My family moved to a new neighborhood last year, and we wanted to be intentional about building relationships with our neighbors.
But this doesn't come naturally for us. For one thing, my wife and I are both introverts. Also, having a young baby (and another on the way) makes it easier to be "internally focused" than externally focused. And this new house - our first - brought plenty of projects that could keep us focused inside our doors.
But we made up our minds: We were going to connect with our neighbors. And even though we're early in the process (and we still need to grow in this area), I thought I'd share a few things we've learned so far.
So whether you still need to meet your neighbors or are thinking about going deeper by sharing a meal, sharing your service, or sharing the gospel, I hope these principles encourage you.
1. Don't wait until you feel like it.
The first step was deciding that we were going to get to know our neighbors. We even set a deadline: Christmas.
But unplanned opportunities started popping up right away. Flowers got misdelivered to our house... so we spent thirty minutes tracking down the rightful owners (across the street). A surprise thunderstorm hit a neighbor's garage sale... so I got to sprint to his house and help him stow his stuff. Another neighbor casually mentioned that his wife had moved out, and I had to decide if I'd "meddle" by asking him about it. And of course, we've run into our neighbors many times as they work or play outside (but rarely when it's completely convenient to have a conversation!).
The point is, my wife and I haven't always felt like connecting with neighbors in those moments (just like Prov. 3:27-28 describes).
Some Christians consider it "hypocritical" or "inauthentic" to be hospitable or generous or outgoing when they "don't feel like it." But that's simply not true - we're following our deepest desires at the expense of our fleeting or less-important ones. In this case, having conversations or reaching out reflects our true desire to build relationships with our neighbors - nothing inauthentic about that!
2. Geography matters, but opportunity matters more.
My wife and I began our efforts by focusing on our block. And that makes logical and even spiritual sense: God has placed us here (instead of anywhere else), and we're more likely to have future opportunities nearby.
But I'm learning that the opportunities God brings are more important than any man-made divisions (drawn 60+ years ago when our neighborhood streets were established). We've providentially encountered the gay couple next door many times - but the family on the other side has kept to themselves, and the nearby coach's family and boyfriend/girlfriend household are moving away soon. We've gotten to know a couple of Watermark families - one on our block, but another a few streets over. And at National Night Out in the fall, we attended the neighborhood party - even though that meant meeting people well beyond our block (and our comfort zones).
It would be wrong to focus more on geography than on the opportunities God is bringing (like Paul in I Cor. 16:8-9). And He's bringing opportunities! For instance, one morning I ran into a neighbor for the very first time (as I was leaving for work), so I paused to introduce myself. It was that very afternoon the freak thunderstorm (mentioned above) rolled in. Because my neighbor knew who I was, it wasn't (too) weird for me to run, soaking, into his yard to help rescue his belongings.
Because I'd taken the first opportunity, I was in a position for more opportunity.
3. Decision is more important than precision.
Like I said, we gave ourselves a Christmastime deadline to pursue the rest of our block-mates. So we baked a big batch of cookies and bundled up our baby. We worked door-by-door and achieved many name exchanges and neat conversations!
But several neighbors weren't home that afternoon. So we planned for a second round, but Christmastime got busy... weather didn't cooperate... cookies went stale. Did our plans "make sense" anymore? Would we postpone our efforts (indefinitely)? Or would we push ourselves to accomplish our goal?
We made a new batch and called them New Year's cookies! We met quite a few more neighbors this way (and did leave a few bags on mailboxes, with a hello note). Meeting our neighbors was more important than being "precise" about perfect timing or un-wasted cookies or perfect weather.
Let me be clear: We're not awesome at this, and I'm sure we've missed opportunities we should have taken. But we're learning and growing. So wherever you happen to be in the journey of "engaging missionally" with your neighbors, I hope these three principles will help you push forward!
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Photo Credit: StevenM_61 Flickr via Compfightcc