events, you create a dependency. Your people tend to rely on you to point them to service opportunities, instead of growing eyes to see the opportunities that are right in front of them every day. As your members grow, they will find ways to use the church’s resources to serve their neighborhoods—opportunities you would never find.
Cut the Red Tape
In many churches, a member must go through a long process to create a new church ministry. It may require mission and vision statements, an overseeing elder, budget proposals (even if it won’t be funded by the church), a committee meeting, and well, you get the point. How many good ministry opportunities die because the church makes it so hard to do anything?
Give the members power to experiment. Support their experiments and have a list somewhere so people can join in. Let the cyclists create a cycling ministry and the painters create a painting ministry. Step back and let your people explore and address the needs that they see in their neighborhood. As a gardener cultivates a garden, cultivate the people in their neighborhoods. You let them grow, while watering and trimming along the way through high-quality, regular debriefing. That’s your opportunity to check in: What’s going well? What went poorly? How will you change it next time? How can we support you better? Then step back and admire the garden as it grows on its own.
No church leadership team is big enough to handle all the ministries that could be started to address all the needs in the neighborhoods you serve, so stop trying. You don’t have to be. To the extent you treat your church like a business, behave less like a major corporation and more like a networking group for small start-ups. As your people feel empowered to look outward, they will see and meet those needs. Far from having to do more, you may actually be able to do less (and invest some of that extra time in your own neighborhood!)
The result will be a different kind of church community. It will not be as organized as it used to be. There will be fewer official programs. And in the place of the programs and red tape, you will have a dynamic community of people who are not only told they should love their neighbor but who are actually doing it because you support them with time and resources to do it well. Isn’t that what we should have been all along?
Neal is MDiv student at Denver Seminary who lives in downtown Denver.