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How Churches Meet Their Neighbors

Here is the uncomfortable truth about becoming a congregation that loves your neighbors as you love yourselves: You have to go out and meet them.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth about becoming a congregation that loves your neighbors as you love yourselves: You have to go out and meet them. This works best when your church does two things: define who you’re called to love in a special way, and practice spiritual discipline.

Meet face-to-face

Israel Alvarado, and his wife, Michelle, go door-to-door to meet Spanish speakers living in the Godfrey-Lee neighborhood of Wyoming, a Michigan city hard-hit by factory closures. Israel pastors Iglesia Alas de Aguila (Eagle’s Wings Church). It’s a Reformed Church of America church plant that meets in Lee Street Christian Reformed Church.

“My wife met a woman who was really interested in learning about God and who invited us to keep coming back,” Alvarado says. He visited the woman for several years, sometimes for Bible study, which interested everyone in the family except the husband. When the husband’s father had a stroke, Alvarado visited the elderly man. “Before the second hospital visit, I filled myself with courage, and I was able to share the gospel with him. Don Centeno received Christ as his Lord and Savior that same day. Two weeks later he passed away to his new home in heaven,” the pastor says.

“If you come to our worship service, you will leave with two things in mind. One is that our God is great, and the second is that we are going to tell everyone about him. We intentionally encourage people to be involved in their community—volunteering, serving someone, doing anything we can to show the love of God to others,” he says.

Another family, the Zainoses, attended Alas de Aguila for two years before believing and getting baptized. They were friends with a family whose father had to go back to Mexico. “With Dad not around, the family faced a big financial crisis. The Zainoses showed them the love of Christ and invited them to our church. They connected with, and felt loved and taken care of by, our church people. The whole family surrendered their lives to the Lord.

“I always tell people the truth that we are citizens of heaven, and God does not make distinction of people. God does not see us as Mexican or American or anything else. He sees us as his sons and daughters or sinners that need to repent. Letting people know that we are one family of God makes people feel at peace and welcomed, because most of our people have left people behind in their home countries and are looking for a place to belong,” Alvarado says.

"People of peace"

On his blog Missional Made Simple, Alex Absalom uses the “people of peace” concept to help churches figure out to which group God is sending them to primarily serve and witness. Absalom is on the leadership team of RiverTree Christian Church, a multi-site congregation in Massillon, Ohio.

Luke 10:1-11 tells of Jesus sending out 72 disciples in pairs as advance teams before Jesus arrived in town. Jesus told them to look for “someone who promotes peace” (verse 6). Absalom explains that a person of peace is a gatekeeper who can introduce you to a “specific group of people who are not yet whole-hearted disciples of Jesus.” This group might be defined by neighborhood, network of relationships, or common interests.

“A person of peace is someone who welcomes you, receives you (and, unknowingly, Jesus in you), and serves you,” Absalom writes. Your mutual connection opens doorways into their network of relationships. God has gifted each missional community to reach different people of peace. Jesus promises, Absalom explains, that “if everyone plays their part, the whole field will be harvested!”

Just as the apostle Paul committed to become all things to all people for the sake of the gospel, your church’s people of peace will shape where and how you meet, socialize, and worship. It will influence how you pray and how you describe living in the joy, love, and spirit of Jesus.

Discipline as creating space

But with all you’ve already got going on at church and life in general, where do you find time to go out and find your people of peace?

This is where you pray for discipline. Discipline is not code language for control or adding yet another task. Instead, the word means "the effort to create some space in which God can act. Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up....[It] means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn't planned or counted on,” the late Henri Nouwen explained in his essay “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry.”

Living on disciplined mission for God leads to astonishing variety among churches.

Hundreds of cowboy and Western heritage churches are reaching working cowboys, rodeo pros, and people who don’t dare visit more traditional churches. Some services take place in barns or rodeo arenas, and worshipers sit on hay bales.

Pastor Phil Wyman wonders on his blog Square No More whether Christians are “willing to go anywhere to love people in the same way God does.” He lives in Salem, Massachusetts, also known as “Witch City,” which attracts 250,000 visitors for its month-long Haunted Happenings Festival. Wyman helped found an evangelical church called The Gathering at Salem to reach out locally to Halloween tourists and practicing pagans. Burning Man, a late-summer festival in the Nevada desert, is also a place where church members meet Jesus. 

In Huntsville, Texas, the main employer is the Texas Criminal Justice Department (TCJD). The town is home to TCJD headquarters, seven prisons, and the nation’s most active execution chamber. Pastor David Valentine realized that correctional officers were his city’s largest unreached people group. He founded Covenant Fellowship, a church that ministers to prison staff and offenders.

Common Ground Church Community near Youngstown, Ohio, meets in a former garden center. This Presbyterian church plant uses its greenhouses, gardens, and large property to bless people affected by hunger, poverty, and unemployment. The church website states, “We’re keeping our organizational structure as simple and streamlined as possible so that our people can spend more time with their families, neighbors, and community.”

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Learn More

  • Iglesia Alas de Aguila pastor Israel Alvarado is on the steering committee of One Wyoming in Michigan. This group of residents and church, school, business, and government people is partnering to “love every block in Wyoming.” One large community conversation revealed that many low-income Wyoming residents feel preyed upon by payday loan centers, which charge far higher interest rates than banks or credit card companies.
  • Gather a group to read and discuss Henri Nouwen’s essay “Moving from Solitude to Community to Ministry” and Alex Absalom’s blog posts about the people of peace mission strategy.
  • The average white worshipper is more likely to have a college degree than the average white person in the United States, according to the U.S. Congregational Life Survey. Sociologist W. Bradley Wilcox found that church attendance among U.S. black and Latino people is less divided by education and income (p. 3). This Pew Research Center study shows that compared to the U.S. as a whole, Asian Americans have more education and income, are more likely to be married, but are less likely to say that religion is very important in their lives.
  • Does your church boldly go where few Christians have gone? Explore why the church The Gathering at Salem reaches out to people interested in witchcraft, paganism, or explore the wildly creative annual Burning Man festival in Nevada.
  • Watch this three-minute video about congregations in the Nazarene Cowboy Church Network. Common Ground Church Community is an Earth Care Congregation committed to stewarding God’s earth. If your church shares similar values, then maybe that’s your bridge to people who don’t yet know God.
  • Read this profile of David Valentine’s ministry to correctional officers in Texas. Whether measured by numbers of inmates or percent of population, the U.S. leads the world in imprisoning people. It has more people locked up than Russia, Rwanda, or China do. Texas has the highest prison population in the U.S.
  • When your congregation reaches out to people not typically found in churches, then “us-them” lines will begin to blur—which creates new challenges. Mark Buchanan addresses this in his Christianity Today article “When Clean and Unclean Touch.”

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 to meet and show Christ’s love to your neighbors:

  • What simple changes could you make in worship so that worshipers take to heart and act on God’s call to go out, meet, and love neighbors?
  • In Luke 10, the account of the 72 disciples being sent out is followed by the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus says that showing mercy is essential to being a good neighbor. In what ways does your church follow Jesus’ command to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37)?

Share an example of conflict you experience between being involved at church and living as someone sent by God to particular neighbors. Pray together to know how God would like you to make space.