Becoming Churches that Love Our Neighbors as Ourselves

Representing the love of God to neighbors works best in congregations that have a clear vision reflected in worship and prayer.

Worship planner Rachel Bouwkamp includes new and different songs with varied instrumentation at Lee Street Christian Reformed Church in Wyoming, Michigan. “It’s good for us, because it helps us feel what a guest would feel like with something new,” she explains.

After a service in which worshipers sang the meditative “Santo, Santo, Santo. Mi córazon te adora,” Bouwkamp’s husband began talking with a visitor. “The visitor commented how that song brought him back to his childhood in Mexico. He hadn’t heard it since, but truly appreciated it,” she says.

“It’s also interesting that when I tried introducing this song five years ago, it didn’t go as well.”

Lee Street CRC began in 1926 by Dutch immigrants who wanted to worship in English. Back then most people walked to church from streets with names like Albers, DeHoop, and Joosten. Now most members drive to church, and the local school district publishes all its newsletters in both English and Spanish.

Bouwkamp says that singing in Spanish about heartfelt adoration of God’s holiness reminded her how much the congregation “as a whole has shifted to being open to the ‘multi-things.’” Like other congregations seeking to love their neighbors as themselves, Lee Street CRC has a clear vision reflected in worship and prayer.

Clarify Your Vision

Loving God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves may be easier in churches that begin with that intention. Consider these phrases from new churches’ vision and mission statements:

  • “…a church that cares passionately for the oppressed, the abandoned, the helpless, and those in spiritual, relational, and physical need.” Austin New Church, Austin, Texas
  • “…to grow together into the fullness of Christ and to go into our neighbourhoods and networks proclaiming in word and acts of love the reality of the Kingdom of God.” The River, Edmonton, Alberta
  • “Because we have the hope that Jesus will one day make all things new, we believe he calls his people now to renew all things spiritually, socially, and culturally.” Mountain Fellowship, Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • “Christians are called to love the world, not circle their wagons and only care about each other.” Common Ground Church Community, North Lima, Ohio

Older congregations must make a conscious shift to becoming churches that love their neighbors as themselves. Lee Street’s vision is now “to be a truly multicultural, multigenerational body of Christ,” and its mission is “to make mature disciples from the neighborhoods in which we minister and live.”

“Focusing on our neighborhood requires a mindset shift. We have to be constantly asking, ‘But what’s our purpose?’ We plan things that will help us be genuine producers for God’s kingdom 24/7, not just Sunday morning consumers,” says Rachel Bouwkamp, whose full job title is Vision & Mission Coordinator/Worship Planner. Mixing young and old in neighborhood service projects and Girls Night Out events has helped Lee Street change.

Englewood Christian Church began in 1895 at the outskirts of Indianapolis on Rural Street. Eighty years later, the church neighborhood was urban and decaying. Church membership and finances plummeted, and the people who remained didn’t agree on a way forward. Englewood’s turnaround was slow, but grew because of weekly Sunday night discussions at church. People still speak honestly in these ongoing conversations.

Now Englewood has a sports ministry, Hispanic congregation, and a church-driven nonprofit that provides daycare, jobs, and housing. The church covenants each year to use all its resources for the common good. C. Christopher Smith describes the change process in his book The Virtue of Dialogue: Conversation as a Hopeful Practice of Church Communities.

Embody Your Vision in Worship

Neighbors can sense whether or not they’re included in worship, starting with how they are welcomed. Bouwkamp says, “Doors open in nice weather, coffee in the narthex to increase conversation, greeters at each door, and greeting time during the service all make someone feel comfortable and part of a family.” Visitors often wait to use the nursery until they know people, so Lee Street provides activity boxes for young children to use in church.

Pastor Kent Rottman and praise team leaders consistently explain each worship element so everyone knows what’s going on. Rottman often uses current events or real-life stories to connect creation-fall-redemption-restoration themes during the confession and assurance time. “He is mindful of saying ‘your sin and my sin’ to show we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness,” Bouwkamp says.

At mosaic House Church in Edmonton, Alberta, each Lord’s Supper celebration is paired with a special love offering. The love offering is related to an ongoing challenge that invites mosaicHousers to “’taste test’ different ways to be Jesus’ hands and feet.” During a sermon series on grace and stewardship, one hospitality challenge was to invite a refugee or new immigrant for coffee or dessert. The love offering went to Changing Together, a local nonprofit run by immigrant women for immigrant women.

First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon, uses visuals to help worshipers picture neighbors. For an annual stewardship campaign, the church printed and hung colorful “did you know” items about all the congregation’s local and global outreaches. A pastor led children on a walk around the sanctuary to read various items during worship. For Good Friday interactive stations on Christ’s last words, the church posted photos of people on Oregon’s death row. The photos illustrated “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Worshipers were encouraged to pray for those prisoners.

Pray for Neighbors

Praying week after week in worship for neighbors makes a difference, according to Tom Swieringa. He is co-leading a church multiplication initiative by Reformed and Christian Reformed churches in Wyoming, Michigan.

When Swierenga was a parish pastor, he’d sometimes walk around the church neighborhood taking pictures. He’d project photos and ask worshipers whether they recognized the house or knew the stories of people who lived there. Swieringa would say, “Let’s pray for this family. Let’s let the Spirit guide us. Is the Spirit nudging you to pray for the people who will move into this house that’s for sale…or from that house that’s being foreclosed…or for people who live around you in your neighborhood?”

John D. Witvliet suggests in a Reformed Worship column that churches look at their intercessory prayers. Leave space amid petitions for church people and church programs for “city-positive” language. You might thank God for librarians, ask God’s blessing on city parks, and request discernment for civic leaders dealing with budget challenges.

On the Parish Collective website, Justin Mayfield offers a simple idea that’s worked well at Zoë Livable Church in Tacoma, Washington. All you do is add names to localize the Lord’s Prayer, which, in Mayfield’s case, is praying, “…Your kingdom come, Your will be done—on earth…in the United States… in Washington State…in the Puget Sound region…in Tacoma…in this neighborhood…on this street…in this house…in me—as it is in heaven…”

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Start a Discussion

Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church staff, board, education, worship, or missions meeting. These questions will help your group talk about how your worship proclaims and models the Great Commandment:

  • How would a newcomer who attends worship or a neighbor who lives near your church experience your congregation as a community that loves its neighbors as itself?
  • What first steps could you take to make your worship more welcoming and inclusive?

Who leads or offers prayer in your worship services? What portion of prayer content lifts neighborhood or civic concerns to God? Do you prayerfully search for where God’s already at work in your city so you can join in?

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