Having recently moved into an anonymous apartment complex so common around the country, my wife and I decided to invite all the people in our building over for Sunday lunch. They didn't know each other, we didn't know them, and we had no idea how it would be received. But most of them came. In fact, they stayed for four hours. And before long we were making up a list of our birthdays to exchange with one another, at their suggestion.
When we moved into the complex, we thought a lot about “how hard it is to meet your neighbors.” And when we discussed the idea of a get-together with the few people we knew in our building, they also commented that it is “tough to have community in the suburbs.” But we were all wrong. It is not difficult to get to know your neighbors—it is simply not something most of us value.
The result is a culture of seclusion, and that culture strains our society in a surprising number of ways. Christians stand a better chance of changing the social landscape than anyone else. In fact, this societal problem presents us with the opportunity to confront that most elusive of all evangelical goals: to serve Christ and our neighbors in the surrounding culture at the same time.
A New Social Experience
The current American social predicament has a background, but it is not the one you might expect. In contrast to the emotionally charged way in which the story is often told, at no point in history did someone sit down with the sinister plan of designing a way of living that would make getting to know your neighbors seem difficult. The background of our culture of seclusion is much more mundane and predictable. Humans have always sought their own personal interests and enjoyment to the exclusion of other factors, but that goal has often necessitated community. It has only comparatively recently become possible to enjoy the music from the seclusion of your home. As recently as my grandfather's adolescence, the best place to get the latest news was on the town square. These technological changes have affected the social experience forever.
Add to such technological changes the privileges of economic development. Though the average American family is shrinking, the average new American house has grown from an average of 1,400 square feet to an average of 2,400 square feet in the last 30 years. Our homes and apartment buildings give us plenty of space in which to hide.
Though our problems have benign beginnings, the last few decades have given us enough data to know that these trends cost us more than might be apparent at first glance.
The Cost to Society
Last year, Californians were shocked when it was discovered that a registered sex offender had held a woman and her two children hostage in his suburban backyard for 19 years undetected. The neighbors, when interviewed, mentioned that it was none of their business why the man had tents and sheds there. In all the years that he had lived there, no one had troubled themselves to have the kind of social interaction that might have ended the tragedy.
Our seclusion also exacerbates the psychological strain on our mobile population. College students, unmarried adults, and any other “single member households” often find no support net for tragedies, depression, or even major life decisions except from their peers. Consider the cost of all the poor choices, days spent in solitude, and lost work hours of that lack of support on the country. In response, it is noteworthy that there has been a shift toward “hyper-locality” in many city centers, a penchant for buying local and having pride in the merits of one's own borough. But even where such an emphasis and awareness of the neighborhood has slightly altered our consumer patterns, the change doesn't go much further.
I do not intend to suggest that the status quo was better or more encouraging at any time in the recent past. It is rather to suggest that a tolerably deficient situation has now become categorically intolerable. And whether you are a Christian or not, this societal problem almost certainly touches your life and the lives of the people you love.
Knowing Your Neighbor, Loving Your Neighbor
The weight that this problem puts on those around us itself justifies action. If only to put an end to its depressing and alienating ways, Christians ought to take this on as a project. You cannot love your neighbor if you do not know that neighbor. Time spent with neighbors that does not result in conversions, does not result in spiritual conversation, or does not result in any greater appreciation of the work of Christ, is not a net loss. Let us be resolved to undertake this kind of work confident that it is a legitimate end unto itself, that our culture deserves our attention, and that God will call us to account for the time spent serving neighbors.
Given those realities, I would like to make a radical suggestion. The suggestion is not that knowing the neighbors should be important to Christians. The radical thesis I would like to present is: actually get it on your calendar for next month, and make that a habit.
To help you do that, let us conclude with a few tried and tested practical suggestions.
1.) Invite everyone. That is, invite a large group of people, either your whole apartment building or your whole block. This will avoid the impression that you want to build a clique. It gives you a much higher chance for success. And it usually just makes the evening much more enjoyable.
2.) Spend money on nice flyers or invitations. For our first get-together, I spent a few hours with InDesign and made full-color flyers that had a picture of a tasteful dinner scene and the words, “We think it's too bad we've never met all our neighbors.” People want to know your intentions, and they like to be invited to nice events. Do them the honor. It makes a difference.
3.) Plan the get together for a Sunday. This is not an absolute, but few people have major commitments on a Sunday at 1:30 p.m., which means more can come and fewer have to rush off. Try to plan ahead by at least three weeks.
4.) Learn how to actively listen before you invite friends and neighbors over. Not only will you not have to prepare “entertainment” for these people, but if you are truly interested in who they are and don't squash conversation as it happens, the entertainment will take care of itself.
5.) Involve any of the other neighbors you can (potluck, progressive dinner). This helps ensure that they show up, and it also means they will feel more invested. Hopefully it will keep them from thinking you are trying to be some kind of social control freak.
6.) Be transparent about your faith. When we first met with our neighbors, many were excited that we'd taken such a bold step. In that moment, I simply said: “This is something Christians value.” And in that one sentence, I had made my faith known and given all credit for something which the people openly liked about us to Christianity. Plain-spoken honesty is the best, and most effective, way to live with your neighbors.
You cannot love your neighbors if you don't know them. Get it on the calendar and have fun.