The Truth About Loving Our Neighbors

Our story of being judged irrelevant to our city.

Twelve years ago I received a disturbing slap in the face: The church I had just come to lead in Cypress, California, was seen as so insignificant, our city actually wanted us to move.

It happened as the strip mall next to us was sold to a developer. One evening, at the initiative of our city’s mayor, a few of our elders and I met with the mayor and developer, for what I thought was a “let’s create a good neighbor relationship” meeting.

The meeting started off with the normal greetings. But then the mayor, with a glance toward the developer, asked if we would be open to moving.

A bit taken aback, I asked why. The developer rolled out plans for more houses where our church was currently located, then went into a full-court press with an offer to buy our property. The mayor added that they would help us find a new location.

Here is where the slap of reality hit: Every suggested location was outside Cypress!

Will the community miss our church if we move away? Will our neighbors even notice?

When I asked if there might be a location inside our city; I was hit with another blow: “We already have enough churches.”

So, it was finally clear: We as a church were seen as expendable, irrelevant, more of a liability than an asset. The new residents and taxes from their houses were more important.

A bit numb, we explained that any action would take a church vote and therefore we needed some time. Seeing our shock, they assured us they would work with us.

After that meeting I looked around at our church’s ministry and even its history. The sad reality was that we had become self-focused rather than loving our neighbors. A good number of members did not have unbelieving or un-churched friends and were kept so busy with church events they had no time even to learn neighbors’ names.

So, yes, we as a church (and, it seemed, the Jesus we served) had become irrelevant.

Are you my neighbor?

As churches and as Christians we are called to love God and to be active in loving our neighbors (Matthew 22:36-40). The definition of neighbor is revealed in the story of the Good Samaritan: the one who needs mercy (Luke 10:29-37). Christ-followers are called to a life of love that glorifies the Lord, builds God’s kingdom, and blesses those neighbors and neighborhoods receiving the kindness.

Love God and love people—that sums up the coaching of God’s law (Galatians 3:24) and the guidance of God’s prophets (2 Peter 1:21).

Each year, members of Cypress Church provide and serve a Thanksgiving meal to the homeless in downtown Los Angeles. In the photo at top, Cypress Church joins with The Compton Project, where teams paint houses and beautify the city of Compton (the homeowner is at center, in pink). All photos courtesy Cypress Church

After that pivotal meeting with the mayor, all of us at Cypress Church were afraid to ask: Will the community miss our church if we move away? Will our neighbors even notice? What have we done to contribute to the social cohesion of our community?

Sociologists use the term social cohesion to describe “the extent of connectedness and solidarity among groups in a society.”1 The entire Bible promotes social cohesion (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, Romans 12:10, Galatians 6:2, Ephesians 4:32, 1 Peter 3:8-9). Social cohesion is also encouraged in God’s very act of calling together a diverse people from all backgrounds, mindsets, interests, races and locations, uniting them into one nation (Ephesians 2:19-21, 1 Peter 2:9-10) and one faith-based family (John 1:12-13, Ephesians 1:3-5).

In their book Comeback Churches, authors Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson believe that many local churches and individual disciples have instead contributed to a loss of social cohesion, because they “have lost the passion for making disciples.”

When I asked if there was a location in our city; I was hit with a blow: “We already have enough churches.”

When Christian communities become more like a cruise ship than a Mercy medical ship, then the Church is disregarded as an authority or as a contributor to society.

Instead, actively loving and serving others keeps at bay our narcissistic, sin-filled tendencies and keeps our heart tendered to lost souls. “The most effective comeback churches,” Stetzer and Dodson add, “will be those that intentionally think like missionaries in their context” and seek to love their neighbors as Jesus commanded.

Turning this ship around

Indeed, our church had become self-serving. Yet God gave us a strategy to build social capital—helping us better love like Jesus. We have a long way to go, but over these past 12 years since that initial, shocking meeting, our community has come to know that we care; they count on us to help make our city a fun place to live, work and play.2

We have been formally recognized by our city council for our involvement and contributions. Our local elementary schools brag about us opening our facility for school performances and promotions. Our local police and fire are grateful to use our facility for maneuvers and meetings. We were even asked (along with the local Catholic priest, who is becoming a good friend) to host the mayor’s prayer breakfast.

In addition, we have had the privilege of serving our community through feeding the homeless, rescuing families in crisis, cleaning up parks and supporting city initiatives.

On an individual level, our church members are taking the initiative to learn people’s names, become better friends and serve where they can. These acts of kindness have opened up conversations—many about God—and even have turned into visits to the church, though the goal of these actions is following Jesus’ command to love, not getting people to attend something or hear a pitch. We are being used of God to help build social cohesion.

Five ways to love our neighbors

Here’s how the Lord taught us to move both organizationally and individually from a place of obscurity to where we are key contributing members:

1. Communicate the call to love

In our preaching and teaching we highlight Jesus’ words about loving others, and we work community service into our programing.

One Sunday, after a brief worship service, we hung a sign on the church, “Gone Serving,” and engaged in a variety of projects around the community. We also created space in our lives by not hosting a big musical Christmas program. Instead, we encouraged church members to host their own neighborhood Christmas parties. After one such party, a church member received a touching thank-you note. Her guest shared that she’d been ready to give up on humanity and could not believe that a stranger would invite her into their home. “You saved my life,” the guest added.

In 2008, when Cypress Church closed down for a Sunday, they cleaned yards and parks, and served a meal for people living in local motels.

2. Pray

In their book The Neighboring Church, Brian Mavis and Rick Rusaw speak of how prayer opens “a window, a space in your brain” that God can use to tenderize our hearts toward others (Matthew 9:36, 14:14, 20:34).

We have initiated prayer walks—praying for the good of the city and for people to see Jesus’ love. We print weekly prayer requests for our local schools, as well as for the fire and police departments. We take city officials out to coffee, asking them what needs they observe and what issues the council is working on, so we can pray. God desires us to pray for the welfare of the city (Jeremiah 29:7).

3. Study our city and our neighbors

We took time to interpret demographic data about Cypress, and to talk with city officials and leaders. In an interview with our city’s school district superintendent, I learned valuable information about a unique tension in our city. This knowledge led us to pray and seek how we as a church could help.

And we couldn’t overlook getting to know people individually. We had to create enough margin in our lives to walk over and introduce ourselves to those around us. Once we learn names, we ask God to help us also get to know their histories, hopes and hurts.3

4. Love through giving

In a recent meeting with our city manager, I shared how our church gives back to our city, including opening our facility for free or for a very low fee. I admit that I expected him to express gratitude. But he answered, “And so you should. You are given tax free status in order to give back to our community.”

Taking a thoughtful breath and nodding in agreement, I added that it was a joy and privilege to serve and that we greatly appreciate our tax-free blessing.

Of course we can do even more to love our city, both as a church and as individuals: join the Chamber of Commerce, support the police fund and other city initiatives; mow an elderly neighbor’s lawn, help care for a pet, even bring in a neighbor’s trash can. The Lord laid it out in Luke 6:31: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

5. Love through presence

Presence is taking the time to be—to live more with our garage open; to stop for a moment and chat. Volunteering is a great way to be present.

When we asked our city council about some of the biggest needs, they mentioned the overflow of people who live in motels. We began to be present in those motels, loving people. We brought meals, held events and, eventually (in coordination with other local nonprofits), helped a few families with young children move out of the motels and into safer, more permanent housing.

The church and Christians have an amazing opportunity to bring help, blessing and Jesus into our neighborhoods and cities as we follow Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. Our church’s five-step plan has helped us join Jesus in pushing back darkness and showing people the light of His love.

These actions are not an evangelism strategy but a social capital strategy to love our neighbors as Jesus would. This will change our world, our city, our neighborhoods, our church and us.

Not long ago, one city official asked why our church is so active in Cypress. I responded that we are following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors. He was taken aback, telling us he’d assumed that churches and God were more about getting their own way. Our involvement, he said, is changing his view.

Clearly, when a community feels valued by the believers in its midst, it just might want more churches instead of fewer.

1Social Epidemiology, edited by Lisa F. Berkman, Ichiro Kawachi and Maria Glymour, p. 175.

2The mission of Cypress City (“to be a fun place to live, work and play”) dovetails with Cypress Church’s description of itself as “an inter-generational, neighborhood church with a passion for engaging the local community and beyond, reaching out with the life-changing message of Jesus.”

3This idea is outlined in The Neighboring Church, by Brian Mavis and Rick Rusaw, pp. 93–94.

Mike’s blog has been picked up by local papers.

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