Being a good neighbor, or—to express it more biblically—“loving my neighbor” has taken on new meaning for me of late. Like Christians throughout Church history, I have long understood that Jesus defines “neighbor” as anyone that comes across our path with whatever burden they may be bearing at that moment (Luke 10:25-37). The parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that you don’t have to live in a neighborhood to have neighbors; or to be one. You just need to know some people carrying burdens and be willing to bear those burdens with them (Gal. 6:2).
But there is further intrigue when one does, in fact, live in a neighborhood, as I now do. According to one report, there are about 100,000 people living within 10 square miles of my home. For the first time in my life I have neighbors up close and personal. Jason and Denise live only a very narrow driveway away, and Steve shares a wall with us. Seven families live within 75-100 feet of our front door. I estimate that there are around 90 families in our church, with about 70 of them within three miles of my living room. That’s life in a neighborhood—or perhaps more accurately, life in several neighborhoods woven together tightly in the varicolored and cultured tapestry that Philadelphia urban suburb life is.
Letting Neighbor Define Mission
So what do you do when you set out to start a church in a neighborhood? Rest assured that I ask that question much more than I answer it. I would be arrogant to assume that my “impressive” four years’ experience as an urban suburb church-planter qualifies me to have many answers worth sharing. I know a dozen veteran pastors within 4-5 miles of here who are the real experts. I’m a rookie, praying desperately for God to do what only he can, and to keep me from a thousand disastrous mistakes that would blow this whole thing up.
However, I will offer one idea. One thing God did lead us to see early on was that the gift of welcome would be an excellent place to start. So, to etch that into our collective congregational psyche, our church crafted a mission statement: “Worshiping God and welcoming all with gospel truth and neighbor love.” This wasn’t a cheap attempt at a clever tag line; it was a sober effort to capture the heart of Christian mission, in a neighborhood desperately in need of Christ.
We are here to worship the Living Triune God; adoring the Father through the Son by the Spirit. We are here to welcome all; repentant and believing sinners of every shape and shade and size (and even those who do not yet believe). We are here to worship and welcome with gospel Truth—the gospel that offers God’s free justifying mercy by grace alone through faith alone because of the atoning death, perfect righteousness, and glorious resurrection of Christ alone. And we are here to worship God and welcome all with neighbor love—authentic sacrificial serving impartial laying-our-life-down-for-others love.
One Expression of Neighbor Love
The nature of this mission has only grown more complex. We learned early on that there are 85 languages spoken in our local high school, and that they quickly began to show up in our church. Risen Hope is now a church of 25-30 ethnicities. Jamaican, Haitian, Brazilian, Spanish, Honduran, Irish, Italian, Cherokee, Chinese, Nigerian, Puerto Rican, Ukrainian, English, Scottish, African-American, Ugandan, Indian, Jewish, French, German, Portuguese, and more. This multi-cultural church experience—producing a half Caucasian and half people-of-color blend—makes neighbor love all the more complicated and urgent for us. Not to mention: beautiful.
But where does neighbor love begin in a church community like ours? How do we move a bit closer to being a church that is far less divided into “them” and “us” and far more united as a simple, heart-felt “we”? In addition, how do we reach people in our community? How do we reach the Muslim family from Morocco, and another from Sierra Leone; both of whom Gayline and I have befriended? What about the Catholic family next door, the liberal “Mainline denominations” couple two doors down, the two African-American families kitty-cornered from us, and the co-habiting millennials straight across from our front door.
I have no new answers. But I do have a very old one: one practiced since the dawn of time. The ancient practice of hospitality cannot be improved upon as a starting and continuing point for neighbor love. We need open hearts and open homes. Few practices are more healing, more enriching, more expanding to human relationships, more destructive to existing walls of division and distrust than a shared meal around a table of grace.
It was with this in mind that I issued our congregation this challenge early on:
- Let us sit on our visible front porches instead of in our fenced-in back yards.
- Let us open our homes to one another and share our food—eating the bread of fellowship and drinking the wine of grace—while lingering and listening in a labor to learn.
- Let us greet one another—no matter what our color or culture—with the brother’s hand and the sister’s kiss.
- Let us bless each other with welcoming and benediction grace—offering grace and peace to all; both as we greet them, and as we say our goodbyes.
- Let us—as those who have been welcomed freely into the Father’s house—welcome every shade of humanity into our own homes with willing hearts, open minds, and honest intent.
- Let us mingle tears and laughter; synchronizing our hearts with one another’s sorrows and joys.
- Let us sit and stay—until darkness gives way to light, ignorance is swallowed up by understanding, distrust yields to hope, and all of us who believe become what we are: one in Christ.
- Let us strengthen and establish peace in the church—with all our variegated and multi-colored diversity.
- Let us, in our homes and as the church, be a safe place, a true haven, a spiritual home where differences in Christ are not merely tolerated but are celebrated; where diversity is not merely permitted, but pursued; where disagreements are not avoided in fear, but are discussed and understood in faith. This make us all the better, all the stronger, and all the more whole in our humanity, effective in our mission, and Christ-like in our love.
- Let us offer gospel truth and neighbor love—humanized and personalized for all who are traumatized and marginalized—to win their faith and woo their hearts into the love of God.
- And let us all, with peace in our spirits, love in our hearts, unity in our marrow, endurance in our souls, and steel in our spines, lead the way into our communities and world to show all men that this is how those who belong to Jesus live and love (John 13:33, 34).
I am not naïve. In fact, I hesitate to offer even this simple hospitality recommendation because I know how often Christians romanticize the difficult and fail to count the cost. “Let’s do hospitality!” can have a nice warm ring to it, until it runs up against the press of time, and the stress of cultural differences; never mind biases and bigotries. But there is no other way forward.
Our Fifth Hour of Trial in Four Years
We recently had our fifth acute hour of trial in our church’s brief four-year history. Five young
men (between 39 and 52) have passed away; leaving behind five widows and more than 15
fatherless children. These dear brothers and families have represented various ethnicities
which means that hundreds of diverse people—including many unbelievers—have joined our
Risen Hope family in these seasons of grief.
For this reason, I have had to study how Jamaicans, urban blacks, white Europeans, and various
other ethnic-cultural believers mourn. There are differences—and they are deeply felt and held
and esteemed. But one thing is the same and is needed. All must feel welcomed, honored,
cherished, and comfortable enough to mourn and be comforted, together; a form of hospitality
in the shadow of grief.
So imagine my joy and gratitude as in all these settings I have seen my Risen Hope family
extending sincere welcoming love toward all; and embracing styles and expressions of grief,
new to their experience, that others might find their way through the valley with them. And
imagine my joy as people from far and wide have approached me with words like: “Thank you
for your church’s welcome. Thank you for receiving and including all of us into the fellowship of
grief. I have never seen or experienced anything like it.” That is as is it should be, though it
shouldn’t be so rare: everybody welcomed with gospel truth and neighbor love. And not just in
the hour of bereavement, but in every season of life.
We have only just begun, and there is far more that we do not know than what we do. But I am
convinced that a heart of welcome at home and church has been a very good place for us to
start. And I am convinced that what is needed in our day in the broader Christian world is not a
new formula or five-step church planting model. What is needed is gospel truth wrapped in
hospitable neighbor love.