Being a Neighbor Means Being a Missionary

It was a beautiful spring afternoon, and I was taking the short walk to pick up my kids from school. Parents who walk the same route every day to scoop up their kids walked hurriedly by with their heads down. No hello, not even the customary head nod, just the classic American silent treatment.

Our family was in the throes of grief from the sudden and tragic loss of my mother-in-law. My wife’s closest mentor, a grandma, an anchor in our community, and the best mother-in-law a guy could imagine had been ripped away from us during the joy and frenzy of Thanksgiving. I recognized in my neighbors that day the same pain we were feeling. I saw parents and neighbors who were broken and hurting, isolated, never navigating past the surface with the people around them. They were physically present but emotionally distant. They were half-decent players in the pretending game.

The neighborhood itself reflected this emotional distance.

Front porches were empty; garages were closed. Something was strangely wrong about the whole thing—but also strangely normal. Our neighborhood was lacking neighborliness. Someone needed to introduce connection into the equation.

Missionary Lenses

That day God gave me missionary lenses, and I started to see the cracks: cracks in my neighborhood, cracks in my current relationships, even cracks in my city.

If you’ve ever seen an optometrist, you know adjusting to clear vision isn’t an easy task. Seeing things you’ve not seen before, seeing a little too clearly, can give you a headache. I started to imagine how our neighbors longed to see these cracks filled. As I combed Scripture the next few weeks, I was reminded that the gospel can fill all of the cracks in my neighborhood. The broken people in our neighborhood weren’t waiting for a government program; they were waiting for relationships. These hurting people, so uncomfortably close to us, weren’t looking for handouts; they were looking for hope. We realized it was no accident God had placed us in our home. He had planted us there—not as tenants, but as missionaries.

Now, all I had to do was do something.

List of Excuses

I don’t mean to brag, but as a pastor and a neighbor I am extremely gifted at finding excuses. I pulled out all the best ones:

“We won’t live in this house very long.”

“They won’t live here very long.”

“They’ll think we’re weird.”

“We have nothing in common.”

“I don’t have time to add one more thing.”

“They don’t have time to hang with us.”

“I will scare them off when I talk about Jesus.”

And my favorite: “Everyone in the world is my neighbor. Why should I focus on my actual neighbor?”

I couldn’t possibly spend the precious effort to love those right in front of my face.

Perhaps you’re a master of such excuses too. Where do they come from? Mine were motivated by three things: fear of failure, a life that was far too busy, and a consumeristic view of the place I occupied.

Intentional Living

By God’s grace, my wife and I began offering our lives to our neighbors, beyond the incidental encounters while taking out the trash or picking up our kids from school. Today our parties are different. Our days off are different. Those we call friends are different. How we measure ministry is different. Our lives are different. Our family is different.

The journey into the heart of our neighborhood has been exhilarating and routine. Both have been gifts from God. My fears of failure tug at me less now than they did at the beginning. My aversion to “wasting time in the neighborhood” still rears its ugly head sometimes, but more often I see my neighborhood as a valuable space.

I’ve led a lot of mission trips, planned a lot of events, and led a lot of ministries, but I’ve never experienced anything like this. I’ve had many chances to involve my kids in sharing our lives and our stuff with others. I’ve never experienced this many “holy interruptions” that yielded spiritual fruit. Prior to this paradigm shift, my heart had never truly broken for people—neighbors and longtime friends alike—who don’t know Jesus. Previously I grabbed ministry opportunities, but now I can say ministry opportunities are grabbing me. More importantly, Jesus has gently grabbed me in a way I’ve never experienced.

Since God opened our eyes to our neighborhood, our family has walked with our neighbors through death and depression, shed tears and belly-laughed with school parents, and become friends with those we have next to nothing in common with. We have given gifts and received them. We have celebrated birthdays and enjoyed neighborhood game nights. For the first time I am not drawn to living in another city, moving to another neighborhood across our city, or drifting away from those I’m in relationship with. For the first time my wife and I can say, “We want to stay!”

I wish it hadn’t taken this long for our home to become a hub for ministry instead of a refuge from ministry. It’s been a spiritual road trip, and we didn’t arrive here suddenly. We’ve put gospel ministry to a test I’ve always wanted to take: If we live our lives for Jesus—simply, right where we are—will we taste salty and give off a glow? Growing roots has been, in some ways, a massive risk, but this is a vision I can’t walk away from. I am voluntarily stuck. I want to refine the art of staying, of “dwelling well,” as my family gives glimpses of Jesus to a city, a neighborhood, and a group of friends who want hope running through their veins again.