By Brian Mavis
“From the city’s perspective, there is not a lot of difference between the way Christians neighbor and non-Christians neighbor.” The assistant city manager of Arvada, Colorado, made that statement to a group of church leaders. It left them embarrassed and convicted. But it wasn’t the first time they had heard something like that from a city leader.
A month earlier a group of church leaders was meeting with Bob Frie, the mayor of Arvada. He explained that even though Arvada (population 106,000) is a great city, it has many problems typical of a city its size—delinquency, elderly shut-ins, gangs, teen pregnancies, food insecurity, addictions, etc. Frie then shared his hope of leading a city in which no one fell through the cracks. He pondered the problem a bit and said, “Basically, nearly all our problems would be solved if we would just become a city of good neighbors.”
Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak were at both of those meetings. After the meeting with the mayor, Pathak asked the group of pastors, “Did the mayor just tell us, ‘Do you think you could just get your people to obey the Great Commandment?’” Runyon said that, in essence, the city leaders were telling the church leaders, “You can help the city best by teaching people to do what Jesus said was most important.”
Jesus said what mattered most was to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10:27). The apostle Paul put it this way in his letter to the Romans: “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).
So the Great Commandment may also be the “great strategy.” But one problem with commandment/strategy is that it seems too simple. “Love God?” Yep—I go to church, believe in Jesus, and got baptized. Check. Check. Check. “Love my neighbors?” Sure—I wave to them when I pull into my garage, loaned one an egg once, and I pick up my dog’s poop when he goes in their yard. Check. Check. Check. Now what? I’m ready for some deep theology.
Loving your neighbor may be simple, but it isn’t easy and it isn’t fast. A key to starting well and persevering in loving your neighbor is found in the text, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Because you love yourself, you know your name. Do you know your neighbors’ names?1 Because you love yourself, your personal history is meaningful to you. Do you know your neighbors’ histories? Because you love yourself, you appreciate your hopes and your hurts. Do you know your neighbors’ hopes and hurts?
In order to help answer those questions (and to help us see how poorly we love our neighbors), Pathak and Runyon came up with a simple tool to visualize our neighbors and their situations. They refer to this tool by a tongue-in-cheek name: the “Sheet of Shame.” It is essentially a tic-tac-toe grid. The middle grid represents your home, and the surrounding eight boxes represent your geographically nearest neighbors, no matter if you live in the country or in an apartment.
Here are the instructions (don’t get help from a spouse or child):
1. Write the names of everyone who lives in each household.
2. Write something factual about each person (e.g., where they grew up, what college they went to, where they work, etc.)
3. Write something meaningful about each person (e.g., he wants to start a bakery business, she is a cancer survivor, etc.)
So how did you do? Do you see why it’s nicknamed the “Sheet of Shame?” The point is not to shame us, but to help us see how much better we could love our literal neighbors. Now imagine if every Christian in your church took this challenge to know his and her neighbors’ names, histories, hopes, and hurts.
What would happen if millions of Christians proactively loved their neighbors as they loved themselves? How would the Spirit move if millions of Christians were praying for their neighbors on a daily basis? What kinds of conversations would ensue if millions of Christians were regularly inviting their neighbors over for meals? What would happen if Christians had the reputation of being the best neighbors you could have?
I believe over the next decade and beyond, we may start to see some of these questions answered as more and more churches focus on helping their people love their literal neighbors. Additionally, more churches will want to be known as neighborhood churches, and they will staff and structure their churches to support a neighborhood pastor model. And maybe 10 to 20 years from now, city leaders will begin to say, “There is a lot of difference between the way Christians neighbor and non-Christians neighbor, and look how it has transformed our community.”
1Twenty-eight percent of American adults don’t know the name of even one neighbor, according to a 2010 survey conducted by Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
Brian Mavis is executive director of the Externally Focused Network. He also serves as the community transformation minister at LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.