Praying With Proximity

Practical, tangible ways to pray for our neighbors and communities

The uncertainties and ever-changing cultural landscape of 2020 have brought a new meaning to the phrase, “the church scattered.” The traumas and corresponding effects of COVID-19, racial injustice and overall restlessness in the U.S. have caused churches to analyze and redefine what it means to “be the church” in our neighborhoods and communities. As the events of 2020 have naturally limited our time as “the church gathered,” church leaders have re-emphasized our calling to pray for, serve and love our neighbors.

Even as churches begin to transition and regather, the crises of fear, isolation, sickness, death and disparity in our communities affirm Jesus’ command to serve those around us—and rightly so. However, if you’re like me, these calls to love our neighbors can often feel abstract. When I am daily flooded with charts and graphs that provide statistics and projections about the livelihoods of people across cities, states and countries, I am overwhelmed. Adding on layers of appeals to love my neighbors, support local businesses, sign petitions and dismantle racism leaves me almost paralyzed. Where do I even begin?

I believe prayers with proximity have the power to make us stronger and bolder intercessors for truth, justice, and healing as we begin to see and understand the faces and places for which we pray.
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I imagine I’m not the only one feeling this way, which is why I want to share my own method for battling the paralysis of abstraction. I call it “praying with proximity.”

I’ve found that orienting my prayers toward those closest to me provides a focused place to start, giving me eyes to better see my neighborhood and the power to intercede with clarity and particularity. It has also increased my love for specific neighbors and places in mysterious, profound ways that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit.

I believe prayers with proximity have the power to make us stronger and bolder intercessors for truth, justice, and healing as we begin to see and understand the faces and places for which we pray. In these days when life’s activities are more limited to neighborhood walks, consider using this framework to shape your prayers for your neighbors and your place:

1. Define your prayer radius.

There isn’t an exact science to this. Rather, think about it in terms of the density of neighbors around you and / or a manageable walking distance. Since I live in a densely populated neighborhood in St. Paul, my prayer radius is smaller. This enables me to effectively pray for each neighbor in a more specific way. The map below shows a 500-foot radius around where I live. For context, it’s about a two-minute walk or a city block in each direction of my residence.

A map of the 500-foot prayer radius around the author's home in St. Paul.

If you are in a suburban or rural location, you might need to expand your radius to capture a collection of neighbors. For example, if you’re in a suburban neighborhood, you might map out the neighbors that fall within a 10-minute walk in each direction of your home. The objective is to define a radius that is manageable for you to maintain a regular rhythm to your prayers. You want to develop a list of neighbors small enough for you to be specific and/or a walk short enough to do with regularity.

2. Identify your neighbors within your radius.

Think about your neighbors in broad and creative categories. Your neighbors will certainly include people living in houses or apartments around you, but they can also include business owners of nearby shops, management companies of neighboring apartment buildings, and so on.

In my particular location, there’s a city bus line that has a stop at the corner of my block. The 63K bus route carries many hourly-wage workers into downtown St. Paul. Because of this, I have begun praying specifically for the livelihood of these workers. That specificity has brought an earnestness to my prayers because these are people who regularly pass by my house, and with whom I have often ridden the bus myself.

A framework for identifying your neighbors, from the Proximity Project. Simply replace the "church" with your home as the center point.

Above is a framework to help you categorically identify neighbors. This was designed to guide churches through identifying neighbors in proximity to them, but you can easily replace the church with your home. Write down the neighbors within each category that are present within the prayer radius you’ve defined.

3. Create a unique tag for each neighbor.

Our minds remember things by association. That is why specificity is helpful for calling us to pray consistently. It is harder to remember to pray for “John’s brother’s wife’s sister” than simply “Jenny,” because the association is far removed. The same holds true when we think of praying for the “neighbors on our block.”

Get to know your neighbors. Begin to pray for them by name. Identify other ways to pray for your neighborhood. Some might already be very obvious, like a business with a name, but many neighbors will simply be homes of people you may not know. If that’s the case, look for something unique about their property and use that as your identifier. For example, “the house with the yellow pansies” or “the red door,” etc. Take initiative and learn the names of neighbors you don’t know! People are spending a lot more time in their front yards and on their porches these days.

4. Set up a schedule.

Once you’ve outlined your prayer radius, identified your neighbors and made those unique associations, set up a plan to actively pray. You can pray categorically, directionally, individually—whatever way works best for you! For example, you could spend one day praying for all those neighbors who fall into the “local business owners” category. Or you could pray for all neighbors who are on the north side of your block. Or you could pray for one specific property per day along with a category like bus riders, delivery drivers and others who pass through your prayer radius. I urge you to get outside as much as possible and be present in the places of those for whom you are praying. You could even leave a note to let them know you are praying.

Being the church scattered has powerful implications for being the tangible and hope-filled hands and feet of Jesus in our neighborhoods.
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Churches might consider using this same four-step approach for praying with proximity for those around their church property. You could even have church members “adopt” a specific property to pray for within your church neighbor radius. Consider sending these neighbors a letter to let them know they are being prayed over. Additionally, set up a “church neighbors” email account that invites these neighbors to communicate specific needs and prayer requests.

Who are your neighbors?

As you take these walks, I also encourage you to take note of the types of housing and mix of uses that are present as well the opportunities you have for enjoying public space. These are the basic building blocks for neighborhood and city development. It is important to consider how these elements fit together to contribute to the flourishing and healthy integration of people from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Ask yourself: With the types of housing and services that are present, what people could live or rent in my neighborhood? Are there people and services that are not present in my neighborhood? What values are manifest in my local setting? Evaluate whether or not these values align with our biblical calling to seek the welfare of all—even the poor, aliens, orphans, and widows among us (or not among us).

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by abstract calls for engagement. Yet Paul reminds us in Galatians to “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Take this call to heart and pursue praying with proximity so you can add specificity to your prayers. This time presents a unique opportunity to identify and know our neighbors and neighborhood in a particular way. God is working in and through His people. Being the church scattered has powerful implications for being the tangible and hope-filled hands and feet of Jesus in our neighborhoods. Let’s pursue this with faithful tenacity and abandon.

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