When one of my neighbors cursed me out—in front of my kids—for not shoveling the driveway to his liking, the idea that I ought to love him seemed absurd. But then I remembered: the command to love my neighbor is not rooted in the loveliness of my neighbor. Christ’s command is shockingly unqualified (Matt. 22:39).
It’s hard enough to love our neighbors when they’re kind and civil. Real neighbor love requires sacrifice: whether of personal time, convenience, or comfort—three intangibles deified in our secular age where the self reigns supreme.
Because of our personal bent toward self-love—reinforced by the accompanying cultural pressure—genuine love of neighbor is all the more crucial and countercultural. And more importantly, this is an essential and indisputable mark of biblical Christianity (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:34–40).
The practice of loving our neighbors can be beautifully varied—caring for the sick, showing hospitality, volunteering to serve the city, providing for the needy, and more. There’s no one-size-fits-all for practicing neighbor love. In fact, our various contexts should give rise to various forms.
But I want to suggest one significant, surprising way we can love our neighbors: church planting.
Particular People and Place
Consider the nature of this endeavor: A church plant entails gathering, equipping, and unleashing a motivated group of believers, prayerfully and strategically, who will root themselves in a specific community to invest, preach, love, and serve.
When a church is planted, God’s people—empowered by the Spirit and commissioned by the risen Christ—are enabled to minister among particular people in a particular place. Just as our gospel proclamation is contextualized in church planting, so too is our gospel demonstration—the way we love our neighbors in accordance with their needs. Church planting, then, is uniquely fertile ground for the practice of neighbor love.
Planting churches empowers common and creative forms of neighbor love while adding a unique ingredient to it: longevity. Most of my individual attempts at loving my neighbors have been flashes in the pan. But neighbor love that’s short-lived in the hands of an individual can become long-lasting in the hands of a community. Something, say, like a church plant.
Neighbor love that’s short-lived in the hands of an individual can become long-lasting in the hands of a community. Something, say, like a church plant.
I was recently reminded of church planting’s unique capacity as a vehicle for neighbor love when I learned of a local family who planted a church in South Memphis—an extremely underserved and impoverished area. Alongside their labors in discipleship and preaching, this small church plant is loving their neighbors by running literacy classes for kids from the block—something they’ve now been doing for nearly a decade.
When we interpret and practice neighbor love through a corporate lens—in addition to our default individual lens—then genuine, long-term love that honors and displays Christ is within our reach.
Wisdom and Integration
Of course, it’s possible to plant a church with minimal emphasis on loving your neighbors. It’s also possible to plant a church that displaces the same neighbors you hoped to love.
Therefore, this work requires more than good intentions; it demands hard-won wisdom. At the very least, a plant that loves its neighbors well will be a plant that prays regularly and vigorously.
Further, planting a church requires theological precision and integration. Augustine famously explained two key principles for interpreting Scripture:
Anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine Scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them.
Just as our understanding of Scripture can be evaluated by whether it leads to the double love of God and neighbor, so too the faithfulness of our church-planting efforts can be evaluated by whether they lead to the double duty of the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.
Word and Deed
Church planting that doesn’t lead to loving our neighbors in word and deed does not wholly grasp its God-given purpose. But this also means church planting that sees the Great Commandment as an inseparable sibling (not a distracting rival) to the Great Commission will be uniquely poised to proactively love in word and deed.
I’m reminded of several New England church plants that have each partnered with a local school, directing their members to volunteer as tutors, and supporting the staff with gift cards and supplies.
Church planting that doesn’t lead to loving our neighbors in word and deed does not wholly grasp its God-given purpose.
I think of my former church plant that partnered with two other plants to create a coalition to meet the physical needs of immigrant students arriving to local schools with no shelter, no food, and no relatives.
While these might seem like lofty initiatives, they are both less complicated than they sound and more effective than they may seem. And they all started with ordinary church plants embracing the privilege and the command—from Jesus—to love their neighbors as themselves.