In 2017 on a return flight from Orlando back to Ohio, I sat quietly contemplating one main question posed at the Exponential conference I had just attended. And that question was, “What if when Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself, he meant your actual neighbor?” I’m certain there were many other great ideas and points presented at the conference that year. I don’t even recall who said it. Yet I remember this sense of conviction in my heart over it.
I had moved to a rural southeast Ohio town of 6,000 people in 2012 to work as a Family Life Minister. My life was filled with church activities with church people. Every day I’d drive the two-mile township road from my home out in the country to the highway that led to the church building. I’d pass home after home not knowing who lived around me. Yes, I knew some of my immediate neighbors. After living there for three years, I discovered that one of my neighbors I lived in eyeshot of actually attended our church. But outside of that, I didn’t know anyone else. So, as I sat on that plane, I wondered, “How can I love someone that I don’t even know?” I asked God to show me how.
My wife and I spent some time praying over this concept that spring. We landed on the idea of simply inviting the neighbors up and down our road to a “Neighbor Night Cookout.” We own three acres and have a fire pit, so we felt that this might be a simple way of connecting with them. I made up some cheesy flyers telling people to just bring a lawn chair; we’d provide the food and drinks and there’d be some games for the kids and a playset. Then came the hard and awkward part: delivering these flyers door to door. I got a variety of responses. Some thought I was selling something. Others thought I was a Jehovah’s Witness. And a couple thought it was a nice idea.
“Then came the hard and awkward part: delivering these flyers door to door.”
We really didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know if hardly anyone would come. Even in rural America, people tend to be more cut off from each other than in decades past. The front porch, the backyard, and the driveway used to be a place of community gathering and sharing life. We as a society have little time for those things anymore. We pull into our garages and shut out the outside world. So, what could we expect our neighbors to do when invited to a complete stranger’s home who was offering hot dogs? We even invited a couple extra of our close friends to join us just in the event that only one family showed up! To say that we lacked faith would be an understatement.
Yet God was faithful. That night, in addition to our “planted friends,” 22 of our neighbors pulled into our driveway! We had a wonderful evening eating together, playing some yard games with their kids, and getting to know one another. Some of these neighbors had lived within a quarter mile of each other for over 30 years and had never met. There was a mixture of both younger and older families, and it was beautiful to see them interact with one another. We laughed, shared stories of the happenings on our road, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. The resounding questions by the end of the night was, “When are we going to do this again?!” and, “Next time can we all bring some food to help out?”
“The resounding questions by the end of the night was, ‘When are we going to do this again?!'”
Did anyone get baptized into Christ that night? No. Did I invite anyone to my church? I did not. That would come later. For now, my wife and I were grateful that God had enabled us to meet some more of our neighbors and begin this journey. We now had 22 more people to show the love of Christ to. That number would grow over the next five years and so would the opportunities to bless the road we were placed on. We not only would laugh together as a neighborhood, but we would also cry amidst loss and tragedy. Throughout this short series of articles, I’ll unpack more of those stories and lessons learned.
In addition to the Great Commission, one of the last things Jesus says to his disciples in his earthly ministry can be found in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” If we follow the narrative of Acts, we can see this being played out. The disciples started where they were in Jerusalem. God did amazing things, and thousands came to faith in Jesus. But for many years, the disciples still had not yet ventured outside of Jerusalem. In fact it took a persecution for them to take the gospel to Judea and Samaria and then to the ends of the earth.
“The disciples started where they were in Jerusalem.”
In today’s culture and within the church, we seem to have chosen the opposite course. We want to start sharing our faith and making disciples at the ends of the earth. It seems many people’s first introduction to evangelism happens in a foreign or domestic mission field. Some will join their church’s efforts to reach out to “Judea and Samaria”—the community and surrounding area. Yet so often we ignore the Jerusalem right in front of us: our neighborhood. Yes, we need to be reaching out to the ends of the earth as well as Judea and Samaria, but perhaps we have skipped the first step: starting where we live.
Is it possible that God, who is omniscient and omnipresent, could have had the forethought to place you in the neighborhood you ended up in? Maybe you were sent there to join in on what God is already doing. Your job isn’t to save the neighborhood but to love them like the Savior would.
“And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. ’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31)
Love God. Love your neighbors. And maybe that includes your actual neighbors.